The Solitary Writer

by Vargus Pike

Occasionally when I hear someone say that writing is a lonely business, this picture forms in my head of a writer in some distant white field with a flock of words. Shepherding them into patterns while they keep the wolves of self-doubt at bay. Or I imagine the writer stranded in a desert isle with plenty of food and water but without pen or paper as they struggle to commit to memory the story they must tell to native publishers to appease them and survive. A lonely business indeed.

But is it lonely for everyone?

True when I write I spend much of my time sitting by myself in a room, but am I lonely? A continual barrage of characters seems to constantly leak from my psyche like so many ants. They crawl around my head searching for release until they find their way to my fingers and emerge onto the pages. There is the old fishmonger – his third leg his cane. Each step he takes in his shop a labor, a struggle to survive as he puts his fish out in the morning and then throws them away in the evening unsold because no one ever comes into the store. The mother bereft; her children stolen by a reclusive neighbor who plans to sell them to a rich childless woman in a compound in Idaho, until his truck breaks down near a wildlife refuge in Oregon and things go horribly awry. Wrong place, wrong time. The couple in love who travel down the coast collecting memories in a bag on their honeymoon, then on their fiftieth wedding anniversary in the Kansas nursing home, they live they open the bag and are magically transported into their past. Their attendants find them dead in their room the next morning with water in their lungs, sun burnt, hand in hand – their slippers filled with sand. Writing may be solitary but for me lonely never.

The scary thing is I have absolutely no Idea where the ideas come from. Lacking a better explanation the Greeks placed the blame firmly in the hands of the 9 Muses, Daughters of Zeus. Lacking a better explanation I tend to agree with them and why not? Stranger things happen in the minds of writers and leak out onto the page every day. So the next time you feel lonely while writing a horror story alone in a dimly lit rented cabin in the middle of nowhere and you hear a floorboard creek behind you relax. Chances are it is one of the Muses looking over your shoulder helping you flesh out the story.

Overcoming Writers Block

We’ve all experienced that panicky moment when we stare at a blank page and freeze, our normally overly imaginative brains suddenly going silent. Or worse – we open up an existing story only to find prose flowing more like cold molasses on a winter day than the usual gush of words flying so quickly that fingers can’t keep up. Your muse has deserted you to go on an extended vacation, leaving you without an ounce of creativity.

So what can you do to overcome this paralyzing sensation? Here are a few tips to get the creative juices flowing again:

Change your environment – If you normally write from your computer in your office, try getting away to a coffee house or bar. If you are used to writing indoors, try your hand at writing in a park. Trade a noisy environment for a quiet one – or vice versus.

Create a schedule for yourself – Sometimes the best way to get the juices going is to make writing a habit. Set a regular time to focus on writing – and stick to it. Experts say it takes 21 days to form a habit. Make yours writing.

Make use of writing prompts – There are tons of resources to find short prompts to inspire the muse within you. These can be great tools to get your creative juices kick-started again. I’ve taken what came out of past writing prompts and incorporated it into current works in progress.

Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket – If you find yourself out of steam and unable to work on your next Great American Novel, switch it up and work on something else. Write a personal essay, blog post or short story. I normally keep a couple of manuscripts or strong story ideas tucked away to use during dry spells.

Take a walk – It’s long been said that exercise can break through writers’ blocks, and recent research now backs this up. Scientists have found that people who exercise regularly actually do think more creatively. Adding a regular exercise regime to your day can do wonders for your writing – including strengthening that imagination.

Join a critique group – Critique groups, like the ones put on by 9 Bridges, are a great opportunity to get around writers. Often, simply by being around writers and listening to other work being read, you can get the creative juices going again. Check your local groups – 9 Bridges welcomes all writers, whether they are in a place to read material or not.

Read a book – I know it may seem a little counterproductive to spend time reading when you should be writing, but the best writers are also avid readers. Ask any prolific author and they will tell you that they devour books.

And above all, the number one thing you must do is…

Keep writing – Don’t worry if it’s good or bad, happy or sad, or even within your chosen genre. Sometimes the muse has a will of her own and will take you down trails you never considered. Just let the words flow and take you where they will.

Writing About Food

How to depict taste, smell and texture on paper.

by Mark V. Harrington

It sounds so simple. You’re writing a restaurant review or have decided to write about your favorite recipe. Yes, you can put down in words the ingredients that go into the recipe. Your can recount the décor of the restaurant. You can give the directions of how to put the ingredients together or even put in words how the service was and what was on the menu. But the big question is how did it make you feel? How did the taking a bite of that sourdough bread, that has a light coating of sweetened honey butter feel in your mouth, how did it taste, what came to mind? When you’re separating eggs through your fingers, how do you depict how it feels to have the whites sliding through your finders until only the yoke is left in your palm?

Getting all of this down on paper can be sometimes challenging and sometimes daunting. We know what we are feeling, smelling, tasting and yet translating that into words is a task that leaves us speechless.

