What I Have To Do

Below are the remarks I made yesterday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro‘s Sunday service, which was a panel on creativity and the creative process. With me on the panel were a painter, an actor/playwright, a musician/painter, a dancer, and a stained class artist. It was interesting to hear the similarities among such different artists, and the program was well-received.

This may not be exactly what you were looking for in a five-minute speech, but you’ll understand at the end, this was the only way it could go.

It was my ninth grade English teacher who told me I was a writer—she caught me writing Star Trek™ and Man from U.N.C.L.E.™ stories in her class and confiscated my notebook. The next day, she gave it back to me and told me to never stop writing, just not in her class. That was when I realized I was a writer, even though I’d been writing stories since third grade. When I’d get my list of spelling words for the week, everyone else just wrote each in a sentence and used them correctly. I wrote a story—usually about horses.

I think instinctively I knew as an avid reader that I wanted to do what the people who wrote the books I read did—write. And I ended up doing just that first for an aviation insurance consortium and then for Uncle Sam, as well as for myself.

At a writer’s workshop I recently attended, a fellow writer said, “I write because it’s what I have to do.” I agree. It’s not a hobby or an avocation or even a vocation; it’s who I am; it defines me. It helps me cope. I’ve written about my mother’s alcoholism and my father’s suicide because writing lets me detach and look at those events objectively, and in that way I can move on from them. I’ve dealt with my brother’s untimely death in a recently published story called “Trophies,” and that story showed me the only way I’ve handled what life has dealt me is to write about it. Some of that writing won’t ever see the light of day because it’s too personal, but that doesn’t lessen the healing effect of “getting it all down on paper.”

And here’s the coolest thing about writing fiction: when someone pisses you off, you can write them into a story then kill them, and the grotesqueness of the death is in proportion to your level of anger. Then, you can laugh about what made you angry in the first place because, after all, it’s fiction.

Writing makes me richer spiritually and mentally—it’s certainly not something that’s made me richer fiscally—because there’s nothing like the feeling of creating a story that comes from your imagination then having people tell you how meaningful it was to them. That’s my payday.

To be a writer, you have to write, every day, and you have to read just as much. Writing is like any other art. You have to practice, practice, practice. And it comes upon you anywhere—at your day job, in the middle of a date, in the middle of the night, at any inopportune time you can imagine. The story tells you when it needs to be written, and you must drop whatever you’re doing and tell it.

You create worlds as a writer. Sometimes they’re completely recognizable and commonplace, and sometimes the muse takes you places you never thought you’d walk. I thought I was going to write cute little, Miss Marple-type mysteries, but these two shadowy characters who are spies sprang into my head then tapped me on the shoulder and told me, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to look at current events from a different point of view, and you’re going provide people information they think they really didn’t want to know, but it’s what you have to do.”

So, it was my characters who told me as a writer you sometimes speak for those who can’t. Sometimes, most times, the story isn’t your story. It’s someone else’s, and he or she has appointed you to write it. That’s a heavy burden, but you write on because there are just things the world needs to know. Who better to tell them than a scribe, once a Pharaoh’s most important courtier, the person who put down history and thereby told a tale?

The first writers told their stories in pictures inscribed in their blood or other organic paints on the walls of caves. In some ways, it’s no different today. Each day I go into my writer’s cave, and my tools lay before me. I pick them up, and my mind opens, and the words come, and the story’s told.

I know, however, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, there will be another story and another and another. There has to be. It’s what I have to do.

Spy Flash – Week 15

When you develop characters who appear in more than one work, as a writer you know they have to have back story. This is true of Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin. I know their back story quite well. I should. I made it up. Some of it I wrote down; some of it has been rattling around in my head for a long time.

That was the reason I decided to use these two characters for writing stories for Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge. Some of the back story is exactly what I had in my head, and, interestingly, some of it changed. Let’s be clear. I didn’t change it to make it fit whatever cubes were rolled for the week. The change was always there and needed to be made; rather, the cubes revealed it. Funny how it works that way.

The minor character introduced in this story, Roisin O’Saidh, is part of Mai’s Irish side. Mai’s Irish family, the Maitlands, have had an intricate–and perhaps intimate–relationship with the O’Saidh’s (pronounced O’Shay) for several centuries. The O’Saidh’s make the money the Maitland’s live on, but which of them has imbued the altruistic streak is unsure, at least for now. I’m sure there’s a story in me about that. One thing is clear, Roisin O’Saidh thinks of Mai as the daughter she never had, and, as with parents and children, no man would ever be good enough for Mai Fisher in O’Saidh’s eyes. Most parents, however, don’t have large sums of money available to buy off suitors or husbands.

Here is this week’s roll of the cubes: 

Here is what I saw: l. to r. – arrow; building/brick wall; blindfolded; near-miss; spying; credit card; counting money; moon; and flashlight.

The arrow and the flashlight were the two hardest items to include in the story, but I managed.

The story is “Another Brick in the Wall,” my shout-out to my favorite Pink Floyd song. If you don’t see the link on the title, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab above and select “Another Brick in the Wall” from the drop-down list.

If you’d like to take the challenge, write a story of any length using the objects and actions depicted above, then post a link to your story here.

Friday Fictioneers!

