Tag Archive | "inspiration"

5 Lessons Human Memory Teaches the Storyteller

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5 Lessons Human Memory Teaches the Storyteller

NYC Skyline pre-9.11.2001Quick:

What do you remember about March 7, 2005?

What do you remember about September 11, 2001?

Now, for all I know, you were a teenager giving birth on March 7, 2005. Or, like someone I know, you lost your spouse of sixty years on 9/11/01, and that’s what you remember. But if you are like me, nothing special happened on March 7, 1995, and you don’t remember it at all. Whereas on a day, some years earlier, everything seemed to be changing, and you remember where you were, what you were doing, who you called, what you did next . . . unless you were so traumatized that you’ve blocked major portions of your day. Memory is a storyteller. Or perhaps it would make more sense to say that stories are patterned after the human mind and soul, which is to say, the human memory.

What can the storyteller learn from human memory?

1) Not all events are equal. Not everything is part of the story just because it happened, too, just as not all the marble in the block became part of Michaelangelo’s David.

2) Details become very important when life is in crisis. The memory zeros in on the physical world. (See #4)

3) Build up, backstory and filling in the in between stuff are NOT important: jump cuts are part of human memory and serve story well.

4) Actions reveal character. You are fascinated by what you and everyone else did. Interior monologue is largely left out of memory. What you wore, who you touched, where you went–these are what stick and carry all the meaning.

5) Change–or the enormous and powerful possibility of change–are at the heart of memory and story.

Story and memory are the heightened bits, repressed or vivid, that move us to peer closely or to turn away. Everything else is just another day.

Authenticity note: I was living at 12th Street and Avenue A in the LES on Sept. 11, 2001 and teaching at Pratt in Brooklyn that morning.

What will you always remember? What have you learned from memory?

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The Three Trick

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The Three Trick

crossroadsPerfectionism plague you? Or just indecision? In fiction or even in non-fiction narrative (e.g. memoir), there are so many choices, possibilities limited only by imagination (for fiction) and memory/ your druthers (for non) . . . Where to start? Where to end? What to include? What to make happen? How to introduce your characters? How to paint your setting?

Drafting will, you think, nail down your story. But revision forces a new vision, and again, all doors open, all worlds beckon.

You’d think that if the problem were an embarrassment of riches, the answer would be discipline, restriction. But no. The answer is to write more. Sigh. Isn’t that always the answer?

Seriously, though: if you are trying to figure something out about your book, instead of struggling and reaching for the right, the best, answer, come up with a list. Three possible endings. Seven ways to up the stakes. Five ways to turn the scene. Sometimes, you’ll find a way to use more than one, and sometimes you’ll find your way to the one that excites and moves you. But you won’t be stuck anymore. And chances are, you’ll loosen up and arrive at options you would not otherwise have considered.

This is how we move from trying to get it right to getting it written!

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Three Inspirations

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Three Inspirations


When I am teaching (as I am all the time now), I tend to think more conversationally than when I am abiding inside my head, spinning tales. Lately, it seems there’s been a lot I’ve wanted to share that’s excited  and inspired me. Here are three of those items:

1) Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

At first, I was almost disappointed in the fit-of-my-shoes and tracking-of-miles-run-in-a-month mundanity of the book. But after I finished it, the full impact of his practice as a runner, his inevitable decline in the face of the body’s mortality, but his perseverance nonetheless, gave me the triumvirate of the writer’s being: the brain (lover of plot and planning, of revision, perfection and an impossible certainty), the storyteller (crazy, intuition-driven, passionate troubadour, who can do everything you hope and more if the brain will shut up), and now, the athlete. This is the writer who knows that how it feels to get the words down is irrelevant. The key is to put in the miles, to go the distance, to establish and maintain daily routines.

2) Robert A. Heinlein’s Five “Rules for Writing.”

1) You must write.

2) You must finish what you write.

3) You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4) You must put the work on the market.

5) You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

In a remarkable little essay, Robert J. Sawyer then takes us through each rule, showing us how fully half of all people who want to be writers fail to follow each rule. He adds a sixth, too.

