blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Doing the thing

microphone-boy_Free-Photos
Free-Photos via pixabay

Keep writing. The world needs your story.
Max Kirin

 

What do you do when nothing seems worth doing?

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2018/04/03/do-the-thing-an-faq-about-doing-the-thing/

I’m a big fan of Chuck Wendig and read his emails every week as he photographs tiny things, rants about politics, and talks writing, in very colourful words. In the post above he tackles the deep despair that can overcome you when the wanton f*ckery of the world seems too much to bear. (his phrase, not mine)

Creatives, especially at the early stages when it’s hard slog for little reward, can be tempted to give up. What’s the point we say, crying into our gin/ice cream tub/family pack of snacks? Nobody’s listening, it’s no good anyhow, the world is going to hell in a handcart and I’m powerless to stop it. My little story/song/picture/recipe/whatever is pretty useless as ammunition in this fight.

Chuck says, just do it anyway.

There’s someone out there for whom your thing is exactly what they need, right now. That could be entertainment, distraction, tools to do a job or navigate a heartbreak. They might see themselves in your thing and be inspired.

I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a comment saying she had wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life, and that she felt like it was her story on the screen.

Emotional connection transcends time, gender, place. There is no better feeling for an author than knowing your words touched a chord with a real person.

You never know what people will take away from your work. Once it’s out there, it doesn’t belong to just you any more. Like a newly minted adult, it must take on the world on its own merits and find its place.

So enjoy Chuck’s take on writing, and keep creating. Don’t deprive the world of what you have to say, just because you got discouraged. Take a break and come back stronger. The world is awful, and it’s also amazing.
Be part of the amazing.

 

blog, writing process

Exposing the real you

hiding girl hand_Pexels
pexels

 

I was afraid to publish my short story.

Not because it was risqué or difficult. I felt it was a great piece; honest and true. And that was the problem. It was too honest, too raw, and reading it over felt like dissecting a part of my heart and leaving it open for anyone to see.

This piece was not meant to be confessional. I wrote it for a competition, and I missed the deadline. As we all do, I drew on experience as well as imagination to create my world. Somehow what was normally hidden sneaked past my filters and on to the (virtual) page .

It sat on my hard drive for a while.

I considered, and rejected, the idea of a pseudonym.

How could I send this off to be judged, but hesitate to post it on my own media?

The difference was anonymity.

It was too close to uncomfortable truths. I usually bury those truths within the lie of fiction, but here they were all too visible. I hesitated to expose so much tender flesh.

Many writers know this feeling. What if someone who knows me reads it?

I wanted my stories to be strong. But I didn’t want to have to write them with my own blood.

I wrote about this on my blog while trying to find my courage.

Feel the fear

One day, heart pounding and mouth dry, I attached the story to a competition entry and pressed send. I felt sick.

Months later, heart pounding and mouth dry, I read that prize-winning story to an audience of writers. Many told me how they had been drawn in by the emotions portrayed.

The dilemma we face as artists is the need to be authentic, to bleed onto the page, while retaining  our emotional integrity. Deep connection with a story is visceral recognition, a punch in the gut that says yes more eloquently than any words could. And it is the drop of our blood, the moment of vulnerability, that makes the moment true.

So now, months and many thousands of words later, I am braver with weaving my true experiences and emotions into my stories. And  when readers message me to say yes, I felt that too, there is no better reward.

Be brave

I don’t suggest you should spill every secret on the page. But some experiences have lessons worth sharing. Show us a glimpse of your soul, show us what it is to be human.

When you hesitate because it feels too personal, write it.
When you pause because it’s still a little raw, write it.
When your heart pounds at the sight of those true words, write it.

Someone needs to read your words and feel understood.

blog, writing process

Visual Thesaurus – mapping words beautifully

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 12.18.29

Do you love words? Do you sometimes struggle to find the exact word to convey your meaning, whether for poetry or prose? Here’s help, and it’s beautiful.

The Visual Thesaurus is one of my favourite tools. It functions like a mind map for words, linking words, meanings, synonyms and sometimes antonyms. The interface is elegant and clean, and it blossoms on the screen like a flower.

Like fire, but not

For example, take ‘fire’. Typing this into the search bar brings up the animated map above. It shows different synonyms for fire, colour coded by verb, adjective and noun. When you hover over each node, a definition appears with example sentences containing that word. If you click on any word, a second map appears, and you can navigate back and forth until you find the precise word you need.

At the centre above you can see the word ‘hire’ which is the opposite of one sense of fire. This is useful when you can’t quite remember the word you need. The brain works in strange ways, and Visual Thesaurus allows us to approach the needed word in reverse.

Another word for burn?

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 12.19.37

Clicking on ‘burn’ brings up this map, which is also fully interactive. You could follow any word, generating maps which vary in the number of nodes, but always give new ideas.

You can choose to hear the central word spoken in US or UK English. It is possible to print your result for offline use. The site has many other links and word games, enough to keep logophiles happily scrolling for hours.

The cost is very reasonable too: $2.95 monthly or $19.95 annually. You can try it free for fourteen days.

