I Seem to be Taking a Break

A break from creative writing, at least, and I’m good with that. It all started a few weeks ago when I received the weekly poetry market update newsletter from Duotrope. I scanned the list half-heartedly. The idea of going through poems to see which ones would be a good fit for a particular market made me tired. When I sat down to write, nothing came. I shrugged and moved onto other things.

I’ve been shrugging and moving on since then, and I’m not worried about it. I’ve spent many years in anxious turmoil over my writing, pressing myself beyond healthy limits to produce. When I turned thirty and hadn’t published anything, I went into a tailspin of depression. Ditto that for when I turned forty. Then I got sober, went into therapy, and discovered an effective combo of meds with the help of a wonderful psychiatrist. These days, if I skip a day or two of writing, that’s just the way it goes. I’m on the hunt for a full-time job, I’m raising two young children with my wife, and I have a lovely coterie of animals I care for. I have a full life. And I’m sober, to boot.

I’ve been thanking God lately, in particular, for the ability to let a particular story line go. I don’t mean fiction; I mean the story line of my life that dictates that I have to a Writer. The capital letter is important. I’m already a writer and always will be, but I’m also other things. Robert the Writer, though, is hyper-focused on getting published to the exclusion of other things. Rober the Writer won’t rest until he’s exhausted himself mentally and spiritually, racing to beat the clock, up against self-imposed deadlines. Also, Robert the Writer is a selfish bastard. I have no more use for him, so I’m letting that story line go (for more info on story lines and attachment, check out this article by Pema Chodron).

I couldn’t have been this kind to myself without getting sober, and I also imagine that I couldn’t have done it (sober or not) in my thirties due to a stunning lack of emotional maturity. Not that I’m a paragon of emotional maturity these days, but I’m a hell of a lot easier on myself than I used to be. I accept and deal with my anxiety which springs from a variety of sources, but I no longer give myself panic attacks for missing non-existant milestones in my life. I don’t have a book deal at 43? Fine. I only publish poetry on web-based journals? Cool. I can look at other aspects of my life and celebrate them and not dwell on things I thought I needed.

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking of myself as more than just a writer. Currently, I prefer the term “creative.” I’m a creative. I write poems, stories, and songs. I draw cartoons. No matter where my life takes me, I’ll always find ways to express creativity. Writing this blog is another way.

So I’m going to take a break from creative writing because the still, small voice inside me says it’s time to. I spent many years ignoring that voice and drowing it with alcohol. These days, I do my best to listen to it.

Finding Time to Write Fiction is Hard…

…as opposed to finding time to write poetry. I can write poetry just about anywhere, like on a car ride or sitting in the living room with my kids while they watch TV.  I can write in a notebook, on a computer, or my phone. It doesn’t take me long to get into the proper mental and spiritual zone with poetry, but fiction requires a different set of circumstances. Maybe it’s because I don’t typically sit down and write fiction. I used to, but that was when my schedule was different and I didn’t have as many obligations. I’m not making excuses (and I realize I could be working on fiction now instead of typing this), but I am trying to understand it.

I suppose the answer is just to put in the time until it becomes more natural. I don’t wait for inspiration when I write, and I’ve had more than my fair share of writing sessions when I produce nothing worthy of salvaging. I need to be patient and trust the process. If my foray into fiction writing doesn’t feel like a good fit, I’ll return to poetry until I feel the urge to write fiction again.

At least, I think writing some stories is the answer to the dullness I feel when I write these days. There’s a lot going on (like finding a full-time job), but that’s never stopped me from writing and producing some decent pieces. I could be going through a dry spell. It’s also possible that I just need a break from writing altogether.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice says.

curiouser and curiouser


A Poetic Experiment

I was writing a poem when an idea struck me. What would happen if I translated it to Spanish (or any other language) and back again? So I hopped on Google translate and cut and pasted the following poem:

Miss Van Goor and the Troubled Border

He was handy and dandy but full of snakes,
at least in his mind, and that troubled Miss
Van Goor, the inimitable lady who ran the
boarding house at 345 Burning Tree Lane.
The other boarders kept their distance and
measured their words around him, unsure
of his intentions and sure of his sordid past,
and dear God, the way he drank liquor by
the gallon, it seemed, and never got drunk.
Miss Van Goor was far from temperate, so
the drinking didn’t trouble her, but the way
the man talked to his demons late at night,
cursing and laughing, threatening, weeping,
set her nerves on fire and her heart to aching,
as if she could save him, which she knew she
could not…as if she could possess him, which
she knew was equally, regrettably impossible.