(I’ll spend more time on this at another point, but let me say here that knowing what it means for a particular work to be finished—Rule #2—will make it possible, I think, to follow Rule #3 with success and a sense of integrity.)

3) A writer friend forwarded a “weekly reflection” from Mark Nepo about the long and material apprenticeship various cultures expect of their various artists and craftspeople. A perfect counterpoint to Heinlein’s light-a-fire-under-your-derriere Rules, Nepo’s gentle reminder pointed to a love of the process, of making progress rather than arriving. It’s not on his web site, but a bunch of his writing and information about him is there.

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Gestating a Book: Guest Blog on NaNoWriMo with a Twist

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Gestating a Book: Guest Blog on NaNoWriMo with a Twist

blocksAmy Truncale is a self-described “wife and mother in the Bay Area who loves to write and dream.” She dreamed up an amazing story last year, and here she tells us about the experience of writing a book in less time than it takes to make a baby:

Last year I wrote a novel in the month of November during the annual NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I was seven months pregnant and had been stuck on a book I started writing six years before. I hadn’t even looked at it in a couple of years, so I decided to write it over from scratch without referencing the old material in any way. I wanted my original inspiration back.

NaNo sounded challenging, fun, scary, impossible and wonderful, and it inspired me. A door banged open in my soul with the fresh air of possibility. That may sound a bit dramatic, but the thought of doing NaNo made my eyes wide with anticipation. It was an opportunity I had to take. There was another very important reason I wanted to undertake this task at that time. Simply put, I wanted my daughter (still in utero at this point) to have a mother that would model having the courage to do what she loves. That was a powerful motivation for me. I’m wise enough to know that she’s much more likely to do what I do, rather than what I say. So with that arsenal up my sleeve, I set out on a journey of creativity.lisad_2303

As I mentioned previously, I had been stuck in my writing for a long time. I needed to do something different, something I had never tried before. I had employed different techniques to move my writing forward in the past but always seemed to end up in the same place – inertia. I was looking for a new internal paradigm. NaNo happens in the 30 days of every November. Coincidentally, it is said that it takes 30 days to break a bad habit and replace it with a healthier one. I wrote a never-ending river of words last November that created a new mental pathway. The flow of momentum broke through little dams of dry twigs (I’m stuck) and brambles (I don’t know how to do this), rats’ nests (I can’t) and garbage that was previously creating blocks and distractions, making it difficult to write anything. Plus, I gained confidence as I experienced success! The goal was to write 50,000 words, and I did that. It doesn’t say to write 50,000 perfect words that create perfect sentences that make a national bestseller (although that possibility is open to you), it just says 50,000 + new words, period (well, not just random words – but you know what I mean).

In retrospect it still amazes me how easy I was on myself during this process. I always thought taking on a commitment like this would be painful, that I would have to chain myself to the desk and force myself to do it at knife point, sweat beading on my brow. Maybe being pregnant had something to do with this new gentle feeling towards myself. It forced me to slow down and take it easier than I ever had.

All I did each day was read what I had written the day before and then keep going. I did not critique anything. Previously crippled by my perfectionist left brain, I embraced the idea that it could be as bad as it needed to be – and sometimes it really was – but occasionally it was even good. My main goal was to KEEP GOING, not to write well. I had never let myself off the hook this way before. It was more than a revelation. Once I had accomplished the goal of just getting words on the page, I could shift my focus to creating quality through revision.

There are many books on writing on the market. I know because I own quite a few of them. There is some great advice for how to go about writing a book, yet most concede there is no direct ‘how to’ guide. I suppose it’s because of the nature of novel writing; that is, it is a different path for everyone. What Elizabeth Stark has created in her Book Writing Cycle is nothing short of revolutionary, and I have never heard of anything else like it. I honestly could never have done it without the support of this class/group, specifically designed to coincide with NaNoWriMo. It’s a tremendous resource for writers, and I am grateful to be a part of it. Writing a novel is about following your dreams. Whether the path is symbolically straight as an arrow, meandering through meadows or jumping into the abyss with arms stretched like an eagle, all that matters is that you take a step, and then another…

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Busy Making Other Plans: What Failed Dreams, Missed Opportunities and Narrow Misses Can Teach Us About Fiction, and Visa Versa

I’ll admit it. One of the things I love about Facebook is that it gives me the impression of being in contact with so many people from all phases of my life–elementary school classmates, lost friends from high school, college comrades who fought the good fight alongside me or worked at the Kresge Food Co-op with me or studied women with me (in class, you know), exes and colleagues and acquaintances and friends of friends all jumbled together on my home page. Warm. Cozy. Seriously, though, I love the crowd.