The cool thing about being a writer is you can look at a common, everyday thing and find something sinister in it. And not just find something sinister, you write a story about it, and, then, you and the readers never look at that commonplace thing the same way again. You, the writer, did that, changed the everyday to the mystical, the horrible, the sinister, or the romantic.

Okay, I rarely turn things into something romantic, but I’m sure one day I will.

I hope you remember this week’s story, “Shadows,” the next time you wash your hands or take a shower or fill the bathtub.

If you don’t see the link on the title, “Shadows,” above, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab above and select it from the drop-down menu. To read other offerings by other Friday Fictioneers, click the link “Click to view/add Link” after the story.

Spy Flash – Week 14

There’s something about the summer that conspires to interfere with writing. You spend more time outdoors, either playing or doing yardwork or taking grandkids to the pool. Then, you realize it’s Tuesday, the day before the Rory’s Story Cube prompt goes up on Jennie Coughlin’s web site, and you haven’t written last week’s story yet. Oh, the idea came to you right away, but finding the time to write was difficult.

So, despite the fact that another manuscript was insisting that I resume my edit of it, I sat down and wrote the story, which explores an interesting aspect of the personal and professional relationship between Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin.

Here’s this week’s roll of the cubes: 

And here’s what I saw: l. to r. – digging/digging a hole; compass rose/360°; entering a combination; apple; bridge; listening/earphone; padlock; beetle; knocking on a door.

This week’s story is called “Inconsequential Promises,” and if you don’t see the link on the title, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash above and select it from the drop-down menu.

If you’d like to give the Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge a try, take a look at the picture prompt above and write a story of any length using all the objects and actions shown. Your interpretation may be different from mine, but that’s just fine; it’s what you see in the cubes. Post a link to your story here, and check back there tomorrow for this week’s prompt.

The Year of Conferencing Writerly

At the beginning of 2012, I vowed to make regular attendance at writers conferences and workshops part of my writing life for the new year. So far, I’m on a roll.

March was AWP in Chicago, IL. Very intimate. Just me and 10,000 other writers. But it was an energizing experience, and I got to hear Margaret Atwood speak–one of my inspirations. I went to amazing panels and heard amazing writers read from their works. I came away thrilled that I was a minor character in such a life-affirming play.

March also brought the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, VA. It’s a bit disingenuous to call this a local conference because, though it highlights Virginia writers, the reach goes beyond the Commonwealth. The panels here are not entirely craft-focused, but they are practical. Where else would I have learned how to use Pinterest to market books?

In June there was Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop in Roanoke, VA. I blogged a great deal about that week, so I won’t belabor any points previously made. I’ll just say I’m still aloft on that cloud of euphoria. And I’ll be back for more next year and not just for the strength of the workshops and the quality of the instructors but also for the friends I made there.

Upcoming is the Virginia Writers Club’s “Navigating the Writing Life” on August 4 in Charlottesville, VA. This is a one-day conference packed with useful workshops, and if you’re within a few states of Virginia, I encourage you to make the trip.

Also in August on the 18th, is a one-day “Gathering of Writers” sponsored by Press 53 and held in Winston-Salem, NC. I’m making a weekend of it and am looking forward to a packed day of craft workshops and meeting great writers.

And last, thus far, and certainly not least is the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA. Last year I only went for the day and missed out on a lot. This year because the conference has grown in attendance, it’s moving to the Richmond Civic Center. Friday will be two intensive workshops, then Saturday and Sunday craft panels and readings by Virginia writers. I haven’t yet worked up the nerve for First Pages or the five-minute agent pitches. There’s always next year.

Has it been worth it? Oh, yes. There’s always something more to learn about writing, about yourself as a writer, and the writing life. And writers network, too. There’s nothing like shared experiences to bond people, and it’s always great to know you’re not the only one being rejected by publications.

The only problem is, once you starting going to writing conferences, you keep going back! In this case, that’s a good thing.


If You’re Interested…

…here’s a link to my feature article appearing in today’s Staunton News Leader: Playing with Fire. It’s about a local blacksmithing guild, and I did a lot of very fun and interesting research for the article.

If you don’t see the link on “Playing with Fire” above, hover your cursor over the “Published Works” tab above, select Non-Fiction, and scroll down to NEWSPAPER ARTICLES.

Friday Fictioneers Heard it Through the Grapevine!

You’ll get it when you see the picture. I’d thought when I saw this week’s photo that whatever story I wrote had to have the title “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” but the muses had a different idea.

Once again, Friday Fictioneers has encouraged me to expand my comfort zone with writing. I’ve been adamant about not writing fantasy, mainly because I’m no good at it, but this week’s story definitely has a fantasy element to it.

Because the Friday Fictioneers community of writers is so supportive, you have immediate comfort when you want to try something new. No one is going to say, “Oh, God, that was awful!” They will tell you what stood out for them, what line stays with them, and, if you are a bit off, the critique will be constructive.

And Friday Fictioneers keeps growing. We’d already become international a few months back, but last week there were 73 links to stories left on Madison Woods’ blog. That doesn’t count writers who post story links on participants’ blogs but not on Madison’s. I think we can safely say a couple hundred people participate in this weekly fun-fest.

My story this week is called “Asylum.” If you don’t see the link on the title, then hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab above and select “Asylum” from the drop-down list. Once you’re at my story, you can read other Friday Fictioneers offerings by clicking on “Click to view/add link” at the bottom of the page.