Category Archives: Inspiration

January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan

write start badgeNew year, fresh start. After yesterday’s reflection (2013 Day One: Reflections, Goals and a Challenge), it’s time to get to work.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the JanPlan challenge being hosted by writer Christa Desir. Another writing friend, the lovely Khara House, is hosting a challenge for improving your blog or website. (Keep reading – links to both are below.)

As I planned to tackle each of these as well as the to-do list so many of us start the year with, I found that while Christa challenges that we finish one thing and Khara proposes that we improve one thing, I also need to start a major project this month (eek – a literary magazine due by April).  I want to do both Christa and Khara’s challenges but my month was forming into its own January challenge: focusing on one approach for each week of the month.

If you would like to join in, my January Write Start Challenge looks like this:

Each week — starting tomorrow — I’ll post a kick-off challenge, sharing what I will be tackling that week as well as any articles, challenges or steps that will help motivate your own project.

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Here is an overview:

  1. Isn’t it true that Week One of a new year includes finishing old business?  If you have time off for the holidays, maybe you can finish an incomplete story. Maybe there’s an unfinished goal from 2012. TOMORROW will feature the kick-off post for this challenge, but you can get a head-start by checking out Christa Desir’s JanPlan 2013 challenge here.
  2. In Week Two, I will begin a new semester — and production of the literary magazine for my students. New starts involve identifying key steps, scheduling meetings with key players, and setting deadlines. Sad but true, new starts involve a little fear, so we can jointly take a deep breath and plunge in.  While I dedicate the week to this new start, no project happens in a vacuum, and I’ll address how to balance a new start with the “finishing” and “improving” of ongoing projects. (Launch for Week 2 here)
  3. In Week Three, I will focus on improving one aspect of my writing business. Depending on where I am at that point, it will either be submissions or my blog.  **See the note below about Khara House’s challenge , if you think you might want to improve your blog this month.  
  4. Week Four will be the wild-card, to evaluate where you stand and plan goals for the coming months. This might include aspects of all three of the prior weeks, as new beginnings are planned, progress is evaluated for more improvement, and more projects are targeted for finishing. It will be a time to reflect on what is going well and organize for success.

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How to Get Started:

To join in at any time during the month:

  • Jump in with a comment below this post or any later posts in the month.
  • Post your own goals on your website.  Include a link to this post (and links to Christa or Khara’s posts if your goal relates to their challenge). Grab the badge above, if you want to be festive!
  • Come back and share a link to your post here so other readers can see how your January Challenge is going! 

Most of my readers are writers of some sort, but everyone’s goals are welcome — whether finishing painting that living room (a-hem) or starting an acting class or… What will you be up to this month?

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Our Lost Jungle "I <3 My Blog" challenge

Our Lost Jungle Challenge

Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge

If the one thing you want to improve this month will be your blog, I do recommend that you join Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge and participate throughout the month. Khara is a fellow member of Wordsmith Studios, a great group of writers, and I can assure that she will host a lively, informative and supportive challenge throughout the month.  She begins the challenge today by tackling editorial calendars — find it at Our Lost Jungle here or join the Facebook “I ♥ My Blog” event here.

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Filed under Inspiration, January Challenge, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother, Writing Prompt

Novel Revisions — Danger: Book May Bite

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Writing is a timid thing – right?

Delicately crafted with feathered pens by a dainty woman unused to the outdoors. Cough, sputter. Fantasize.

No fear. No wild things lurking. All purple ink and soft whispers.

She’s being ironic, the guard mutters as the wild thing rattles its cage. Writers do that, he nods, proud of the knowledge – and hoping, soon, such writer will step out of the shadows and tame this unwieldy thing, growing daily, hourly as it waits release.

The beast itself. Braced to resist domestication, eyes glaring in resistance against such things as braiding of manes, tying of ribbons in its tail.

I’m a wild thing, it purrs, snarls, gnashing a bone. I’ll be ridden, perhaps. But not a trot. Not an amble. Climb aboard, if you dare, and gallop raw across the veldt.

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Today’s post is provoked by Wordsmith Studio’s weekly Take A Picture! photo challenge — this week, the theme is “signs.”

While with my sons at Harry Potter World at Universal, I saw this sign above the caged Monster Book behind Olivander’s wand shop and couldn’t help feel it summarized my summer: taming my novel from first complete draft through second and third revisions.

Danger: book may bite.