Plus, I imagined I would always know these people all my life. Even the kids in school who teased me or the housemate of a boyfriend who annoyed me–I just thought the world was a lot smaller than it is. Or was–before Facebook.

Still, getting the occasional or regular status updates is not the same as curling up on the couch for hours of talk, hot drinks in hand. It is not the same as taking over the highway together in our determination to stop the war. It is a lot shorter than a three-hour-long consensus meeting to decide what brand of toilet paper to use. Less detailed than surviving third grade side-by-side. More succinct than wandering the city in the middle of the night with feather boas askew.

I just thought I’d have enough time to live the thousands of lives each connection and context promised. And I don’t. “Life is what is happening while you are busy making other plans,” is the line that has been attributed to John Lennon, though it’s uncertain he said exactly that. In any case, while I love the life I turn out to have, it is just the one life and necessarily excludes the hundreds, nay thousands of others that lived as close to the surface of possibility at one time or another.

This is where fiction comes in. The art of imagining other lives is nurtured in us, the more so now that we have so many opportunities (the good and the bad) that we have to pass some by. I don’t know about you, but I am constantly carrying on little imagined conversations in my head–with the cop I fear will stop me and whom I am, before he exists, assuring misunderstood the situation because I would never merely slow at a stop sign or speed to make a light; with the jerk from high school whom, I’ve learned, lives very near where I buy my vegetables; with the person who assumed I had no artistic role to play in making our film because I was looking after the children. Those are the defensive or vengeful fantasies, but of course there are lovelier ones.

There are fan letters I write in my head but never send. I’ve been doing that since I was a child. Now there are blogs I imagine but don’t get down on the screen before life rushes in and demands my attention. There are futures I imagine, multiple, irreconcilable futures. There are worries and fears, the scenarios I concoct when someone is very late and can’t be reached by phone.

The reason there are meditation practices and self-help books to try to pin us to the moment, to reality, is that all of us, I venture, are close to spinning off into the fabricated possibilities we conjure at each juncture. What if? What might . . . ? It could have been . . .

That’s the business of fiction–to explore the truth of what doesn’t happen.

When I was in high school, I used sometimes to imagine that I was somebody else who had been transported into my life and my body and was getting to experience this entirely other, different life and perspective. In reality, I was ten years younger than my next sibling, and lived alone with my mother. I longed for a big family. In my fantasy, I would imagine that I was a kid with seven brothers and sisters who was getting to experience, for the first time, having my own room and no other kids around. It’s a little twisted, I know. But it’s a good training for a fiction writer. We are all tangled up with each other, are each other’s might have beens and could have happeneds.

Want to live a thousand lives? Wonder what it would be like to be him . . . or her . . . ? Write it and see.

As the New Year approaches, and we all begin to make resolutions and create–in our minds–a life in which we eat perfectly or exercise daily or read as much as Junot Diaz or write as much as Joyce Carol Oates, remember that you are using right in those moments a powerful muscle that may not create changes in your life, but which can create worlds on the page: your imagination. And even if you don’t make it to the gym on Jan. 1, you could probably make it to the laptop, which unlike the exercycle can be dragged into bed.

When someone catches you staring off into space, rehearsing a conversation, playing a small smile across your face, you can just tell them, “I was practicing writing fiction.”

Next step? Get those fantasies onto the page.