I like it well enough how it is, but it feels off to me in places. So I translated it to Spanish…

Miss Van Goor y la frontera preocupada

Él era práctico y dandy pero lleno de serpientes,
al menos en su mente, y que la señorita
Van Goor, la señora inimitable que dirigía el
pensión en 345 Burning Tree Lane.
Los demás pensionistas mantuvieron su distancia y
midió sus palabras a su alrededor, inseguro
de sus intenciones y seguro de su pasado sórdido,
y querido Dios, la forma en que bebió licor por
el galón, al parecer, y nunca se emborrachó.
La señorita Van Goor estaba lejos de ser templada,
la bebida no le molestó, pero el camino
el hombre habló a sus demonios por la noche,
maldiciendo y riendo, amenazando, llorando,
poner sus nervios en el fuego y su corazón a dolor,
como si pudiera salvarlo, lo que ella sabía que
no podía … como si pudiera poseerlo, lo cual
ella sabía que era igualmente, lamentablemente imposible.

…and back to English.

Miss Van Goor and the border worried

He was handy and dandy but full of snakes,
at least in her mind, and that the lady
Van Goor, the inimitable lady who ran the
boarding house at 345 Burning Tree Lane.
The other pensioners kept their distance and
he measured his words around him, unsure
of his intentions and sure of his sordid past,
and dear God, the way you drank liquor for
the gallon, apparently, and never got drunk.
Miss Van Goor was far from tempered,
the drink did not bother him, but the way
the man spoke to his demons at night,
cursing and laughing, threatening, crying,
put your nerves in the fire and your heart to pain,
as if she could save him, what she knew
he could not … as if he could own it, which
she knew it was equally, sadly impossible.

Intriguing, isnt it? There are obviously problems, especially with the pronouns, but this version made me reapproach my original and change it to the following:

Miss Van Goor and the Troubled Man

He was handy and dandy
but full of snakes,
at least in her mind–
Miss Van Goor, the inimitable
lady who ran the boarding house
at 345 Burning Tree Lane.

The other pensioners kept
their distance, and he measured
his words around them, unsure
of their intentions, they convinced
of his sordid past, and dear God,
the way he drank liquor by the
gallon and never got drunk.

Miss Van Goor was far from
temperate, the drink did not
bother her, but the way the man
spoke to his demons at night,
cursing and laughing,
threatening, crying,
set her nerves on fire
and her heart to pain.

If she could only save him,
which she knew she could not.

If he could only possess her,
which, of course, she knew was
equally and sadly impossible.

I’m not sure if this will be the final draft of the poem or not. I’ll let it marinade for a few days and then come back to it. I just wanted to share this experiment and see what you all thought.

Time to Read

One of the benefits of being a teacher is having summer break, and even though I have both my children home with me, I have more time to read than I do during the school year. After teaching all day, making supper, dealing with baths and breaking up fights, my wife and I make a little time to watch a show and then get in bed to read. I can usually devote thirty minutes to reading before I’m ready to sleep (while my wife, if she’s really into the book, can read until one or two in the morning).

This morning, I woke up and continued reading Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams. stephen kingI haven’t read Stephen King in quite a long, and it’s been even longer since I’ve read one of his short story collections. I bought this after reading a book I just couldn’t get into. And then I remembered seeing King’s story colletion, so I got it and jumped right in

I love King’s prose, but it can bog down the story in certain novels. He’s a master of the short story craft, even though in the book’s introduction, he says that he’s still an amateur at 62. It’s comforting to hear that, given how much I struggle with fiction.

I always write better fiction when I’m reading something good, and even though horror is not my genre, I used to write fairly good “speculative” fiction. I haven’t tried my hand at it in a long time…and I also haven’t bothered finishing a story. Poetry is easier for me because I can finish one in a relatively quickly. Fiction takes time, and I’m usually pressed for time. While I like flash fiction, it doesn’t call to me. I still believe a good short story should run about twenty-five to thirty pages, double-spaced (I’ve forgotten the word count I used to shoot for). I could do that before I had children. It’s a lot harder now.

But I have more time this summer, and I’m thinking of going back to some short stories I started. I’ve kept them in a file called “Stories Worth Finishing.” I’m not sure if they’re worth finishing or not, but I’m not going to learn anything more about fiction writing unless I actually finish a damn story once in a while.

So don’t hold your breath for some exciting, ground-breaking, awe-inspiriting story to appear on the site in the next day or two. Expect something messy with some decent dialogue and a rushed ending; that seems to be my speciality.