My mother once questioned why a tiger shark lurks just out of view in the background photo on my website and I had to say it represents the danger I sometimes feel in writing. I love the rush of creation, yet so much is at risk — pride, talent, loss of that perfect image just at the tips of your reach. Novel drafts are not docile as rabbits and kittens, but bull sharks, boa constrictors, pacing tigers — unwieldy things within our reach, yet with a life of their own.

Or at least, for the sake of today’s photo challenge, this is nod to the days they feel that way!

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October Writing Challenge 2: Reflections on Writing Character & Place

As mentioned in an earlier post, October is host to a couple interesting writing challenges from fellow bloggers.  Today’s post gathers reflections from Days 2-5 of Herding the Dragon’s 30-day challenge.

Visit my other “challenge” posts this month:

October Challenge 1: Submit-O-Rama & Herding the Dragon Fiction challenge

October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation
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Day 2)  How do you come up with names for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)? 

Some time back, we had a stray cat move in and dump a litter of kittens on us. Between that and my sons’ normal pets, I’ve gotten good at naming animals (Lilybird, Twinkle, Wolfie, Coco, Storm, Attaluna…). Same goes for children.  My mother tells me to stick with cats and hamsters, since I could end up with a half dozen kids to use up the names in waiting.  But I don’t always love naming characters.

Workshopping the opening pages of Wake in May, one of the key questions Ann Hood asked was if it was intentional that I kept referring to the two characters in the scene as “the mother” and “the son.”  Yeah, not altogether.  I forgot that I’d never added their names in.  I’d originally written the scene not knowing what I’d call them.  Wake isn’t my only work that was written almost entirely with the characters being called by who they are (the doctor, the man, the boy).

With some manuscripts, I identify a character quickly with the sound of a name. In Breathing Water, the mama was Clara from the first lines that ever came out. Equally, her daughter was undoubtedly Julia. Even more fun, most of the side characters stole names from people in my life as I wrote the story. About the lives of certain Cuban immigrants at a point of powerful emotion over the exodus from the island, I was continually affected by stories of friends around me, eager to share their family’s experience. Haydee was the bailiff in the office of the judge next to mine; Raul was named after a man I admired; Armando after an attorney who fled Cuba in 1957 then ended up in my LSAT class in 1992, finally trying to have his law license made official in the US.

But I’ve not been so quick with naming in other manuscripts.

I’m very picky that names 1) fit and 2) disappear.  I never want them to be a distraction.

Currently, the son in Wake is named Liam after my own son, only because I knew his mother would name him something Irish but I didn’t need the name so Irish it was dancing a jig. That would have been out of character for her. In fact, he’ll probably get renamed.  His mother is Carinne.  For her, I needed a name that was feminine and not common, yet not too fussy, either.  I didn’t want a flawless heroine.  Michael Roonan is the protagonist — a man questionably involved in paramilitary activities in Ireland. His first name was chosen to disappear. In choosing the last name, I’ve done research to be sure that no real person exists with a similar name, to avoid any suggestion he was based on fact.

As for names of places, I have maps of India, Cuba (including airspace maps) and Ireland hanging on my office walls from targeting settings.  In BW, I use the actual names for most places (in Virginia, Miami and Cuba), down to street names and neighborhoods.  The Miami house is based on a real house we used to stay in along the Miami River.  In other stories and novel drafts in the US, India and Ireland, I sometimes use real place names, but just as often use amalgams to invent towns, streets, house/cottage names, estate names, lakes and rivers. These are consistent with real places, but allow me to set scenes in anonymity. I invent names when detachment from reality serves the story, or to avoid appearing to make a statement about an actual place.  In most cases, I’ll follow naming conventions from the area this imaginary story would be set, but I have fun slipping in names from my family history or something odd my sons said to create the name. In another post, I mentioned how the source of the name of Crooked Moon Bay in one story was taken from how my son described the moon one night.

Day 3)  Tell us about one of your first stories/characters. 

I had a short story earn Honorable Mention in the Writers at Work fiction fellowship years ago, that was maybe the second story I’d written. I’d call it cringe-worthy now — I can’t help thinking it was full of cliches I didn’t know were cliche — but I’m still in love with certain lines about the musician that bring about affection I had for a coworker the year I wrote it. The character is a computer tech and hardworking father, but teaches guitar lessons at night. It comes out that he’d once been the real thing: he toured with the Cashmere Junglelords. Now he was picking up odd gigs at the Wild Ginger lounge, swearing each time would be his last night teaching the macarena. It wouldn’t make the list of stories I would include in a collection now, but it had its moments and readily takes me back to that time in my life.