Happy New Year! Come join my online Building Your Book course, starting Jan. 15, or sign up for my monthly newsletter for writing tips and discounts on classes. http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses

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Ten More Shining Inspirational Exercises Or, Thirty Shots at Creative Inspiration, Part Three

You could be writing, right now. I remember spending a strange evening in a hotel room with a somewhat famous poet. She read me Gertrude Stein and made me want to write. I guess people don’t usually take you up to their hotel rooms because they want to make you want to write. She wasn’t inspired to write with me, and I ended up leaving shortly thereafter to drive the long, dark highways of upstate New York to my own apartment with no television in a town with no bookstores.

What makes you want to write? Is it the same thing as what makes you actually write?

Knowing what makes you work–and not the fantasy you have about what makes you work–is very useful for a writer. Supporting the habits you have–and not the habits you wish you had–takes a lot less energy and provides a lot more creative productivity. In other words, spend your time writing, not changing the way you write.

If it helps to fool yourself, you could pick up a pen right now. Really, you are reading this blog, surfing the net, waiting to refresh the status list of your Facebook friends to see who else has posted. But at the same time, let’s say you were holding a pen or opening a blank document on your computer and carelessly, haphazardly throwing down some words, right there on a page or screen. Here are ten more places you might begin. But you can begin anywhere. Any time. You can begin now.

The Fine Art and Grunt Work of Inspiration

Exercises invented or collected by Elizabeth Stark (with thanks to my teachers, in person and in books: Gil Dennis, Natalie Goldberg, John Gardner, Joyce Johnson, Stephanie Moore, Eileen Myles, A.M. Holmes, Gloria Anzaldua, Ken Atchity, Buchi Emecheta, Angie Powers and probably some others on the way . . .)

21. Interview people about their lives. People actually love to talk about themselves. Ask about sensate details, about motivations and desires, about changes and turning points, about extreme emotions and challenges. Learn about the details of a place or profession or time that you don’t know about. Then write fiction and feel free to invent beyond what you’ve been told (so long as you aren’t passing it off as fact).

22. Go to the library. Wander the stacks with your notebook or index cards. Research a subject you know nothing about. Let the research seep into you, then emerge in your writing.

23. Use horoscopes from the newspaper or online to create characters and stories.

24. Create a deck of writing cards: ten brief character sketches, ten locations, and ten objects–one each on index cards. Shuffle each pile of index cards, and then draw two characters, a location and an object. Make both your characters compete for the object in the location.

25. Play, “what if?” Imagine roads not taken, for yourself or for other people you know. Imagine yourself or others to have different characteristics or circumstances. What if you won the lottery? What if your greatest dream came true and it didn’t make you happy? What if your deepest fear manifested? What if you had never . . . met a certain person, moved to a certain place, had a certain opportunity or loss? You can ask these and other “what if?” questions of any number of characters.

26. Take an ordinary object: a dollar bill from your wallet, a pair of socks, an antique desk. Imagine its history, the people who’ve handled or used or made it, their desires and hopes, their lives.

27. Write nonsense. Use real words and sentence structure, but let go of meaning altogether. Or look at a text in a foreign language you don’t understand and “translate” it. What might it mean?

28. Think of two irreconcilable goods or two irreconcilable evils. Now put a character in the situation of having to choose between them.

29. Listen to a song or even a piece of music with no lyrics and write the story you hear there.

30. Make up your own exercises. Writing will teach you to write and will show you what you think.

Tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008) is the end of my early enrollment discount for Building Your Book, an online revision and editing course. Come join this wonderful, warm, smart community of people writing books, and finish your book in 2009!

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The Fine Art and Grunt Work of Inspiration Or, Thirty Shots at Creative Inspiration, Part Two of Three

Here is the next round of inspiration “triggers.” I also recommend taking a look at a great posting called “Use the Difficulty” on Blog of Stowers.

It’s not that any of these exercises is the key. The key is to begin. Starting out is so hard. It sounds exciting. It’s fun to sharpen pencils or buy new widgets. But actually getting those words on the page when you don’t really know what you want to say or how you want to say it–that can be downright painful. Writing is hard, Annie Dillard says in her great book The Writing Life. Many people prefer life to it.

