Posted by: mew | July 10, 2010

week nine: stories of the south

I’m still around, and in spite of missing out on posting my updates for the past two+ weeks, I’m still in the workshop, hanging on by my fingernails.

The integral settings exercise came in at 3000 words before I’d finished all of it, so I decided not to publish it.  Most of that was the research about another culture.  I chose to do some research for a trilogy plot that had been lingering for many years in the back of my brain, and narrowed in on the Native American tribes whose territories actually intersected the Oregon Trail circa 1850-1865.  (Yeah, I got really specific.)  Surprisingly, only two of the many plains tribes qualified.  But then, even with just two cultures/peoples/histories to worry about, that was a lot.  And I had to research the settlers’ end of things, too, because, well, that was a huge part of the picture for those tribes at that time.  The settlers were threatening their traditions, their cohesion, and their very survival.

There was a lot of information available, more than I had bargained for, and of course some of it clashed a little bit with my neat-o plot, so that meant I had to put pen to paper and do a huge, sprawling, mind-map-style brainstorming session for the series.  That part was so much fun.

Is it just me, or is daydreaming about a novel the most carefree, light-hearted part of the whole enterprise?

I may steal bits of the exercise and post about it in the coming weeks, the parts where I analyzed my own home setting here, which have come in really handy this past week as I began to tackle the last of the three four-week units, the one in which I aim to write four short stories set hereabouts — or at least in the South.

The first story is actually written now, which amazes me.  It needs work, but the first draft is finished.

I do sort of want to tell y’all about it, and about my plans for the next story.  But in a way I’m almost afraid to discuss it.  It’s like a secret project that might blow up in my face if I stare too hard at it or look to close or expose it to another’s view.  Obviously, I have some issues writing about my native place and culture.  That came up in yesterday’s blog post at the main blog, too, strangely enough.

I guess the only way to get through it is just to write through it.

As the old-timers say in North Georgia, “That’s ezackly what ah’m own do.”

(Do you see why I don’t write dialect?  Ugh!)

(My apologies for not putting in any photos with this post.  I’m too tired to wait for uploads tonight.  If you want some beautiful photos, you can head over to The Enchanted Earth instead.)

Posted by: mew | June 22, 2010

smack dab in the middle

Whew!

So here I am for a belated check-in on the week that was, at the exact midpoint of the Creativity Workshop.   This seems like the ideal moment to give a shout out to Merrilee Faber for the fabulous job she’s done hosting the workshop so far, guiding us all through this grueling* course with encouragement and humor, somehow consistently posting inspiration and nourishment for our writers’ souls, plus practical advice to boot.

Merrilee, you’re awesome!

I know the ranks of the workshop participants are thinning by the week now, but it is no reflection on you or the course, I’m sure.  If my own experience is anything to go by, the reasons have something to do with how tough it is to churn out a story every week, consistently, and within a set framework.  It’s rough going sometimes — but then it’s also invigorating and motivating and illuminating.

I’ve learned about myself as a writer and taken steps forward with my work and my understanding of The Work of an artist, period.  That kind of education is the prize for those of us who feel called to do this crazy, kamikaze thing* and spill our words — and our hearts and our guts — onto the pristine blank page every day, over and over again.

Anyway, that last bit, consistent accumulation of words, I failed at that this week.

I believe I sat in the chair all of two times with my story in mind, and the first time I didn’t even get 300 words written before I went off to take a nap.  By week’s end, I managed barely a thousand words, and I’m sure they’d never end up in the final version.  They read like a rambling backstory, the kind of thing I freewrite in preparation for a novel.  And I probably wouldn’t attempt that novel, if that’s what I had to go on. ;)

In my defense, however, we topped a hundred degrees (with heat index) several days running, and the humidity was intense, and since I work at home in a house without central air, I’ve had no escape.  I actually went to a Hollywood summer time-killer blockbuster in order to sit in a freezing cold room for nearly two hours.

Oh, and toward the end of the week I figured out I could drive to our little public library for some relief.  Usually when I go there, I grab a stack of books and leave, because I hate reading in a cubicle, and reading in one of the circle of comfy, overstuffed armchairs in the center of the floor plan makes me feel as if I’m on public display.  (Ooh, Mom, look at the reader!)

Nonetheless, I may find myself occupying an old-school cubicle for writing purposes this week.  That position might also have the effect of forcing me to focus, with no distractions like dishes or laundry or garden or internet calling to me as soon as I try to form a sentence on paper.  Talk about two birds with one stone.

Also, F. bought a window AC unit for the bedroom this weekend, and now that it’s installed, I should be able to get a good night’s sleep.  Maybe the story output will improve somewhat, just because I’m not so grumpy in the mornings (which is generally when I write).

Of course, there is always the risk that this new addition to our home will inspire more midday retreats to the cool bed for a nap with Leo, who seems to know the right way to handle these temperatures.

Let’s just hope I make the right choice.  (You are welcome to cross your fingers for me.)

This week’s story is based on something that actually happened to me in college:  meeting a man in the emergency room of a hospital while we both waited to have one of our limbs x-rayed for breakages.  It was strange and weird and in the end he turned out to be creepy, although I didn’t know that when I left the hospital on crutches, elated because he wanted to take me to the upcoming school dance.  (Never mind that I could not dance with a broken ankle.  Inconvenient details like the brand new cast now attached to my leg were not allowed to intrude and pierce the bubble of my adolescent fantasy that my future true love had just found me in an empty hospital hallway in the middle of the night.  Yeah, right.)