I love the infuriating, sprawling, mongrel language that is English. I love its willingness to assimilate words from other languages, giving so many shades of meaning that it is usually possible to find that elusive nuance that I’m seeking. That breadth can outsmart a tired brain which knows that fire is sorta, kinda right but not quite.

But what about other languages?

Fear not, VT has you covered. Dutch, French, German, Italian and Spanish are also included. You can choose to search one or more languages. Here is the map for ‘fire’ showing UK English plus French. Every word is fully searchable.

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 13.34.52

How cool is that?

This tool allows much greater variety in description. It’s satisfying to write about fire without using the word. This tool gives you the alternatives you need, in a comprehensive, informative, visually appealing format. You’re sure to expand your vocabulary if you spend some time with this thesaurus, whether native English speaker or not.

And it’s fun to use! We all need more fun in our lives.

Give Visual Thesaurus a try now, and tell me what you think.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Artist, fireman, traveller; 2017 in books

books_congerdesign
congerdesign via pixabay

In 2017 I kept a simple writing diary to track my progress, as described in my earlier post Footprints in the snow . In it I recorded stories written, blogs posted, submissions made, and pieces published. Each entry got a colour coded spot. Published pieces got a gold star, because it’s important to celebrate success.

It was the first year using my Very Easy Tracking System™ and I’d call it a success. I kept it up for the whole year and it was motivating to look back and see what I’d achieved. Together with teeny tiny goals, I managed to write every week as well as posting here. For two months I wrote every day, but a weekly goal fitted better with life.

I recorded the books I read

I am a reader and writer of fiction above all, but not exclusively. So I read some books about creativity, because I like to be meta. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp spoke to consistent practice and careful preparation as the foundations of creativity. Tharp’s life is one of success through dedicated hard work.

Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon illuminated a new way of thinking about creating, exhorting us to do the work we want to see done and to be boring in order to get it done. His ten rules make sense. My favourite? Creativity is subtraction. So make it, then take some away. The work will always be better for thoughtful editing.

Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth was a totally different kind of book. For a lover of language, it is a fascinating meander through the history of words, and the way in which the English language enlarges, stretches, twists and bends to bring us the words and phrases we use today. And it’s funny too.

In fiction I first watched the film and then read The Martian by Andy Weir. Both were enjoyable, and I appreciated the firm grounding in real science, leavened by an engaging protagonist. The stakes are high from the very first page, literally life or death. Humour contrasted with the serious work of survival against the odds by methodical problem solving.

Somehow despite being a confirmed Ray Bradbury fan, I’d never read Fahrenheit 451. The writing style is a little dated, but the ideas remain scarily prescient. Video walls, TV characters that feel more real than actual relatives, the coarsening of societal attitudes and loss of true emotion all ring sadly true, sixty-five years after it was published.

But the book that made me think, that stayed with me long after I finished, was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. A Pulitzer Prize winner made into a film would not be a natural first choice for me, as I find most prize winning novels are dull duty reads that few people actually finish. This story is very simple. A nameless man and his young son walk through American landscapes burned by an unknown disaster to reach the coast.

Their world is carefully evoked; the despair, danger and deadness of a nuclear winter where no sun shines and nothing grows. The question is, when we have lost everything, what keeps us moving? Why should we live, how should we live? Despite the bleakness of the setting, this book has at its centre a message of hope. The writer achieves a lyricism not usually associated with post-apocalyptic settings, avoiding sentimentality with his spare prose.

I read more books of course, and the TBR pile grows daily. But The Road was the number one for me last year.

Give it a try

Track your reading this year, and think about what you take from each book. Jot a few notes about it in your diary or journal. It may be only one idea, but it might be just what you need to move forward on your own creative journey.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story, writing process

Haven

a 100 word drabble on ‘the comfort of strangers’

cottage-seaside_Free-Photos
Free-Photos via pixabay (edited)

A fierce storm rolled in as I scattered John’s ashes. No chance of a ferry back to the mainland. I sat in the empty terminal building, truly alone.

A kindly old woman approached me. “Might I offer ye a bed for the night?”
I followed her home, hiding my grateful tears. Sleep came easier than I expected.

The morning dawned clear as she waved goodbye. But when I described her to the Ferrymaster, he looked baffled.

“You’re mistaken surely. Morag died twenty years ago, and Cameron’s Cottage has been empty since.”

My blood ran cold. My name is Margaret Cameron.

Commentary

This piece was written in collaboration with Gordon Adams during a meeting of Northants Writers’ Ink. This writing group meets regularly and collaborative writing is always an enjoyable event. This time we were tasked to come up with a drabble of exactly one hundred words, on the comfort of strangers.

We considered a number of scenarios around chance and fleeting encounters. This story would take place in a transient environment where people come and go; waiting rooms, airports, bus stations, vending machines. Frequently these are also places where lives change in an instant, surrounded by a rushing humanity that seems not to care, taken up with its own drama. Yet, flashes of kindness do appear, sometimes when they are sorely needed.

Packing a story into such a small space is a challenge. Once we fleshed out the action, we began writing, and then cutting to shape. Like poetry, every single word must earn its place and preferably do double duty.