We Spin On (word vomit)

Since I ended my job as a middle-school English teacher (I would love to say never again, but I know better), writing has been sporadic. Actually, that’s not true–I show up at the page every day, but the quality has been sporadic. On the last day of my job, I had cleaned out my room but couldn’t leave until the principal gave me the all-clear, so I had plenty of time to write. What came out was garbage. Granted, it was a lot of garbag (nearly three thousand words), but there was nothing salvageable. 

Perhaps, as my wife says, my brain needed a break. It’s only been a week since school got out, and my writing is still mainly junk. What follows is an example. It isn’t so much poetry as it is word vomit. I’m sharing it to encourage other writers to get out on the page whatever needs to come out, even if you look at it and say, “By Jove, that’s a mess.” A mess is better than nothing.

That being said, there’s still hope (I know I make it all sound dire, like I’ll never write anything I’m happy with. EVER AGAIN). As an editor told me once:

I dig the weirdness in [your] poems, but weirdness would be a bit of an understatement. It’s as if you’re using this idea of weirdness/strangeness to explore irreparable longing – perhaps irreparable longing is the glue that holds today’s world together.   – Justin Karcher, Ghost City Review

These words mean the world to me because that’s what I try to do in my poetry. It burbles up from my subconcious, fueled by the Great Cosmic Signal, and I do my best to convey the feelings inside me. My work is often dark and sad, and I do feel a sense of irreparble longing; it’s part and parcel of the human condition. Two things alleviate some of that longing: writing poetry and writing music. 

So…here’s some word vomit.

We Spin On

The vampire flowers made her sad,
and I ate another plate of fear salad.
This isn’t helping anything, said the erstwhile
Martian as he clung to the last thread of life.
The boulders of Colorado made a rodeo.
Eggs beat in rhythm to the veins of ocean.
More likely, the face of autumn.
The fan blew on the mighty moon, and
the tail of escaping steam was moody.
We spin on, the stars murmured. We spin on.

The (Tough) Art of Creating a Short Story

For some reason, I expect writing good short stories to be relatively easy. I don’t know why, at 41, I still think that since I’ve struggled with the short story form since I began cranking them out in my early teens. As I’ve said before, the entire process of poetry–the imagining, workshopping, revision–has been simple compared to writing short stories. Ideas pop into my head all the time, and those ideas usually find their way into my poems. Sometimes, though, characters and their voices show up, and I know to do them justice, I need to write prose.

Aside from my tendency to abandon stories after ten or so pages, I also acknowledge that my strength isn’t in description. I’m also not particularly good at pacing, either. I excel at dialogue, and I’ve heard as much from editors back when I was submitting stories for publication. I received personal rejection slips telling me that dialogue was spot on, but the rest of my writing was flabby. I took that as an encouraging sign, and I still do, despite the number of years that have passed between those rejection slips and now.

For help, I decided to buy the Gotham City Writer’s Workshop book on writing fiction. I like it so far, and while the first section seems geared more toward beginning writers, I still find it helpful. The exercises in the book have been useful thus far, too.

I’ve also returned to using Scrivener writing software, but not for a novel writing (though I’m also tempted to use Scrivener in conjunction with the beautiful word processing program Novlr), but for short stories. Scrivener helps me plan a story, much like I used it to plan my last novel. I realized over the weekend that I can’t continue treating short stories like poems. I need more time with stories, and some stories (like the one I’m currently working on) require research. Scrivener has a wonderful built-in feature to store research, and it allows you to visually plan scenes for a novel, story, or screenplay. Novlr is gorgeous and gets my fingers itchy to fill a blank page.

I can knock out at least one quality poem a day during my writing time, but the first draft of a story takes me at least a week if I tackle it every day. I have the time, and though it can be grueling, I’m willing to show up at the page and take the project on, even if I feel discouraged. Discouragment is just a feeling attached to a useless thought; it has nothing to do with my dedication to the craft or my ability as a writer. I think setting writing goals for myself is a good idea, too. One of many things that quitting drinking has taught me is that I’m a hell of a lot stronger and focused than I sometimes give myself credit for.

I’m also going to re-read Stephen King’s masterful On WritingIf you’re a writer and haven’t read it, I highly recommend you check it out. It transformed the way I wrote, and I’m sure I’ll glean more wisdom and encouragement this read-through.

For the curious, the story I’m working on came from a prompt in the Gotham City book. To paraphrase, it was something like: “Sam knew either it was a lucky sign or a sign of disaster when….” After some freewriting, that prompt led to a strange and touching story about a man who works with chimps, teaching them to sign, and in particular his relationship with a troubled chimp named Roscoe. I like where the story’s going…I just have to remind myself (several times a day) not to abandon it because the words aren’t lining up like obedient little children. They rarely do, anyway, and just because the writing is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.

Whew, this was a longer post than I intended. Thanks for taking time to read.