Kurt Vonnegut – Writing Quote Wednesday

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I took this Writing Quote Wednesday from Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007). I was part of his lost NYU lecture on what it takes to be a writer that was recently posted on Brain Pickings.

I once ran into Mr. Vonnegut at Penn State. He was eating at a table across from me. The way I remember it, he was by himself looking off into the distance almost as if he was thinking up the plot to some new story he was working on or thinking about what kind of drawing he might want to do next.

I wasn’t brave enough to approach him and say hello, but he certainly made an impression on me, sitting there by himself, thinking.

It is even more moving, thinking about that moment, when I read the full quote:

I’ve heard that a writer is lucky because he cures himself every day with his work. What everybody is well advised to do is to not write about your own life — this is, if you want to write fast. You will be writing about your own life anyway — but you won’t know it.

And, the thing is, in order to sit alone and work alone all day long, you must be a terrible overreacter. You’re sitting there doing what paranoids do — putting together clues, making them add up… Putting the fact that they put me in room 471… What does that mean and everything?

Well, nothing means anything — except the artist makes his living by pretending, by putting it in a meaningful hole, though no such holes exist.”

I’m doing some work right now to push through to the next level in my work and my life and one of the techniques I’m using involves drawing what I’m experiencing and then interpreting those drawings to gain insight into the situation. In my last session, which was a few weeks before I saw this quote, one of the drawings I did was of a man with several holes surrounding him. I had no idea what the holes were when I drew them and the man in the drawing had no idea what to do with them either.

Now I know that those holes I drew were meaningful holes to put my pretending in. Those holes do exist. Even though nothing means anything, putting our pretending in those holes is the way we, as artists, make our living.

Penn State English professor Kevin Boon had this to say back in 2007 about Mr. Vonnegut, “If I had to sum Vonnegut the man in one word, I would say he was, in all matters, gracious. If I had to sum his work, I would say that, in the end, the message threading his oeuvre is that people, as a whole, are cruel, but people, on an individual basis, are precious. Team players who are blindly loyal to ideologies are the primary reason the world has experienced so many atrocities (Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, slavery, racism, sexual intolerance, sexism, greed and the contemporary horrors of Iraq, Katrina, Darfur and so on), while the best results of our presence on Earth — a sonata by Mozart, a painting by Van Gogh, a poem by T.S. Eliot, a statue by Rodin, Gene Kelly dancing, Maria Callas singing — are the result of brilliant individuals producing single, epiphanous moments of beauty in a world that is largely inhumane.”

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The Battle Within – Which Wolf Will You Feed?

On this Sunday after that irrational holiday, Pi Day, here’s a short film to think about as you begin the new week.

As we ate pie yesterday and today I thought about that old proverb that states there are two wolves we can feed in our lives; one wolf is good, one wolf is evil. The story ends with the question, “Which wolf will you feed?”

I know I struggle with this everyday. In the spirit of transparency, this film stars the five-year-old I talk so much about here and on my Twitter feed. The film was shot in New York City’s Bryant Park. Meir Kalmanson of AMK Productions (aka The High Five New York Guy) shot the film.

Let me know what you do to keep the wolves fed in the comments below.

Have a great writing week!

Unhappy with your Writing Progress? You Need This Secret Power

In this TED talk, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi asks the question, “What makes a life worth living?”

He says that a lack of basic material resources contributes to unhappiness but the increase in material resources does not necessarily increase happiness. He shows in this video and his books that those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction are engaging in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

I know that when I was in “flow” mode today while working on my MG adventure novel, I was very happy. I hit my word count goal for the day. I enjoyed the food I ate and the music I was listening to while writing. When I picked up my four-year-old after daycare we played and laughed and ran around more vigorously than when I haven’t been able to get any writing done for the day.

When we are in flow, Czikszentmihalyi says, we disappear. Our existence is temporarily suspended. I feel this way when I write or perform. I disappear into these other worlds for the time I am engaged in my story.

Seven things he mentions that are important for flow:

  1. We are completely involved in what we are doing, focused, concentrated
  2. A sense of ecstasy – being outside everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable – that we are up to the task
  5. Serenity – no worry about self, feeling of growing beyond the ego
  6. Timelessness – focused on the present, hours seem to pass in minutes
  7. Intrinsic motivation – engaging in flow is its own reward

Stories are the wildest things.

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The Nap that Never Was

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Flickr photo by Susana Fernandez

So, the nap never happened. (<==Click the link to read a post about Fiction Unboxed, a write-a-novel-in-30-days adventure with Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant over at Sterling & Stone.)