Day 4)  By age, who is your youngest character? Oldest? How about “youngest” and “oldest” in terms of when you created them?

In Wake, Liam is about four in the opening scene, and appears in other scenes as a toddler. His innocent, clean slate is key to the story’s external conflict colliding with his father’s inner conflict.  For the adults in the story, there is the question whether anyone will make it to be old, which is perhaps fitting in the latent question whether Northern Ireland’s peace will hold.

In Breathing Water, Julia is in her late teens/early twenties at the opening, with memories recurring from when she lost her parents when she was six.  Her mother is in her fifties, with memories going back throughout her childhood in Cuba.  It is an “older” story than Wake, as it hinges on events that occurred in Cuba in the 50s, now coming to light in the 1990s.  It currently has the oldest timeframe of my drafts, but I have bones of a novel set in World War II and another set in 1817.

Generally, I’ve always started out with adult characters — although my interest in young adult fiction may take one work in that direction.

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What about your characters or naming conventions? What ideas do Herding the Dragon’s questions bring to mind for you about your writing?

Leave link to your blog in the comments below, if you join in on the challenge.

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From my Parenting Blog: Parenting Gets Existential

I’ve never loved candy-stripe carnations as much as these that my sons gave to me to celebrate the end of our school year. (That great vase is a bar glass that makes me crave a trip back to Mama Kwan’s bar in Kill Devil Hills, NC.) c Elissa Field

Because it is summer, and because summer has me of the mind of young children, free for long days of unscheduled abandon, today seemed a good day to share an essay I posted originally on my old parenting blog. As I enjoy long days with my boys, I was reminded of this one day with them that so captures how non-writing days serve as inspiration.

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I was the first one pregnant in our generation, on either side of our family.  From those first weeks of confessing it, I ran the steep hill of all the things I would learn about what it took to parent.  Diapers, pack and plays, how to know if it’s sick.  And then they grow up a little.

You work on which vacuum has large enough bore to suck up Cheerios without clogging, teaching yourself to say sugar! instead of shit, and truisms like “hands are not for hitting.”

Mysteriously, I discovered I absolutely love parenting.

Not the least of which is the way its existential challenges never cease to amaze.

This month’s challenge: answering the question, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

My five-year-old said, “It means ‘an old man’.”

His eight-year-old brother corrected him:  “No, it’s a teenager with long hair…  and funny clothes… and…”  He accurately described Shaggy, from Scooby Do, then faltered, breaking down to ask, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

And here parenting becomes existential – because even in their little boy way, they were grasping at something they could not articulate but could sense.  They got that there was some socio-political, socio-historical implication behind the meaning.  That it signified something they did not understand for there to be a hippie in their cartoon.

I begin to answer, but it’s the ubiquitous sound of one hand clapping.  Any explanation of what a hippie is means nothing without understanding the context of the culture they were rebelling against.  In our current environment where the two long-haired boys on my sons’ baseball teams are the sons of fashionista mamas, not grunge, how can they get what a statement it was for a guy to let his hair and beard grow shaggy in an era where hair didn’t touch one’s collar?  Where men and women still wore hats in public, and my grandmother and even my mother still carried spotless white gloves?   Our kids know hippie images as neon flowers on paper cups and napkins at the party store, or the peace signs in rhinestones on the neighbor’s jeans, without seeing them as re-imagined icons of what was once a radical attempt to move toward a gentler, more natural way of being, at a time of corporatization and war.  How do you explain the experience that I remember intangibly as paper butterflies on my young aunt’s wall, fanning out above her black and white poster of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water”?

In attempting to find simple words to explain it, my understanding grows expansive in memory of history lessons and personal experience growing up in the 70s, touched with hindsight and the newer context of the world we have become since then.  I was not a hippie or flower child or child of hippies; my parents were primly republican.  As a child, I associated hippies with broken bottles on the pavement at our playground.  Yet here I am, forty, riding along in my SUV with little boys rattling about in the back (who are fascinated we did not have to wear seatbelts as kids), and feeling a wan tenderness in memory of avocado kitchen appliances and trying to remember what the whole affection for rainbows was about.

My world becomes larger with children.  Not just because more square-footage is required to be able to move around highchairs and train tables and strewn Legos, but because the whole expanse of the universe is new again in their eyes.