Writing is usually a solitary pursuit. It was a real pleasure to bounce ideas off someone who got my drift and contributed to the process too.

We had a time limit of about forty minutes, and the ticking clock also forced us to get on with it. Like so much in life, done is better than perfect! I prefer to write poetry, but this short form has a lot to recommend it.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Press pause

stop to go forward

boat-aground_HypnoArt
HypnoArt via pixabay

We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.

It’s exhausting.

Some days are not for progress. Especially for creators, some days it just won’t come. You run aground, the wind drops, the tide falls away. It’s not artists’ block, but something deeper. The well has run dry.

What does it mean, this empty feeling when the words won’t come and the eyes don’t see and there are no more songs in your head? Your Muse can’t be heard. Maybe they have fallen silent, maybe they are struggling against louder voices in your head.

At this point, you need to give up, without giving up completely.

Diagnosing the cause comes first, then action. Step away from your project and check in with yourself. Spend some time considering the possible origins. Write it down if that helps. I find pen and paper works better.

  • Body– are you hungry, tired, tense from inactivity, thirsty?

    • try this Go for a walk.
    • Drink some water rather than yet more coffee.
    • Go to bed an hour earlier for a few nights.
    • Stretch your hands and back regularly.
  • Mind – are you overcommitted, frazzled by too many demands, exhausted by conflicts in relationships?

    • try this List all your current commitments, personal and professional, consider delegating when possible.
    • Let go of perfectionism and embrace the idea of good enough. Prioritise and finish the most urgent thing on your list.
    • Start saying no. Between FOMO and the need to be liked, you risk spreading yourself too thin. Be choosy about where your energy goes.
    • Identify the people who are energy vampires, sucking the life out of you. Spend less time with them. Yes, even if they are your mother or close friend.
  • Spirit – are you deeply unhappy, profoundly lost, lacking in motivation for life itself?

  • You might need help from another if your depression and/or anxiety stands between you and what you want and need to do. I wrote here about what to do when you feel you can’t go on.
    • try this You can make a start on refilling your well by creating something different; a cake, a tidy room or garden area, a picture if you write, a poem if you draw.
    • Seek out peace in whatever way makes sense to you. You probably gave it up at some point, whether it be running, prayer, music, looking at the ocean, reading, or yoga. Schedule a half or even a whole hour. Devote the entire time to your own tranquility.
    • Go to a museum or gallery or store and enjoy looking at beautiful things. Then come home and make something small that is not connected to your main project.

Of course a week off in the Caribbean sounds like the perfect answer to the blahs. What it actually represents is time and space to do the things above. Since we mostly can’t take off whenever we need to reset our compass, what’s needed is a pause.

Just don’t stop completely.

You pause, catch your breath, and then you can go on.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Teaching is a learning experience

dahlia orange_Oldiefan
Oldiefan via pixabay

We all have chances to teach, but sometimes the opportunity is unwelcome.

Has anyone ever asked you an apparently simple question, and you found yourself unable to answer? Parents of small children are very familiar with this. It’s very tempting to fall back on platitudes or distraction to cover up the lack of an adequate response.

Examinations are formidable, even to the best prepared; for the greatest fool can ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton  

This week, I received a question about my writing process related to a story I posted on another website. It made me stop and examine my writing in a way I haven’t done before. Which lead me to remember this.

Before you can teach something, you have to understand it yourself.

Although watching an expert helps you to improve your own game, asking them to explain how they do it might not yield useful results. Because their skill is unconscious, they don’t have to think about how they hit the ball. They’re thinking about where the ball is going and where they need to be for the next shot.

Four stages to reaching the expert level

  1. You are unaware of the skill and the need for it – unconscious incompetence
  2.        You are aware of the skill and have none – conscious incompetence
  3.        You are aware of the skill and have some – conscious competence
  4.        Your have high levels of skill and no longer think about how to achieve it – unconscious competence.

Think of playing a guitar. First, you don’t know that a guitar exists or what it’s used for. Then you see a guitar but don’t know anything about it. You start learning, slowly, and making many mistakes. You practice.

You know what you want to do, but you can’t do it. Yet.

Eventually, after enough practice, your fingers know what to do to make notes. You can play new songs that only exist in your head, or sight read a song you never heard before. You are focused on outcome, not process.

A good teacher is one who can help you move from one stage to the next. Not necessarily the most gifted in their field, they still have a priceless skill. They can analyse skills and transmit that knowledge to others. And the skill of effective critique is one we could all benefit from.

As writers especially, we crave the feedback that comes from objective analysis with specific advice on moving forward. I wrote here about giving and receiving critique gracefully.

We all have opportunities to teach, and thereby to learn more about ourselves. I’m not sure if my answer helped my enquirer, but it made me think critically about my own practice. That’s the most important lesson of all.

Therefore the old trope of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” needs to be reframed. Who you speak to depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Inspiration and improvement are different activities.

And what about those who can’t do or teach? Lacking skill and insight but with plenty of envy, they become energetic armchair critics.

I bet even Michelangelo had someone saying, “Look, you missed a bit.”