My strategy to get my four-year-old down for a nap yesterday and then do some writing while he slumbered peacefully didn’t work.

Even now, as I try to finish this post, he is saying, “Daddy, daddy, daddy, I have to go potty.”

I’m writing this in the Vassar library, so I abandon my computer and the blog and search for a restroom. He moans and says, “We’re lost down here. I’m going to pee myself.”

“No, you’re not. We aren’t lost. Breathe.” But I can’t find the men’s room.

There is a women’s restroom right near the stairs. I knock. No answer. I stand in the doorway, afraid to enter the women’s restroom. “Hurry and go quickly,” I say.

He jumps and skips and scurries his way to the toilet. I hear him relieving himself and then he sighs. “Whew,” he says.

“Wash your hands.” He turns the water on full-blast and runs his hands through the water. He wipes his hands on his shirt.

We run back upstairs. The library is empty so my blog is safe. I try to finish this post.

“Go back to your computer and play.”

30 seconds pass, maybe less.

He says, “Daddy, my computer, the computer, the computer over there is not working, um, it’s not changing to the kite thing again where Curious George is flying his kite, I need you to help me.” He clicks on it and it changes into a game where George is collecting hats.

He can’t work the mouse yet, so I have to help him. We collect orange and green hats. We play again. We collect green and red hats. I say, “Now you practice.” I sit back down to finish this post. Two seconds later he says, “Daddy, daddy I want to go see Momma now.” He’s sucking his fingers. He’s been playing with a mouse used by hundreds of college students.

His immune system is getting stronger I say to myself. A slight shudder passes through me.

“Sit down for a minute until I finish this post.”

“Awww, Daddy.”

He sits.

I’m done.

Write a Novel in 30 Days – Fiction Unboxed (Days 3-15)

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I haven’t posted from day-to-day on Fiction Unboxed from the guys at Self-Publishing Podcast because I’ve been busy writing, parenting and reading the updates that the guys have posted each day. Their steam punk YA grows by leaps and bounds with each day. The past twelve days have been all about getting words on the page. They are about halfway through their first draft and they’ve already begun to polish. I admire their tenacity in getting the pages complete. My own output has been anemic in comparison.

They write a few pages, do some editing, upload everything and we get to read the work in progress. They’re super fast with their first drafts, making very few changes to the story as they go. They are also running their podcast, working on other projects and parenting as well. It’s pretty amazing to watch the guys work. They’ve definitely got FLOW.

Because they set up the beats so well, the writing really flows. The edits are mostly line edits for grammar, sense and rhythm. I really appreciate seeing the edits because they show how having an external eye can really strengthen your writing for the better.

As far as the influence on my writing, I’m not sure yet how it’s been helping me with my MG novel other than keeping me focused on word count. I have had a few ideas for stories within their world, which I’m getting “itchy” to begin beating out. Because they are opening the world to us, it will be fun to play within it and see what happens. I know I have to keep focused on the story I’m working on now, though. Like Henry Miller said, “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.” I will probably do some beats on this idea tonight, though.

The community of writers who are participating in Fiction Unboxed are positive and interesting. We’ve formed a community on Google+ with several members organizing and other members watching and participating when they can. I haven’t yet been able to take part in a Google hangout, but I’d like to. If you’re interested in finding out more about this fascinating project, check them out at Fiction Unboxed.

As a busy writer parent, I’ve tried to balance my participation with Fiction Unboxed, parenting, my writing, blogging and reading and my other projects. My wife and I had a production meeting last night. We have several films coming up this summer and an energetic four-year-old who wants and needs our attention. We’re also searching for other opportunities to pursue at the same time. All of it seems a bit overwhelming. We always come through the other side of our dilemmas, but right now we are searching for an opening to dash through to find a solution.

As I write this, my four-year-old is munching cereal and watching Sesame Street. He has a milk goatee. Now he is chewing on a pillow. Now the pillow has a milk goatee, too. The birds are singing outside our window in a cacophony of birdsong and the wind chimes are tinkling in response to the wind. Cloudless blue skies are beckoning. I’m behind on word count and stuck in a story dilemma. Do I stay in my fictional world or go out into the one outside my window? Henry Miller again, “Keep Human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.” I won’t be drinking, but I may have to take my little one to the park.

