Making Poetry When You Havent a Clue

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I’m sorry to leave you with so little today, but I’m about to leave the frozen north and I have very little time to write.

I want to you know that I haven’t a clue how to write poetry, but I do know that a certain ambiguity and wonderful words are part of it. This week I created another altered book page, and I “Austin Kleon’d” it. Austin Kleon is a young writer who, among other things, writes poetry by redacting newspaper or magazine articles. Look him up. He’s a very wise young man.

Lord Johnnie, the adventure novel I’m altering was published in 1949. The language is florid in comparison to our current tastes, and somehow I ended up with this rather dark bit of writing. Since the images I’ve made have taken on a dark tone, I decided to go with it.

Morning Pages and Magic

The Spell Card2
Dragon, 2018 Digital An, illustration of a scene in The Spell

Years ago, while going through a tough patch, I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and I began to write Morning Pages. This, in case you don’t know, consists of writing three full pages, in cursive, about anything that comes to mind. The idea is, I think, to help you introspect, to figure out what you think, and believe, and if those beliefs and thoughts are true to you. They are meant to give you a voice, when you’re voice has shrivelled up and gone away.

Morning Pages are what started me writing fiction. Two things happened. I got very tired of my whiney daily litany of misery. The repeat, repeat, repeat pathos made me dispair. One morning I wrote three whole pages of Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

One day, I ended up writing in third person, and made my first attempt at writing fiction.  Here is the first chapter of The Spell, if you’d like to see what happened. The Spell is young adult fantasy fiction. An dark plague has come to Erdry, and young Averil, third daughter of Doft the Mender, must create the spell that will destroy the darkness.

You know how, sometimes, there seems to be more than one person in your head? There is the smart wise person, the endless nag, the I know better than you guy, and the mouse that is the daily you? Sometimes, in the drivel that showed up under my pen, someone else spoke. Someone who was like my dad, wise and caring, but not my dad.  Bit by bit I found out “D” was a dragon. Uh, huh, my own personal dragon. Not the indiscriminate terrorizor you read about in some books and comics, more like John Hurt in the TV series Merlin.

I still talk to “D”. Here’s what happened this morning after a whine about how a medication I’m taking isn’t doing enough:

D: I would roll my eyes, dear, but dragons don’t trouble themselves with eye rolling.
Me: [sticking tongue out at D] You’re a right bastard today. Go breath somewhere else.

A little conversation, not nearly as wise as some, but it reminded me not to take myself so seriously.

 

On Writing: What’s your process?

Synapse
Synapse, 2014, encaustic on panel

I’m not thinking of whether you outline, write your thesis sentence first, or how you develop your characters. What I’m considering is the physical process.

It’s interesting to hear about the processes writers employ. Many get up very early in the morning before any other family members are up, and in this early morning solitude they invite their characters to play, blithely typing away as they watch. Some only write late at night. Some write in coffee shops and so on.

It is said that Thomas Wolf wrote with a pencil on paper, using the top of his refridgerator as his desktop. And yes, he was tall, and refridgerators were shorter in those days.

A number of writers, Kevin J. Anderson is one, dictate their novels into a small recorder while they hike or walk. They then use Dragon Naturally Speaking software to transcribe the spoken word to text.

I find that I have a more intimate connection to my story if I write longhand in a lined book. And it is easier on my back to sit in a recliner and write in a notebook than on my laptop. The problem is transcribing drives me crazy. Writing with a pen or pencil isn’t the hard thing. Reading handwritten narratives, is for me the hard thing. Tougher, still if you’re trying to type what you are reading, while you’re reading.

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Recently, in a Joanna Penn podcast, her mother, Jacqui Penn, also a writer, described her writing process. She writes her stories longhand in a notebook, reads it into a recorder and let’s Dragon take care of the transcription. She then edits on her computer.