So these are little bridges across that starting moment, ways in to what you want to say and how you want to say it. You find that out by writing. You get to the great writing by writing poorly but consistently. You get to the true stories by mucking around in the possible stories and flailing around for what matters most to you, for what feels right when you are writing. You cannot wait for the good feeling and then write. You must write badly, awkwardly, until you look down and find you are flying.

11. Look through the personals in the newspaper or on Craig’s List. Find two different personals, and make each one into a character. Now write a story in which these two characters meet.
12. Mine your family history: how did your parents or grandparents meet? What were the turning points in their lives? What are your family secrets? What are your family stories? 12. cont. What is not told in the tellings and retellings of your family stories? Write it down. Write a family story from a different point of view.
13. Look at somebody’s life that seems stable and set. Imagine this person in the opposite set of circumstances, emotions, etc. Now write the story of how he or she moved from point A to point Z.
14. Write a historical incident from an unusual point of view. Or write it so that it turns out differently from the way it actually did.  Feel free to get it wrong. Use your imagination.
15. Write about the future. Where will you be in five years? In twenty? What will the world be like in fifty or a hundred years? What might your grandchildren struggle over?
16. Find photographs (at estate sales or online) whose stories you do not know. Write the stories of the people and places and things in the pictures.
17. Go to a museum and look at the paintings. Write stories using the emotions or subjects of the art.
18. Watch a movie whose plot you do not know (foreign films are very good for this exercise, as are older films). Watch with the sound turned off. Write the dialog as you imagine it.
19. Write the life story of someone you see but do not know.
20. Borrow a plot or characters from the Bible, Shakespeare, or a classic work of literature. Make it contemporary or choose the perspective not usually represented. Write that story.

Exercises invented or collected by Elizabeth Stark (with thanks to my teachers, in person and in books: Gil Dennis, Natalie Goldberg, John Gardner, Joyce Johnson, Stephanie Moore, Eileen Myles, A.M. Holmes, Gloria Anzaldua, Ken Atchity, Buchi Emecheta, Angie Powers and probably some others on the way . . .)

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Thirty Shots at Creative Inspiration: Part One

I once taught at a jock/ drinking school in upstate New York. The town was depressed. While once the Finger Lakes had provided commerce, now only the college did so, and as a result, there were about twelve different bars but no place to buy shoes, for example. Anyway, I taught creative writing there, and my first round of students became very frustrated with me because they expected me to teach them how to be creative. I had mistakenly assumed that being young people, they needed only encouragement, channeling and response to their vibrant, overflowing creativity. I taught them craft. I taught them fruitful critique. But I suppose I did not teach them creativity. I still hold that we are chock full of creative impulse. One of my favorite stories about this (but I forget its source, sorry to say) was the woman who told her little girl that she had a new job: she was going to teach drawing to adults. “You mean they forgot how?” the little girl asked.

That’s about what happens, I think. We forget how to tell stories–well, maybe not to cops who pull us over for speeding or to spouses who suspect us of flirting with an old flame or to auditors, but in more abstract contexts. I sympathize. How, Annie Dillard asks, on an ordinary day do we set ourselves spinning? (Quoting from memory here with apologies . . .)

Here’s a list of ways you might begin. Try one a day for a month. Pull them out when you need them. They come from my own teaching and writing, and they come from the many amazing writers who’ve taught me, in person or through their wonderful books (or both). So, ten at a time, here are

Thirty Shots at Creative Inspiration


The Fine Art and Grunt Work of Inspiration

Exercises invented or collected by Elizabeth Stark (with thanks to my teachers, in person and in books: Gil Dennis, Natalie Goldberg, John Gardner, Joyce Johnson, Stephanie Moore, Eileen Myles, A.M. Holmes, Gloria Anzaldua, Ken Atchity, Buchi Emecheta, Angie Powers and probably some others on the way . . .)

The following are suggestions. Mix and match. Try some; try all. Modify to suit yourself. Rebel and do something else. Just write, write, write.

Some useful tools: notebook, ideas file in your computer, index cards, timer, unlined paper.