The solution we came up with last night is to play hard with our four-year-old and insist on some resting time in the middle of the afternoon to give me an hour or two to pound out some words. I am going to post this, go play hard and then post again this afternoon with the results of this new procedure.

Let me know what solutions you’ve come up with as writer parents to get your words on the page. Also, please sign-up for my email newsletter, Stories are the Wildest Things, you’ll get insider tips and inspirational quotes right to your inbox. I’ll never sell your email or send you any SPAM. Have a productive writing day and I’ll see you later this afternoon.

PJ

 

 

Why Debi Millman and Dani Shapiro Made Me Cry

I’m feeling very cranky and vulnerable right now, in fact, I’m experiencing a panoply of feelings.

As I was listening to this excerpt from Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, for some reason, I started to cry. Not in a deep sobbing way, but in a “wow, I needed to hear that today,” way.

I wanted to share some of those reasons with you.

As Dani says, “sometimes all we can hope is that we fail better.” The failures and the triumphs of the year that has passed are at the forefront of my mind.

We lost our house and moved in with friends. We then had to move out of the friend’s house and into an apartment. I’m still not done consolidating our storage units and our car has just died.

The Tony’s are over and friends and loved ones have either won major awards or not been recognized at all even though everyone has done amazing work this year. The arbitrariness of who gets recognized and who doesn’t can sometimes seem overwhelming.

I’ve been offered some summer work that I love and enjoy with amazing people, but I know it will take time away from my family and writing. There is an inner voice tugging at me that says, “Protect your time this summer and write” but another voice that says, “don’t miss this opportunity, it may never come again.”

I feel pulled in many directions.

I recently received an email saying I’m being considered for a job in academia that feels like a new adventure, a new opportunity, but it is far away from our families and friends. While it is exciting to be considered for the position, I am only being considered and it feels very uneasy not to know what will be happening next.

My teenage son is about to graduate from high school. This is supposed to be a joyous time, but today I found out that someone from his class, a young woman who was supposed to graduate with them this week, died suddenly. She was ill, fell into a coma and died five days later.

This is my son’s first real loss of a person close to him. He wrote a very moving tribute to this young woman on his own blog. I’m sad for the loss of his friend, but I’m also sad because he has now moved into the world of those of us who have lost someone close to us and realize that our time must come, too, someday. Prior to this, I’m sure he felt invincible. Now that invincibility is gone. He is no longer the little boy I remember and he is not yet the man he is to become.

All of these thoughts have been floating around in my brain all day as I worked with my hands, sweating and dirty, at a job that I had to take to pay the bills. When I finally got home and showered, curled up on the sofa and then listened to this excerpt, I cried.

If you haven’t yet, listen to the Soundcloud excerpt from Dani Shaprio’s Still Writing as read by Dani Millman. Then pick up her book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, (one of 2013’s best books on creative writing) you’ll be glad you did.

I’ll end this post with a quote Dani uses in her book. It’s Donald Barthelme. “Endings are elusive. Middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, begin, begin!”

Begin! Stories are the Wildest Things.

Original source: Brainpickings.org

Write a Novel in 30 Days – FICTION UNBOXED (Days 2 & 3)

Fiction Unboxed Day Three

So the guys, Sean Platt and Jounny B. Truant, are “steaming” along with their ideas for their 30 day novel and the process is FASCINATING. Getting to sit on their story meetings has given me some valuable insights into a working method for collaborators that could really help writers pump out the kind of volume the guys have been pumping out.

For the first three days they threw around a lot of different ideas based on the Steampunk genre. They’ve already written and discarded tons of words.

They worked hard to come up with a world for the characters to live in and a story line that they would both be excited to keep exploring. This process is difficult enough when you are working in private, but adding the stressful element of everyone watching has to be affecting the guys in some way. They do discuss how strange it is and how aware they are that people are watching, even incorporating it into the story idea. It will be interesting to hear them talk more about this as they move forward.

They’ve also been posting their pages. As of today we’ve seen emails, beats, and a first draft of Chapter One. You can check out where they are in the process by visiting FICTION UNBOXED. There are some FREE levels you can still take part in.

Here are a few take-aways from the past few days:

Discipline is key to getting this accomplished, what the guys call “ass in chair” time. Agreed.

When talking about their protagonist Johnny B. Truant said, “You can’t desire something you don’t want and you can’t want something if it’s too easy to get.” I think that’s really good advice for creating a character your readers want to follow. Give them something they want more than anything else and make it REALLY hard for them to get.