This sounds brilliant to me. Her reasons for working this way, is that she finds sitting at the keyboard for long periods of time very hard on her. Yes! Me too. Sore neck, sore back, sore wrists…

I know that people write longhand less and less often. Times change. Technologies come along and do a brilliant job, but I hear that longhand writing is actually very good for you brain. (Check this, and this) And Google Docs has a facility whereby you can dictate a document on your cellphone without an intervening software like Dragon. There are plenty of issues to be sure. You have to tell dragon your punctuation marks along with the words, and Google only understand things like period and comma, but hey, what’s another learning curve! I’m going to give it a try.

What’s your best process?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Back and I’m Fizzing

Fire

Lac Green Nord in the Province of Quebec, Canada, is an oasis. And doesn’t this fire look relaxing?

The only thing is that I’m not very good at relaxing, and to be honest when you are the playmate of a five-year-old granddaughter you don’t relax much. Little Maya who wakes up at 6:00 am told me earnestly on the evening the day after we arrived, that it would be a very good thing if I woke up earlier like she did.

Yes, Milady.

But sometimes it’s not about relaxation. It’s more about changing the input. If you keep feeding yourself the same mental diet day after day your creativity starves from lack of proper nourishment. Because I’m a head person (someone who lives more in thought than in the physical world), it is a good thing to change things up and try a sensory diet for a while. On this holiday I had every opportunity to add experiences to my mental diet. I plunged into the water, screamed when I was splashed, slapped Horseflies, whirled on a tube being towed by a boat. I went to a parade and visited family in a care home. I did no writing, not even my morning pages, and very little drawing.

At home now I have so many ideas and plans that I have to calm myself down and take a step back. I know from experience that in this stage of the creative process I will not be happy with anything I do, and everything will go too slow, and soon enough I’ll despair.

Therefore, I will pick the peas and shell them. I’ll write this blog. I’ll make a little careless drawing, and I’ll read the next chapter in The Chronos Project, (my time travel novel)  and consider how I can improve it. I’ll go slow.

Give yourself the grace of going slow at times. And you don’t have to be brilliant all the time either (she said, though she finds this hard advice to take).

Oh, and I did make these two scribbles, because, hey, creativity is like a drug. It’s not easy to stop and thankfully stopping isn’t necessary.

For the Birds: A Story

Blair's MagpieSM
Bird, acrylic on paper, Painted by my husband, Blair Barbeau

Now don’t get me wrong. I like birds. I liked them a lot, but I also have a bit of a phobia about them flying near me, and to be honest, to hold a bird in my hand, warm, and frantic with its heart nearly knocking through its chest, well, that freaks me out too. I try not to give in to fears and phobias, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not still there.

Tuesday last, I’d went for my usual early morning walk. Nearing home, I heard a persistent knocking. I stopped and looked around. I saw no one about. Doors were closed, no hum of lawn mowers. Nothing. But there it was again the knocking. I glanced at an elm near by and almost missed it. Man, Spiderman has nothing on the Downy Woodpecker. It walked vertically up the trunk of the tree dispatching bugs as it found them. No, I wasn’t afraid. I was thrilled to see this incredible little bird so close up.

Breakfast done and cleared away I headed to my downstairs studio. I’d started a painting–yeah, me–and it was going well. I couldn’t wait to get back to it.

In a moment I was immersed. I had some podcast going, or perhaps an audio book by Peter Grainger, I can’t remember which. I heard something, but it came to me distantly as sound sometimes does when I’m in the midst of creating.

Again, louder, insistent, a scuffling noise, something banging on metal, Then silence.

My studio is off the family room. In the family room we have a Franklin stove type of fireplace. When we bought this house we were told that the installation of the fireplace was not up to code, meaning that the house insurance company said it’ll cost you big time if you plan to use that fireplace. So we stuffed the stovepipe with that pink fibre glass insulation to keep out the cold of winter and put an electric fireplace insert into the firebox. You know the sort of thing. Fake logs, fake flames created by some kind of light doing some kind of thing, and behind it all a heater to throw some warmth at you.

There is was again. The loud scuffling noise. Some knocking. It was coming from the fireplace stove pipe.

No, no, no! I can’t deal with this. It’s a bird. I know it’s a bird, and I have to get it out, but it’ll fly all over the house and I can’t. I just can’t.