Part One

1. Carry a notebook and pen with you at all times. Jot down inspiration, flashes, ideas, observations, overheard anything, memories, and so on. Keep a list of things you want to write in the front or back of your notebook. Add to it as you think of ideas. Turn to it when you are ready to write.

2. “Free write.” No editing, judging, erasing, thinking, worrying about spelling and grammar or even about making sense. Time yourself. Grab a starting line from a book, poem, newspaper, or from your own writing–something you want to expand. Play.

3.     A)Write the story of your life from birth to now in five minutes. Time it. Go. If possible, read it to someone.
B) Now do it again–write the story of your life in five minutes from birth to now–without mentioning any of the same events.
C)Try it one more time, for five minutes, going backwards, from now to birth.

4. Write a table of contents of your life.

5. Write down the story of your most joyous or triumphant moment. Your most terrifying moment. Your saddest moment.

6. Write a letter (e-mail?) to someone to whom you no longer speak. Write a letter to someone you hate. Write a letter to a character from a book or movie. Write a letter to someone you’d like to meet.

7. Write down your dreams. Before you go to bed, put out a notebook and pen by your bed. At the top of the page, write, “Dreams” and the date. When you wake up, write down everything you remember. Do this every day for a week. A month. You will find that you remember more and more, and you will need more time to write in the morning!

8. Eavesdrop. Go to a cafe, ride the bus, or just sit in class before it starts and listen to what people are saying. Take notes. Remember to include gestures, expressions and actions (if you can see the person).

9. Write a list of questions you do not know the answers to, but which matter to you: your real questions about the world, life, anything. Now pick one and write down anything that might be part of the answer: memories, images, imagined interactions, characters. Invent a character who knows the answer and have him or her tell you his/ her story.

10. Find a news story in the paper or online that catches your attention. Write from the point of view of one of the people in the story. Tell what isn’t in the article. Write from another point of view about the same story.

Let me know if you try any of these . . . or what else works for you.

Join me and the wonderful, warm, smart and funny community at http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses for Building Your Book, a revision and editing course. Early enrollment discounts in effect through Dec. 21, 2008.

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NaNoWriMo: how writing a novel in 30 days trumped an MFA, a published novel, and fifteen years of teaching, and made me into a writer

At the start of last November, I had a two-month-old baby and a six-month-old baby. Years before I’d published a novel, and for the years since, I had been revising and revising my second novel, Strip. Sure, I had written some short stories, published some articles, made a couple of films, even. I’d gotten and given up a tenure-track teaching job, and taught elsewhere and privately, too. I’d moved across the country a couple of times since my first novel was published. In other words, I kept busy, which is sometimes the same thing as productive and sometimes not.

But I was not really a writer. “A real writer is someone who really writes,” Marge Piercy says in her rather profound poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

This is not to say that someone else had penned my novels–the published one or the endlessly revised one–or articles or any of that. It was just that, despite knowing better, I had a sort of passionate, on-again, off-again relationship with the kind of Writing that hangs out in clubs with people who call themselves “Inspiration” and “Great Idea” and “Excitement.” They have little gang rumbles with people who call themselves “Doubt” and “Brilliant Editor” and “You Could Do Better.”

Having babies got me really focused. I couldn’t hang out with that kind of writing anymore, had no time for skirmishes or romances or other capital-D Distractions. But did I have time to write?

That’s when NaNoWriMo came along. It sounds goofy, amaturish, like a crutch or a scam or some kind of edifice with nothing behind it, perhaps. But what, you may be asking, is NaNoWriMo? NaNoWriMo, Friends, is National Novel Writing Month. A web site; a sort of a program; a contest in which the number of winners is unlimited. Check it out at http://www.nanowrimo.com . . .

So there I was with the two babies, and after they would fall asleep, around 7 or 8 p.m., I would sit down, half-asleep myself, and type out about 2,000 words. (Officially, you must write 50,000 words between Nov. 1 and midnight on Nov. 30 to “win.” This works out to 1667 words/ day, but I started a day or two late, so I aimed for 2000 words. Also, I knew that I would be cutting so much of what I wrote, that I felt I had to get over 80,000 before I stopped.)