Let’s take, for example, our previous egg. We pick it up out of the bowl and know the delicacy of this item and yet our fingers feel the hardness of the shell. We are tempted to press, but our inner voice knows better. It knows that while the shell is hard, it is thin, delicate; a temporary protective barrier entrusted to keep the liquid white and yolk safe until it is needed. Taking it in hand we strike it against a bowl, but not too hard – just hard enough to put a chink in this egg’s outer armor. Then with deft hands we open the shell with one hand, letting the fluid, viscous contents flow into the palm of our other hand.

With fingers slightly separated, we feel the slippery whites of the egg slide between them, thinking of the rich meringue that it will create, the tasty macaroons or the airy Pavlova, (a meringue-based dessert named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova). You’re left with the yellow liquid sphere of the yoke in your hand, itself protected by it’s own protective barrier, though much thinner and definitely more delicate than it’s outer cousin, the shell.

Descriptive words can be a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled writer. They not only communicate information such as color, scent, texture, and taste, but can also transport the reader into the writer’s experience. Painting a picture of sight, sound, scent and texture so that the reader feels what the writer feels, smells what the writer smells, and tastes what the writer tastes.

It enables the difference between:

I cooked the chicken in a frying pan with salt, pepper, cumin, and crushed garlic until it was done.

And:

Cooking the chicken in a frying pan, the scent of cumin and crushed garlic filled the air, taking me back to the open air markets of India. The salt and pepper added its own subtle sensualness to the aromatic bouquet.

See the difference? In other words descriptive words are your friend, don’t be afraid to use them.

Why My First Book Was a Memoir

BW-author-profile-masked-02-copyby Larry Dunlap

I’m always surprised when one of the very first questions I am asked is why I chose to write a memoir for my first attempt as an author. It’s not that it’s a bad question, it’s that I had little choice, as it turned out. While it is my first book, I’ve been a writer for a long time, and a voracious reader since early childhood. I earned my bones as a pencil-for-hire technical writer starting at Transamerica, Countrywide, and Hallmark through the mid-Nineties but I’d been writing everything from business plans to training programs to technical specifications well before then. But always, on my own time, I was reading every kind of fiction and creative non-fiction.

When I finally found time to write as an author, which I had previously attempted two or three times over the years, there was a decision to make. What to write. I had three options. The first seemed obvious, I’d been deeply involved in the computer game business designing and overseeing the development of my own graphic multiplayer online strategy game. While the game was a critical success, these kinds of projects are expensive, and I fell a farthing or so short of what was needed. However, over the several decades I’d been subconsciously mapping out the details of the game, I’d developed a back story. It was a complex trilogy, though, which seemed like a daunting place to start. My second choice was a novel about a young off-the-grid, dishonorably discharged, veteran with a sordid past, living illegally on an abandoned boat in a rundown marina in southern California, reluctantly working as an off-the-books private investigator to survive. I got pretty invested in this guy, and thought I’d like to take on authors like Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. Ha ha, sure. But then there was this real life story about a turning point in my life with a rock band in the mid-Sixties. The story almost told itself, and it seemed to demand telling, but I wondered if anyone would really care about some guys from the Midwest who almost made that climb to the top of the music biz.

The final decision came from two conversations. The first was with one of my band brothers, Dave. There are four of us, the four Midwestern musketeers so to speak, who are still in contact 50 years after our adventure began. Whenever we get together, sooner or later we always turn to reminiscences of the odyssey we took. While Dave and I were talking, he mentioned that the other two had told him they felt they could only converse with one, or more, of the four of us about those experiences because no one in their real lives could relate to what they’d done and where they’d been. That seemed incredibly unfair.

The second conversation was with my earliest best friend in high school, who’d introduced me to science fiction and board games. When I’d left Indianapolis for parts West, we lost contact with each other. But, serendipitously, I discovered him again when I was home visiting family and bandmates. When I mentioned I was considering writing about what happened in my life after I left Indy, and would he be interested in reading that, he said he’d always considered my experiences a “cautionary tale” he used to warn his children of what can happen when you wander off the beaten track as I had.

I totally got that. I’d lived in Indiana, it is an insular place. Often hard for people there to relate to things far away on either coasts. But when I considered it later, I realized that many of the adventures I’ve enjoyed reading generally had a cautionary tale at the root of them. I hadn’t thought of it that way before—so maybe it wasn’t such a bad book idea after all.

I began the process of getting things organized to write in early 2010, putting together calendars both in paper and spreadsheets, gathering photos, researching all the locations, music industry magazines, contracts, recording, people we met, and those who represented us–over several months of research. Though memoir, differing from biography and/or history, is a matter of opinion—what the memoirist remembers—I still wanted use all the dates, times, and facts I could find as milestones to weave my memory through.

The next big step was figuring out where to start. I had no problem with the ending. It was dramatic and obvious. It was where to begin. Despite all the crazy and interesting, almost unbelievable things, that had happened to us, who was going to care about reading a history of my band, no matter how I described and related these events I’d written in my calendars. It was well into the following year before I realized that if I wanted anyone to be interested in this book, I was going to have to write it through my own lens, how I experienced it. I would have to be the personal narrator. I struggled. I wrote about grade school, high school, discovering an obsession with singing, followed closely by an obsession with basketball, overshadowed by the mystery of girls. And then I tossed it all out.