I call my husband at work. He pretty much said, “You’ll have to get it out. Put the dog and the cat into a bedroom. Close the door on them, then open all the outside doors, and remove the fireplace insert.”

Sometimes husbands aren’t as useful as you’d expect. I thought maybe he’d drop everything, rush on home, to take care of things while I cowered in the bedroom with the dog and the cat.

Big breath. I screwed up my courage, did as my husband suggest and pulled out the fireplace insert.

And nothing. No bird. A little pile of dirty pink fibreglas insulation lay at the bottom of the firebox along with–was that bird crap? Maybe it wasn’t a bird. Maybe it was a bat. Ha try again. I knew it was a bird. Somehow, there was a bird in the stove pipe and it was above the fibreglass stuffing. I got a flash light and tried to figure out a way to solve this. maybe I could pull out the insulation, but if I did that, I’d pull the bird down on me. I stuck my head in the firebox and craned to see what I could see. Nothing. I could see nothing at all. Nothing save a black hole. I needed help for this job, and that poor bird would have to wait until my husband came home. He’d put the insulation into the pipes and he surely knew where he’d put it.

I took the dog for a walk. I couldn’t bear to stay in the studio and listen to that it try to knock it’s way out of it’s sheet metal prison.

About mid afternoon, I heard a ruckus downstairs. Not the bird surely, this was more noise even that it could make.

Oh my God! The cat was in a panic. The dog started to bark. A large–I mean not your wren or your sparrow, not even a robin sized bird, but a BIG bird was fluttering around in the firebox, stopping now and then pausing to cling to the mesh firescreen.

I called off the dog, grabbed the cat and put them both into a bedroom, closing the door on them. I ran around closing the doors to every room that had a door. I opened all the outside doors. Then cautiously I went back down the stairs. Yes, it was till there, it’s yellow tail feathers spread, its chest heaving. I took a small blanket from the couch. My intentions were to throw the blanket over the bird, pick it up and put it outside. Cautiously I pulled back the fireplace screen. In flash the bird was past its edge and in the air.

Stupid, stupid me. I should have closed the window shutters. It slammed hard into the window. Its poor beak was seriously bent out of shape. Again I tried with the blanket, and this time I caught it. Darn good thing, because I don’t think either of us could have taken much more.

Holding it as gently as I could, still in the blanket, It carried it outside. My intention was to set it on the lawn. Its feet never touched the ground. Zoom! It was gone.

So okay, I guess it wasn’t a HUGE bird, but it was pretty big. It turned out to be a Hairy Woodpecker and I’m happy to report that before it zoomed away, it’s beak looked okay again. I guess they’re used to hammering it against things.

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Phew! Two close encounters in one day. I may yet get over this phobia.

 

Creativity: How it Works

Globe atop the Turler Cosmos Clock
Globe atop the Turler Cosmos Clock

 

 

 

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I have a partial manuscript I call The Chronos Project that I plan to revise.

The story is about Anna Wassar, a young ethics enforcer who works at a time-shifting facility, where historians of all sort shift to other time periods to do research in their particular field of interest.

Anna becomes aware that someone is bringing treasures from the past into the future, and that if she doesn’t stop them, the Temporal Ethics Commission will shut down the Chronos Project.

Anna shifts to 1940s Germany in pursuit of her suspect, and things do not go well.

Okay, not a bad premise. Maybe a bit Timecop, but the theme is different and I like it.

A number of years have past since I wrote the first version. Hey, I even tried a second version, and one hundred and twenty thousand words into it I still couldn’t make it work. Time has passed and I am ready to give it another try.

I printed the whole thing and  began to read it back to front. To my surprised I have many excellent scenes, and surely I can…but Anna, Anna doesn’t have enough agency, and what about the murder bus and the children at Görden at Brandenburg an der Havel? How am I going to make that all fit?

Never mind. I’ll be systematic. I will separate the story into point of view sections (there are five–OMG, way to many?) and then I will read each section and see if I have a decent character arc for that character and we’ll go from there. Right. That’s a plan.