I crossed the 50,000 word line at the end of November, and then I kept on going, at a slightly less hectic pace, but more or less the same, until about Xmas, when I got to about 85,000 words and the end of a draft.

Those are the logistics. Also included are writing buddies, all sort of cafe events and marathons across the country (none of which I participated in because of the aforementioned babies), pep talks sent out by NaNoWriMo from various authors, and forums where you can get advice, solicit plot suggestions, commiserate, or just waste time.

Oh, and there are a number of people who’ve published their NaNoWriMo books (after, one assumes, significant revision), including Curve editor Diane Anderson-Minshall and her partner Jacob Anderson-Minshall, as well as Sara Gruen, whose Water for Elephants was a NaNoWriMo book, as was a previous book of hers. (There’s a list at the web site of other published authors; these were the ones I’d heard of . . .)

But more importantly than all of that, for me, is the personal experience I had of sitting down, night after night, exhausted and uninspired much of the time, leaking breast milk, to pound away at the keyboard. Sometimes I was nearly asleep, leaning close to the screen of my trusty laptop, letting my unconscious take over. My unconscious did all right.

Sure, the book is full of extra information, a lot of “ideas” and digressions, and even an excess of description. But I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to writing fiction. This comes from a certain fear, I think, something M.F.A.-driven that has to do with “purple prose” and a tendency toward embellishment and nostalgia. In other words, I have been developing a style that is in many ways opposite to my own “natural” style–a reaction to the “faults” that others have pointed out to me.

Fitzgerald said something about keeping all the quirks that the critics hated because that was his original style. I can’t find the quote right now, even at Google, but my larger point is that writing a first draft full of my inherent stylistic choices taught me a lot about myself as a writer.

Honestly, while I was doing this–churning out 2000 words every night–I felt confident that I would continue doing this every day for the rest of my life. I felt a kinship to Joyce Carol Oates that I’d never felt before. Because if only half of what I wrote was worthwhile, I could still write several decent novels a year at this rate, and raise up a passel of babies, too.

I forgot that babies stop sleeping so much and start running around and talking, at which point they need to be chased and answered, and it’s just harder to mull over the coming night’s writing while chasing and talking than it is while humming, rocking and nursing. I also forgot that good habits are hard-earned. Which is to say that I have not continued to write 2000 words every day, or even 1000 (though since I began blogging, I’ve written some number every other day or so).

However: November approaches.

Here’s what happens when I put my seat in the seat and type. Characters do things I hadn’t imagined; scenes develop; histories unfold; the people talk to each other and I listen, carefully, sleepily, and take notes. I know more and have more to say in front of a keyboard than I ever do anywhere else. Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” My partner, Angie, talks about writing in that way–to find out what happens. When you write everyday, no matter what, you get as close as possible to being a reader of your own work, with the attendant pleasures, surprises and identifications readers get to experience.

I heard an interview with Joyce Carol Oates once on the radio (with either Terri Gross or Michael Krazny, can’t remember), in which she talked about how she goes jogging every day, and while she jogs, she tells herself stories, so that when she goes to the keyboard, all she has to do is write from recall. Let us not forget that she lives in New Jersey, a place of winter, of snow. So this takes some dedication to the running, not to mention the writing.

In any case, for that month, I was more of a writer than I’d ever been, despite the above mentioned published novel, the unpublished novel, the M.F.A., and the teaching. Which is to say: I was writing. And when you are writing you don’t much care if you are a writer, just as when you are making love, you don’t much care if you are a lover. You’re just doing it, and it’s great.

So I invite you to join me over at the NaNoWriMo site. Become my “buddy,” so we can encourage each other along. I know you are busy and perhaps frightened and maybe you have a dissertation due or a job that drains you or babies to tend, but really, is that any excuse not to write a novel in November?

[Note: Fifteen percent of the 100,000 people who participated in NaNoWriMo last year completed their 50k words. Check out the course I am offering to see you through before, during and after: http://www.elizabethstark.com/courses. Thanks.]

Posted in Choices, Momentum, parenting, Writers and Other PeopleComments (2)

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