Nothing good gets away

Don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens - The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away. -John Steinbeck

I’ve been in a hurry, and this past week I was called a loser.

(By me.)

A week ago was the first stretch when I kicked into actual writing.  Ever since I became officially retired I’ve had a nagging sense that I wasn’t doing real writing yet. A little internal voice wondered if all the planning could be a form of procrastination. 

For example, among the plans is a multi-page plot outline, both the external events and the emotional/inner events. I’ve mentioned a poster board where post-its march across it to show a story arc, but there’s also a second one that shows critical dates in Johanna and Vincent van Gogh's lives so I can figure out when their paths should cross. And I have a start on research notes about the 19th century, artists during that period, life in Paris, my protagonist Johanna, and on Vincent van Gogh.

Plus I’ve been reading books on the craft of writing (like The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass) and making notes on when I could apply his ideas in the story.  

But this is not writing. This is not pulling up my office chair, turning off the phone, powering up the Macbook and committing myself to writing THE BOOK nonstop. 

So, this past week, I tried.

This is when loser thoughts crept in, all on the writing decisions I've made:

  • Third-person point-of-view (I've been writing in third-person ("Johanna thought..."), instead of first-person ("I thought...") then I wondered, wait! The books I've read lately are in first-person (The Orphan Train, The Paris Wife, and The Handmaid's Tale) - perhaps third-person is wrong?
  • Voice - investigating first- or third-person point-of-view led me to reading up on “voice,” or a writer's style. I wondered, oh no! My text sounds really boring or as though I'm imitating someone else, not authentic or genuine, fake. Do I even have my own "voice"?
  • Including emotion -  Then as I read over the words written so far, I saw that I'd moved too fast from scene to scene. It's too shallow. There’s not enough about thoughts and feelings, letting the reader in on why characters are acting as they are. I'm not used to writing about feelings! Good business writing, the skill I've honed for 20 years, is the practice of brief bullet points and next action steps, not creative writing. Maybe my business writing is too deeply ingrained for me to change?

The loser thoughts lined up and took their shots: Writing is hard! You're not good enough! You don't know what you're doing!

Has my dream of writing a book all been a mistake?

Among all of this second-guessing and mental spin, I’d been texting a writer-artist friend Deborah. Like a lovely shaft of light piercing a thick cloud bank, she sent me this message:

"The reason NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] is so successful is because it encourages writers to just get words down on a page or in a computer file. They respect “first draft energy.” My recommendation is to not worry about voice or POV. Pick a POV and go with it…it can always be changed later. If you have a rough outline, you are ready. Sure, read in between writing sessions to inspire you, but just let your characters — Johanna tell her story through your fingers. Get your head out of the way. Like a friend told me back in the 1980’s when I was considering quitting my job to go full time to college to finish my degree — JUST DO IT. As they say, writing is all in the editing process. But you first need words to work with. Lots of them.”

“Get your head out of the way.” Sharply, I realized that I’d had a hidden sense of ego. I think I’d been secretly imagining that I would do such a great first draft that I’d skip a few rounds of editing. So, instead of feeling like good discoveries, the questions derailed me. I’m glad to realize this early and even to have experienced such severe self-doubt so I can recognize and dismiss it in the future.

Just do it.  And do my best to enjoy it. 

Nothing good gets away. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Daily Writing: This week I am writing (not planning or researching) each morning (except Friday/Saturday when I'll be in a writer's workshop.) I have a feeling the writing will be crappy, but, hopefully, I'll have lots of crappy words. 

Scrivener Writer Software: So far, my first draft is in Microsoft Word, but I've been reading that there’s a software program called Scrivener especially for writers that will make life much easier when it comes to editing, incorporating research, etc. It has a sharp learning curve but I'm thinking of making the investment sooner rather than later.

Books I'm Reading:  Author of the Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, also wrote, A Thousand Splendid Suns. (Choice of  my W4 Book Club.) Intense and gripping, the story is about two women in Afghanistan, from the 1970's to early 2000's, and how their lives are impacted by terrible regimes and war. Hosseini is masterful at bringing the Afghan culture to vivid life through showing, rather than telling, details of daily living. Plus I'm still reading Peter Wohlleben's fascinating book, The Inner Life of Animals. (Each chapter is a standalone so I can dip in and out of it.)   

Meanwhile, there are two weddings to think about now (Eric and Angie's in June and Cristina and Jay's in the fall) so I have been quietly creating a spreadsheet of out-of-town guests for the first one, and doing phone interviews with KC wedding planners for the second one. It is super, super fun and I am in heaven being the mom of a groom and a bride. Juan is concerned that I have my own ideas -- well, of course, I do! 