While trying to figure out the beats, the guys discussed how they wanted to find the story that is true to them. They used a great term while describing themselves – genre agnostic – and said that no matter the genre, “our voice is what matters.”

As they work, there is not a lot of changing the other person’s ideas by saying “how about this instead.” What they do is ask a lot of questions about WHY the world works or doesn’t work as they are creating it. They also say, “I like that ” a lot and then riff off of the given circumstances they are creating for the characters to live into. You can see why they are a great team by how they communicate their ideas to each other.

At one point Sean Platt says he talks to his wife, Cindy, about the ideas and immediately feels like he can expand on it, this happens for me as well. It seems that if you start telling the story to someone else and get caught up in it yourself, that can be a really good sign that you are headed in the right direction.

They continue to spin the story out as they go along and keep comparing it to other stories and tropes, mixing and mashing them up into new combinations. “Good writers borrow, great writers steal!” (this quote and versions of it is attributed to various people: Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Elliot, Austin Kleon even Steve Jobs)

They keep talking about what they like, “I like this, I love this, I want to get that” and they laugh and curse and make fun of their own ideas and get excited about them as well. It’s strange to watch because it is very similar to the process that goes on in my head.

The last quote for the day that I’d like to leave you with is “Our hero has this itch that she can’t scratch for her entire life.”

This is brilliant because if we build characters that have something they have a deep longing to accomplish or solve or acquire, we as an audience will want to go on the journey with them.

This experience is just like that, too.

The guys have a deep longing, or itch, to get this book done in 30 days and we are following along on their journey fascinated by how difficult it is and wanting to know what their process is and if they are going to accomplish it, even though we know they will (but do we?). We started with nothing and by the end of this journey we will have watched them build a whole new world with all of its bumps and bruises and false starts and unknowns. In some way, watching them do it, can give us permission to do it too.

You can get insights and inspiration like this to help you on your writer’s journey straight to your inbox by signing up to be a Stories are the Wildest Things Insider. Just click on the Become an Insider menu link or sign-up HERE.

Write a Novel in 30 Days – FICTION UNBOXED

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Fiction Unboxed, from the guys at Self-Publishing Podcast, has started and it’s very exciting to participate in this “never-been-done-before” online event. I put that in quotes because I think that most everything has been done before, but that brilliance comes when people combine things that have been done before in new ways. This is a great new combination that is generating a lot of creative energy and excitement in the self-publishing world.

Over the next 30 days the guys are opening up their writing process to those who invested in the project on Kickstarter. I kicked in at a higher level than I normally have for other projects because the guys are funny, dedicated storytellers that believe we can change the world with a story.

As usual, the guys are giddy and unfocused at first, but after a short segment of rambling they get down to the nitty-gritty of world building for this 30 day book. If you know their podcasts, Self Publishing Podcast and Better Off Undead, this style of working will be familiar to you. If you are just coming is as a supporter of the project, it might be a little distracting at first. Hang in there, though, because what happens is a fun and truthful way of approaching story building.

The world they are describing sounds really fascinating and watching the guys “spit ball” and toss ideas around is enlightening. They bring up their favorite movies, books and television tropes to create their new world. As they describe their ideas, they go off on side tangents, double back on themselves, joke around and as Dave says, “It’s an awesome thing.”

It’s like a question and answer session with their own imaginations and each of the guys contribute in different ways. Sean has logorrhea and is the cheerleader. He drives the conversations forward and wrangles the random tangents and ideas into some kind of cohesive whole. Johnny B. Truant is the calculating mind, adding and subtracting the value of each idea and how he can use it to get the first draft on the page. Dave is the dark and stormy naysayer who quietly drives the story into the shadows so that Sean and Johnny can steer it back into the light.

I think it’s extremely helpful to see them work in this way. My takeaway (to use a business term) is that you have to pump out a LOT of ideas and then ask yourself questions about how these ideas will work when you begin telling the story within the world.

If you haven’t been listening to the Self-Publishing Podcast, check them out. As Sean says, “You can tackle any creative idea if your how and your why are good enough…it’s stupid and/or impossible but we believe anyway.”

This blog, my current MG paranormal adventure novel, and several other projects I’m working on now are because of these guys and their inspiration (and the ongoing encouragement of my four-year-old and lovely wife).

Thanks guys!

I’m looking forward to seeing where their process takes them and, as a result, takes me as well.

I’ll be posting about Fiction Unboxed and my experiences for the next 30 days as well. Please follow and like the blog to keep updated.

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