But in this week’s version, in order to write a real, flesh-&-blood, three-dimensional male character, I am going to reverse our physical conditions, change the whys and wherefores of the incidents that got us individually to the hospital — and then make the female character in the midst of a full-blown, babbling mania.

Oopsie!

Don’t you think that tiny, windowless corridor might start to feel a bit uncomfortable, especially with no other people around, not even a busy nurse coming to check on them for what feels like hours?  (Sounds a bit like Sartre’s Huis Clos for university students, n’est-ce pas?)

And because of his broken ankle, my male protagonist will be unable to just walk away.  He could probably crawl away, but really I hope I don’t need to take it that far.  It will either be funny or crazy or horrible, but the scenario should force him to reveal some depths of personality.  And also, I might exorcise a few personal demons of memory by writing it this way — and hopefully have fun doing it, too.

I’ll let you know soon.  Meanwhile, look out for the integral settings exercise in this space, coming soon.

*So I exaggerate.  Let’s call it “poetic license.”  Truthfully, the course has been very challenging… but mostly because I have to master my own inner psychology daily to get my butt in the chair and actually write.  The other stuff seems to be incidental to this most crucial of tasks — and it turns out it becomes harder to do after I fail at it a few times.  If I push through the resistance anyway, I get on a roll and it’s easier to write every day:  just following the energy, you know?

(The photos are a few more abstracts from my new, playful photography pastime.  This series is tentatively called “Childhood.”)

Posted by: mew | June 14, 2010

two naked question marks

It’s Monday — again.

I think I’m going to have to face the fact that I’ll never get a workshop check-in completed on the weekend.  Weekends are for traveling, for catching up on housework, for outings in nature, for making time to make eye contact with my beloved who is trapped in the spiraling web of insanity that is the last six months of a doctorate in Physics.  This weekend was for celebrating my grandfather’s 84th birthday and my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary — and I had to drive to Atlanta to participate in all of it.  I’m just now feeling a bit recovered.

So the posts where I analyze my week fit better for me after the new week has begun.  Even when I have a killer workshop week.  Which I did.

I actually completed a story this week.  A story I like, with characters who I enjoyed getting to know, and who seem, well, real to me.  And the protagonist, a military vet dealing with the consequences of brain trauma when he returns stateside, is a male character who is definitely not a stereotype or a caricatured or cliché version of a man, in keeping with the goals for this four-week unit of the workshop.

Amazing.

This idea for a story was a pretty basic, simple one.  I’d almost call what I created in preparation for writing a schematic, rather than a story plan, and maybe the simplicity helped me to keep it short, and the lack of detail about how I would execute it helped me to follow the flow of the moment better as I wrote.  (Note I’m still far from being a seat-of-the-pants writer, though.)

The idea for this story came to me after meeting a woman at a party in 2005 or 2006 (?), who had unwillingly been divorced by her husband after he returned home from Iraq with a completely different personality, due to a brain injury suffered in an explosion.  It was one of the most shocking and tragic real-life stories I’d ever heard.

Her husband initiated their separation almost immediately after his return home because he found himself unable to communicate as before — and sometimes unable to control the violent impulses that arose from such frustration.  He’d been so looking forward to meeting his infant daughter, who had been born while he was deployed, but he panicked when he realized he might one day hurt her unawares.  Even therapy and drugs weren’t helping with his anger control issues and PTSD reactions.

He also had some amnesia, which unfortunately included the years of his courtship of his young wife.  They had only been married for about six months before he left to go to war, and most of their history together had gone A.W.O.L.  According to her, he tried to pretend for a few months after his return, to not reveal to her the extent of what was missing, and to act the part of adoring lover and husband.  Eventually he had to admit it felt to him as if he were married to a stranger.

And of course, she had to realize that although he looked the same and seemed familiar to her, with his brain trauma he was a virtual stranger to her, too.

You can imagine that this strange party interlude stuck with me for a while after it happened.  I can even remember the music that was playing in the background as we sipped our drinks and this extraordinarily beautiful young divorcée explained some of what she had been through in the last year of her life.  It was a wild story, poignant and heartbreaking and also inspiring somehow, that though this young soldier came home so altered and damaged, he was still determined to sacrifice of his own happiness to remove himself from his daughter’s sphere to avoid harming her, mentally or physically.

I went on to research brain injuries and to discover that many, many of our “unwounded” vets are now coming home from war quite damaged — or at the very least changed, and I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to write about it.  I even had the story idea.  But as many ideas do, it languished in a closet somewhere until we had to do our goal-setting exercise, and I decided I wished to work on writing 3-D male characters.   Then I pulled it out, blew the dust off of it, and found it surprisingly still viable and meaningful to me today.

Weirdly enough, as I began my writing week last week, I heard this report on NPR during a commute in the pouring rain, about the U.S. military still failing to diagnose brain injuries in our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and detailing some of the lasting effects on the lives of these former soldiers, and the lives of those who love them and live with them.

Now, to the title of this post.  I’m sure you’ve been wondering.  That’s from the first sentence of the story as it stands now, in pure, unedited, rough draft form:

“Paul and Kim lay curled on the bed like two naked question marks, with a stripe of moonlight marking the clean white space between their bodies.”

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