Back to John Steinbeck and his parting counsel:

And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good. 

Amen!

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No Better

Whatever your life's work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. 
-Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Who am I?

What is my purpose?

Do I have a destiny?

This is the mental territory I've been exploring for my book's plot this week. Since it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day today he dominates my thought as a role model of someone who pursued a purpose with determination and passion in spite of enormous resistance. 

Why am I here?

This deep question is the key to what drives my protagonist Johanna's struggle. Because this novel is based on a true story -- Johanna eventually succeeding at gaining recognition of Vincent van Gogh as an enduring artist -- the reader knows at the outset that she will be successful. 

However, what the reader won't know is how did she get to her answer to "Why am I here?" and what she felt along the way. So, I'm about 5,000 words into the the cause-and-effect trajectory of the story. Without giving away specific events that happen, here's an idea of some of the plot components:

The path to answering Who am I? takes...
Unrelenting pursuit
Initiating risk
Finding supporters
Threatening the status quo
Encountering opponents

So Johanna will need to experience...
Being persistent despite setbacks
Curiosity taking her into danger
Encouragement (such as from her future husband, Theo)
Resistance when she challenges the traditional gender role for women
Facing a difficult moral dilemma

And she will feel...
Determination and despair
Excitement and naiveté
Love and unselfishness
Shame and humility
Longing and hope
And more...!

Here's the funny thing. If done right, the real journey is not the protagonist's experience, but yours as you read it. Readers agree or disagree, argue or approve what a character is doing and in this way have their own experience with the book. Finding out "who am I?" is a universal theme; one we each grapple with in our own way. For authors, I've read that a common mistake is not sharing enough of what the protagonist is feeling so that the reader can identify with what's going on. So, I'm trying to identify what Johanna feels now in order to keep this top of mind. 

Meanwhile, in the midst of doing this vicarious soul-searching with Johanna, I had a few emotion-stirring events in my own life this past week. 

  • Attended my last two retirement dinners.... feeling a big mix of cheerful and grateful and sad.
  • Got a surprise "Facetime" announcement from our daughter that she's engaged to boyfriend Jay... feeling HAPPY and, funny, Cristina's news made me look forward even more to my son Eric's upcoming wedding to Angela. (2018 is turning into a big year!)
  • Reveled in a home-cooked dinner of Juan's chicken marsala... feeling the LOVE from his perfect result and his intentional adding of extra mushrooms for me.

How I'm Writing the Book
Highlighter Exercise: Book editor Sheila Athens gave me an exercise with highlighters I finally tried this week. You might want to try it out of curiosity. Its purpose is to see how to strike the right balance of current action and back story without slowing down pace. One of my favorite books is Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings so I took it off the bookshelf to mark up. The goal is to identify each sentence: Yellow is inner monologue (what the character is thinking), pink is dialogue, orange is the current scene and blue is back story. Surprisingly, I found most pages had all four colors. I noticed that Kidd sometimes slips in even a single line of back story to give the reader context yet does not slow down the scene's action. Try it!

Books I'm Reading:  I finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It is so useful as a model of how to tell the story of a famous individual through the eyes of someone close to him/her -- in this case, it's about Ernest Hemingway through the experience of his first wife, Hadley (for me, Vincent van Gogh through the eyes of sister-in-law Johanna). I also slowly read through The Wisdom of Sundays, a compilation of conversations Oprah Winfrey had with spiritual thinkers on her television program, Super Soul Sunday. It really provoked my thinking around this blog's theme on "Who am I?" 

Finally, it's not a book, but I watched a Netflix documentary, "Joan Didion: The Center Can Not Hold," (thank you, Elyse!) that also made an impact. It was inspiring to see how Didion's literary work is an outcome of her life. From her candid reporting of deep personal grief to the chronicling of the unsettling shock of the '60s, Didion shaped "new journalism," or using essays to communicate facts through narrative storytelling. The 90-minute documentary was released just a few months ago and is spell-binding. 

As I close, Martin Luther King Jr. has words of encouragement for discovering your unique purpose and finding out what you can do better than anyone else:

Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase. 

Warmly, 

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Possibilities

The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.
-Dan Gilbert

Change?!

We're only a few days into the new year... 

…and I got stuck already. 

We’re only a few days into the new year and it feels like I should be going back to work any day now. I am gradually adopting a new retirement routine but, honestly, it feels more like I’m on vacation. 