Soil that clearly belongs nowhere but between the roots of the hedges and flowers outside is now meant to be dug up, spread apart, carried about and stored in little containers that just would not have occurred to you as meant for analyzing dirt.  That is, not until you have a playdate with brightly dressed, neat little girls who open the little play kitchen and find it caked with dried spattered mud and your son smiles and explains it to her – proudly pointing out how when he shook the soil in a jar with water, the mulch, peat and sand separated into layers, creating a distinct grey, tan and brown rainbow that he’d just been dying to show someone.  He discovered density, you think with pride, at the same time you apologetically wash away the filth and reassure the little girls that there are clean toys here somewhere.

Life is a mystery.  Full of dark turns and surprises and joys and tragedies and things so beautiful and amazing.  You go on vacation and see a sunset or painting or giant gorge in the earth so startlingly beautiful that you honestly could not have borne seeing it without someone meaningful beside you to touch and say, “Look at that!”

Children find this not only on vacation, but in the mundane, the sagging days of life that might otherwise be only about when to fit in grocery shopping and whether a successful day at work was enough to qualify for bonus and if you will be able to sleep soundly tonight.

“Look!” they say, all the time.  “What is that?  Look!”  They pick out the plainest flower at the market and fall in love.  You find rocks in the bottom of your purse, a wilted  feather left for you beside your bed, stray bits of hardware clanking in your dryer.

And they take what we have known always in our lives – something as irrelevant and silly as a hippie – and hand us a whole cosmos of depth and meaning to wrestle with.

“What is a hippie?” I repeated, ready to say something about how people sometimes choose their clothes to express their feelings about the world, or maybe share something about what it was like to be a child in the 70s, or how the times then were or weren’t like our times now.

But they were laughing at something.

Just at the point they had me thoroughly wrapped up in the riddle of it, the boys moved on.

In the same effortless way they expand our lives with depth and complexity, they model for us simplicity.  My boys decided, simply, that “hippie” will be their favorite new word for anything weird… whether or not they really get what it means.

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Related Posts:

More on finding inspiration when least expected: Writing Life: Today’s Job – Non-writing Days

Reading this summer, including with my boys: Summer Reading List 2012

Another post on challenging conversations with kids: Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Are you a writing parent? Where do you find inspiration or challenge in balancing family with work?

 

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Enjoy your summer day, all!

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Filed under Culture + World, Inspiration, Setting Place Roots, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Remembering Ray Bradbury

Falling jet trails & rocket boosters, lit by sunset, after Discovery launch 3-15-09. copyright Elissa Field

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”  – Ray Bradbury

To Ray Bradbury, I say thank you. Reading Martian Chronicles in Mrs. Ruebens’ sophomore English class in high school, I learned what it was to capture the ethereal without losing sight of intellect, of logic. You captured dream state, with your words. You captured imagination.

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Writing Life: A Zen Prompt for Writing Past Blocks

My car’s view while I’m in a fiction workshop today (Freedom Tower, overlooking Biscayne Bay, Miami)

I wasn’t planning to post today, as I have about an hour to get ready to head to Miami for the last day of a writing workshop I’m doing with Ann Hood, on beginnings.  It has been a fabulous workshop, astounding in the depth of advice Ann has offered, and I’ll be putting together posts about this in the coming week.

Although I’m in a rush this morning, in responding to reader comments about managing writing time on my last post (What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here & 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time), I was struck by Eden’s comment:

“As my husband always says, ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.'”

For many writers who are getting started, or those beginning to have successes but still balancing day-jobs, family and other priorities with their writing goals, simply doing something is at the heart of making any progress.

Do something, write something – even if it’s wrong. Claim the time, get something done.

Two other commenters on the same post spoke of the times they finally have the time, but not the inspiration or (heaven forbid) forgot what they had been planning to sit and write.  This made me think of advice I read in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books (either Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life).

Common writing advice is to write every day and, when writing, to keep the pen or keyboard moving.  As Eden’s husband encouraged, do something.  Write something.  It is also common advice to not be afraid to write something bad, or at least not good.  Frequently I hear writers say, there’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration.  You write anyway.  Write something, even if it is wrong.

What is different in Natalie Goldberg’s advice is her use of Zen principles, and the concept of positive and negative space.  Writers waiting to write the right thing, the inspired thing, insist on that positive space: the thing they want pictured, described, acted out.  Writing negative space is to acknowledge the non-thing.  To write what is not there, not happening, not inspired, not the focus of the story.