I discovered memoir, in the sense that I hadn’t really understood what memoir was before then. I read other memoirs, mostly hated them, especially the music and band books, until I read “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, and “Candy Girl, A Year in the Life of a Unlikely Stripper” by Diablo Cody, and a novel that felt so much like memoir that I thought it counted, “The Descendants” by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and I got it. It wasn’t about history, it was about emotion, it was about what the things that happened to you meant, not getting dates, times and dialog exactly right. And that left the largest stumbling block. I was going to have to dig into myself. It took the next four years to write about the six years of the memoir (with look-ins to events back into the Fifties), and examine personal life back then and how things affected me in the story and even to some extent, to the present. Before this, I’d never considered myself a person who spent much time looking backward but now it was liking pulling myself out of a fugue state after each writing session.

Each draft vastly improved my creative writing skills, bringing more and better descriptions of the band’s experiences, but also found me digging into things about my own experiences I hadn’t considered sharing with anyone. It was becoming more and more obvious, I’d have to be willing to strip emotionally naked to uncover the real story. And since it was about my band, appropriately named Stark Naked and the Car Thieves, perhaps that made sense.

I finally found my beginning at one of the lowest points of my young life at 24. My marriage to my high school dream girl, who’d rescued me from the pain of being a high school teenager, borne our two beautiful young sons, and whom I loved beyond reason, was in trouble. The vocal group, that sang A Capella Fifties rock tunes, and had given me something to dedicate myself to as a teenager; that had recorded a record in a homemade studio that inexplicably out-charted the Beatles on Chicago’s big rocker, WLS, for a few of weeks in January 1964, was scattering to the winds. The winds of change had begun to howl and while they slammed some doors, others were being blown open. So while this isn’t quite where my personal story started, this is where NIGHT PEOPLE, Book 1 of Things We Lost in the Night, A Memoir of Love and Music in the 60s with Stark Naked and the Car Thieves begins.

 

Poetry Workshop in PDX

This month’s seminar will focus on Poetry as April is national poetry month.

Vargus Pike, published poet extraordinaire and 9 Bridges Board Chairman, will be leading a workshop on poetry. Whether you are interested in trying your hand at writing poetry or simply want to understand the medium better so you can feel more comfortable analyzing and critiquing, Vargus will give you the tools you need. The goal of this month’s seminar is to learn the basics of analyzing poems by the process of close reading with a goal towards developing a greater mindfulness of process and meaning when reading other’s works or writing your own. Breaking down a poem using various strategies informs your own construction. Vargus will be going over basic concepts such as Rhythm, meter, tonality and structure.

The workshop starts promptly at 5:45 PM at First Christian Church, Downtown Portland

For more information and to RSVP, please visit our Meetup page. As always, the workshop is free (although donations are always welcome to help cover our rent at FCC.)

Why is Reading Out Loud Important?

by Elizabyth Harrington

One of the things we do at 9 Bridges is to offer critique groups. Our most popular format for this is our verbal critique groups where people bring material to read out loud. About once a month someone has a question about the format of the group. Usually it’s a request to share files prior to the meeting or to bring printed material to pass out. The logic from the author’s viewpoint is that the person hearing the material will miss things if they aren’t following along with something on paper.

But the benefits to a verbal group outweigh the disadvantages.

Listening is an incredibly important skill that we as humans in industrialized nations are losing. I’m not talking about losing our hearing, although we are bombarded daily with more noise than our ancestors(grin). I’m talking about really paying attention to what someone is saying. With emails and social networks replacing phones and in-person friendships, we are slowly losing that social interaction that requires talking to and listening to one another. That is one of the reasons why the verbal format of these critique groups is so important. In addition to everything else they get out of the group, members are forced by the very format to practice their listening skills.

The art of storytelling started as an oral tradition, and in many ways, it still is. A good piece of writing has a natural flow to it, a little like a stream that carries the reader to sea. This is something that is easily picked up through listening, but can be lost while staring at something on paper. Things like pacing, voice, repetition and dialogue stand out when a piece is read out loud. Many writers habitually read their pieces out loud to themselves while editing – we’ve just taken this to a group dynamic.

Not only do our critique groups encourage the development of good listening skills, but they provide a safe place for writers to practice reading in public. With the resurgence of independent book stores and the importance of self-promotion among authors, it’s vital, more than ever before, to develop this ability.

Finally, while the verbal format allows writers to share and receive feedback on their own material, there’s another important benefit: participants get to hear the feedback on other writers’ work as well. I’ve improved my own writing tenfold simply from listening to the feedback given to my critique group peers.

Whether you prefer a written or verbal style, critique groups are an important resource for writers. If you haven’t experienced this for yourself, we invite you to check out one of our groups at a 9 Bridges Chapter near you.