Days pass and I don’t work. “Nope, will not,” says that recalcitrant brat in my head. “Can’t, can’t, can’t. Won’t! You know what? I don’t really like writing. I don’t want to write, anymore. Heck, I’m retired. I don’t have to do hard work and I won’t. Done. I’m done.”

Except that I begin to wake up dreaming writing. Yes, thoughts in another characters head, third person.

Then this morning in my journal:

Sunday, 3 June, 2018

(ping)

It was the third of June another sleepy, dusty, delta day

I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was bailin’ hay*

And I’m there. Yes, in the Mississippi delta, but no, not only there, but where ever the work is hard, where the air smells of fresh-mown hay, where dust lifts off a roadway and hangs in the air, where heat shimmers in the distance of—my daddy’s farm. I’m home.

(ping)

In an instant I remember others who catch me like that. Stephen King is one. Always, his words make me feel as though I’ve lived them myself. I’m two-hundred and eighty pound, gay Julianne Vernon,  in my pickup truck, horse trailer behind, driving down a quiet highway. In the distance I see a car stopped on the roadside, and I know what to do. I’ll stop and lend a hand. It’s what I do, what I’ve always done. It will be my undoing, but I don’t know it yet.

Synchronicity

I look over my Facebook feed and I see a post by a printing company. It’s a link to a blog post by Meribeth Deen. Meribeth talks about writing mentors and how we all need one, and maybe if we copy their words they’ll bring us to our words, and—ding, ding, ding.

I know what to do: Read Stephen King’s words, write Stephen’s words, and then write Anna Wassar, just a little, not much, not a great long thesis, just as much as I can see in a one inch frame.

That’s how it works, creativity. One small thing leads to another thing, and still another and these things spiral and gather, swarm, swoop and excite and suddenly you can’t wait to write, to paint, to dance your dance and sing your song.

 

*In 1967 Bobby Gentry wrote and performed Ode to Billy Joe and I loved that song. Bobby sang it beautifully, but what I loved most was the story. A whole and complete story in the lyrics of a 4 minutes song (it was longer in the original writing). It had everything necessary for story, including a mystery. What were Billy Joe and that girl throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge?

 

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Drawing of a young girl looking behind her at a raven.
Whose There? 2016, Ink watercolour sketch

 

 

 

 

I completed the novella, Hannah’s Hearing about a week ago, and this week it was time to chose a new project.

But which one? They’re all clamouring for my attention all the time. Every silly idea, big or small wants prescidence and as I mentioned last week, I’m feeling entirely overwhelmed by all the work there is to do.

Growing Gills, a book on doing your creative work, by Jessica Abel, was recommended to me by someone at the Sketchbook Skool Facebook group.

Jessica’s book is full of good advice on how to narrow down and do one project–ONLY ONE–in order to focus and complete your work.

Can I stick to just ONE Project?

Snort. Of course I can’t. But I can take all those little ideas, write them down and promise them I’ll get to them in time. (Maybe not, but what do they know?) In the meantime, I’ve chosen one project to focus on.

Some years ago, I started a novel I called The Chronos Project. It is a time travel novel that takes place in 2087 and 1940 Germany. It seemed like an excellent idea, but I couldn’t make it work. It got too complicated and I didn’t have the chops for it. I revisited it a while later, but again, I set it aside for another shiny new idea, or was it because I couldn’t figure out how to end the story? At 120,000 words it didn’t feel as though it was coming to an end any time soon.

This week I pulled that story out again, and I’m reading it, back to front. Yes, weirdness. But I wanted to see it in a new way. I’m finding to my surprise that the writing is good, the story is coherent and has tension. And the idea is still exciting.

So, I made a small plan. As per Jessical Abel’s suggestion, I chose this project, and I will break it down to its small parts. This week and part of next week, I will continue to read the story and make a brief note about each chapter. The next project is to read each pov characters pages in order so that I can see their story arc and find out where I can strengthen them and where they’re story needs to go.

That’s all the plan there is for now. I’ll make more as I come to the end of a goal and am ready to move on to the next.

Oh, and while I’m reading I’m listening to Minor Matter. Do yourself a favour and give them a listen.