Work demands used to crowd into my thoughts as soon as I woke up. Into this vacuum now has flooded lots of miscellaneous, un-prioritized stuff. For instance, no one mentioned that when you stop working all the unkempt corners of the house, hidden behind closet doors and inside dresser drawers, will rear up, exclaiming, “Look at me! Take care of me!”

We’re only a few days into the new year.

I got stuck on the plot outline for my book. I had been dutifully working on a story arc (a series of cause-and-effect incidents that propel the story’s action forward) for Johanna van Gogh and how she eventually promotes Vincent van Gogh’s work after he dies. 

I have the major milestones, of course, like Johanna meeting Theo (her future husband, Vincent’s brother) and Theo dying (when Johanna faces a decision about whether to return to her parents or strike out on her own - not an easy choice for a 19th century woman), but there are many other decision points in her story. 

I put a large poster board in my office. I’ve been jotting plot ideas onto post-it notes and adding them to the board, moving them around. I know that Johanna will need to explain the motivation behind her decisions. For example, the story needs to answer the question of why she thanklessly promoted Van Gogh’s work for 15 years without much success? Was this because of values she was taught as a little girl or an experience in meeting Vincent or something else?

What external events do I select for her? What challenges does she face that moves the action forward? 

Then it struck me. 

I shouldn’t map out the external events first; it’s her internal journey that’s the trajectory. Once this is penciled in, the accompanying external events serve as either an influence into, or outcome of, what she’s thinking.

It dawned on me that this is why I’ve been stuck: I was uncertain of the WHY behind her actions. Without this, my ideas felt too random and disconnected. 

A clue came from my professional marketing study of generations. Generational research claims our values come from two major influences in roughly the first 20 years of our lives: The primary guiding light of our first 10 years is family -- what you learn and soak up from your immediate home life. Major influence in the second 10-year span comes from outside your family -- your peers and society. 

This framework helps. In response, I'm sketching out what family values Johanna absorbed as a young girl, and then, as an adolescent/young adult, what societal factors would be an influence. These can be reasons she makes decisions and how she feels. 

In the 19th century, as a member of the rising middle class, Johanna is up against some big headwinds:

  • Women are put on a pedestal; but the trade-off is that they must be willing to accept a lower social standing -- no involvement in commerce or politics. New urbanization has caused a division between the roles women and men played. When life was rural, a married couple worked side-by-side. With urbanization, when men left to go to work, women gradually took on the role as guardian of the household, especially its moral values. 
  • Women can not own property. If they have earnings, a father or husband controls it. They can not go into business without a husband's permission or get credit without a male co-signer.
  • A woman can become educated to a degree in subjects such as music or languages; yet, her true learning is in topics such as deportment (walking with a book on your head to have a straight spine) or moral education (reading the Bible aloud) -- all designed to land a husband. 

Looking back through history's lens in my research I've found a few individual women who beat these expectations. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861), the greatest female poet of the 19th century, is one who came up with a creative solution. 

The oldest in a family of 12 children, Elizabeth was expected to follow the pattern of other young women: learn how to organize servants, go on morning social calls and look after elderly family members. She'd begun to scribble poems as a child and wrote constantly. When Elizabeth turned 15, she became an invalid, consumed by an illness for which doctors could find no cause. Perhaps she talked herself into the ailment, at any rate, she spent her days bedridden or sitting by a window. By being removed from the normal running of the household, she was able to continue to write and publish poetry. 

When she was 38, her poetry caught the attention of Robert Browning, also a poet. He started a correspondence and eventually asked her to elope. Remarkably, she found the sudden strength to sneak out, get married and move to Italy with Browning -- and then continued to write poetry.

Invalidism gave Elizabeth the socially acceptable way to have the freedom to follow her passion, sort-of a 19th century hack.  

When passion calls, Johanna, too, will have to find the internal strength to hack the system. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Writer Habit: The new habit I’m trying to form is to write or research the book for at least 2 hours/day. Though I’d begun sporadically in December, I’ve started the clock on January 1 to see how many days in a row I can be consistent. 

Books I'm Reading:  I finished The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass and loved it. It's about how to write so that the reader connects emotionally to the story — I’ll be sharing specific ideas with you over time. I also read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. It’s a moving story based on true events from the early 1900s when orphaned children were sent to the Midwest to join new families. The story is of two young women and their search for family. I related the helplessness of the children -- they were not in control of their lives -- to how and when Johanna would feel helpless and not in control of her life. Meanwhile, I've started The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and am still reading Peter Wohlleben's fascinating book, The Inner Life of Animals. 

Back to Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist who delivered a TED talk called "The Psychology of Your Future Self," where I found these quotes.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. 

We're only a few days into the new year...

Possibilities await!

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