Goldberg offered this daily prompt, as a way to get writers past fear of the blank page.  When you don’t know what you want to write, then start by finishing the sentence, “I’m not going to write about…”

Try it.  I know it is strange, but it is oddly freeing.  The first time I did it, I remember the first line that came out was, “I’m not going to write about the blinds.”  How mundane.  But the riff that followed (I’m not going to write about the cat quacking at my feet, I’m not going to write about the growl of the trash truck and silence of the trees, with no wind.  I’m not going to write about the main character who is stuck sitting in that cafe…) revealed entire reams of detail and even a scene I hadn’t thought of before.

It’s an odd little practice, but sometimes flips energy just enough to loosen your voice.

There are two ways to use this activity.

1)  In the example above, I wasn’t even trying to go head-on at writing something I would use in existing work.  It might only shake loose distractions, quiet a preoccupied mind, and mess up that pristine white page enough to get past writers block for the moment.  It might free you enough to move on with more effective writing for the day, or might just be an activity in creative practice, maybe percolating some interesting details that might at some point be useful, or maybe just dormant or even discarded journal entry.

2)  Where Goldberg’s Zen approaches have been more meaningful to me, is her entire approach of thinking of negative space can be liberating and eye-opening in imagining story.  So often we are focused on inventing what is happening in the story, but what about what is not happening?  We focus on our main character’s experience, but what did those same scenes look like from a fringe character’s point of view?  Generally speaking, when we take our focus off the main attraction and take in the negative space, we understand (and can write) the story more fully.  We begin to notice the blank space around the story we wrote, and realize what might have been happening in the world around our character.  New “what if’s” begin to come to mind.  In using this practice, I’ve written scenes from another character’s perspective, which might lead to more insightful dialogue.  I’ve realized entire scenes or tensions, or outcomes of the conflict that hadn’t otherwise occurred to me.

That said, this girl needs to get in motion or I’ll miss Ann Hood’s reading during lunch today.  Since I won’t take time to edit this post as carefully as usual, do let me know in the comments I’ve left it unclear — or let me know if resonates with you.  Have a great day!

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Update 10/8/12: I have to share with you all a link to this beautiful post by fellow Florida writer, Kelly Turnbull, from her blog Parsley and Pumpkins on “writing what you don’t see”: Change with Color.

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Photos from India + Bangladesh

photo varanasi ghats india akashOne of the novel projects I’ve had on hold while finishing revisions on the current work-in-progress has the fairytale mix of tragedy blended with magical euphoria that southeast Asia stirs in me.

In writing, we are told to suspend disbelief — to write images, characters, events with such insistence that a reader could not help but follow faithfully, no matter how reality might beg otherwise.

For me, India encapsulates this mantra, as it presents the impossible with the frank challenge of existence: You see me as I am, so I must be possible.

This magical duality — of fairytale beauty contrasting physical world impossibility — is often breathtaking in the photography of GMB Akash of Bangladesh.  Above, fires rise with the paradox of flames growing out of what they devour, as a saddhu skirts the foregrounds of funeral pyres along the ghats at Varanasi.

Below, our real-world brain acknowledges the third-world strife of precariously hung electrical wires, of the stairwell’s switchback between the crowded box of shared living space — yet the glow of color in the dark of night, captured by Akash’s lens become the loveliest of colored lanterns.

India photo Delhi AkashAs with fairytales, Akash’s photography serves as more than entertainment. Many of his most beautifully artistic, even idyllic shots, as the one below, were intended as cautionary tale. Beginning in 2006, Akash began photographing riders on the railways of Bangladesh to bring attention to the risks endured by stowaways, collected in his portfolio, “Nothing to Hold On To.”

Railway Bangladesh photo Akash

Below, one has the sense of a child adventuring in a fantastical world — perhaps Frodo in Lord of the Rings — yet it is the industry of a child foraging amid the rising gulls and mists of the dump.

picture india dump child

Other striking portfolios bring attention to “Vigilantes in Pink” — women of central India who have taken to wearing shocking pink saris in stubborn refusal to live in fear of corruption, violence and other abuses against women.

Womens rights India vigilantes in pink akash

Better than any workshop lecture could, certain photographs, certain places in our world teach me what it means to suspend one’s disbelief. There is magic in the realism of these images, and I applaud GMB Akash’s talents.

Click through for more stunning photography on his site, or read his most recent blog, “God Strangled me with his own hands” for example of another photo-dialogue he has raised for challenged communities.

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