Sunday, September 16, 2018

Integrating My Writing into My Physical Environment

Lake Sugema lies to the north of our campsite, blue water and blue sky and the sun rising to light the lake. Last night the stars were brilliant in the sky. Thank you, a week of rain to clear the air and my rural setting to eliminate the light pollution of the city. Even with my ignorance of constellations, I could identify the Big and Little dippers and Orion's Belt. The Milky Way was a flung haze of stars in a swath across the heavens.

My wife and I are here for five days, camping in our tiny trailer, she working from her mobile office and I writing in a variety of formats--daybook, text app, and online. I took a small hike this morning and a small nap this afternoon. I identified two varieties of oak, bur and southern red, this morning, sketched a bit with pen and colored pencils.

I've always enjoyed learning more about the world around me. I'm tired of knowing no more than "that's a tree," or maybe "that's a deciduous tree." Robert Hass's poetry book Field Guide is one of my favorites, a creative interaction with the natural world. I also love Donald Hall's Kicking the Leaves, especially the series of poems where he writes a poem for each season from the perspective of a bluff overlooking a river.

Today I saw a magnificent tree with wide branching limbs, some as huge as the trunks of lesser trees. I knew from the leaves that it was an oak. Pulling out my Peterson First Guide to Trees of North America, I discovered there are over twenty variety of oak in North America. I knew the tree wasn't one of the evergreen oak varieties, and by comparing the leaves and acorns with the book's illustrations, I determined the oak tree was a bur (mossycup) oak because of the shape of its leaves and the fringe of elongated scales (the burs) on the acorn cups. Having identified the tree, I drew a sketch of the leaves and acorn in my daybook, including coloring with my dozen Crayola pencils. Great fun! Later I identified a southern red oak, its distinguishing features the thin shape of the leaf and the shallow shape of the acorn cup. A page in my daybook was dedicated to a leaf rub from the tree, followed by a written account in the daybook of my adventure. Not exactly Lewis and Clark, but fun research culminating in a better understanding of the trees around me and a unifying of my immediate personal life with my writing life.

Now as I walk the trail and view the trees, I am aware of the many varieties of trees, the different leaf shapes and textures of the bark on the trunks. Such intellectual analysis isn't the only way to interact with the natural world, of course, but stimulating my intellect doesn't diminish my emotional appreciation or spiritual connection.

I want to see the forest and the trees. Learning the names of the trees is a gesture of respect, an act of kinship. If you fear I might now describe how I hugged the trees, fear not. I am cautious. My wife and I also identified poison ivy turning read as we move toward fall. I have to be careful. How can I type if my hands are blistered from shaking hands with our colorful cousin?

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Keeping the Writing Process Concrete

Starting out again after a hiatus from writing (which usually means less writing), I'm enjoying being able to see and touch my current day-to-day achievements. In that light, I'm continuing to write in my daybook and currently have more photos on order to paste onto pages and write about.

I want to move toward writing fiction again, so I've been thinking about how I can concretize the experience to provide me with immediate feedback. I've decided first, to use an extra flashdrive to place all the short stories I've already written in one digital place. Not only is this an incentive (hold my stories in my hand!), but it is also practical. I find that over time my writing tends to get scattered--saved in different places . . . and misplaced. A second action step I'm taking is physically printing the stories and placing them in a box. As the box fills up, I can see my progress. I was inspired to do this by the story of John Steinbeck's writing of East of Eden. When he presented the manuscript to his editor, it was in a mahogany box. I don't know if I can find a mahogany box, but I'll find something.

Right now, it's almost six in the morning, not yet dawn, and I can hear the rain falling outside. I've taken some time to write this little piece about writing, this little thought-moment about my writing life. I've done this now once a week for over a month, which I've published on this blog. Feels good.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

A Cat Has Nine Lives--How Many a Writer?

It's good to be writing again, and it's also good to know that I started up again by just "following my bliss," by writing for the joy of it. Like everyone, my life has encompassed several "lives" or phases. Throughout all the phases of my life, though, writing has been a constant. I began this current phase of my life after my first wife's passing, and my publications during this phase reflect the changes that have occurred during this time--my first wife's death, marrying again, my son growing up, job change, moving to a new home, the passing of my parents.

A major writing achievement during the last decade was the creation of a fantasy-genre universe--the Dragons of Blood and Stone universe. The fantasy novel The Stone Dragon was the first product of that vision, the story of Glimmer, a young man who dreams his magic and who must learn to control his dreams.

After publication of the novel, I later began writing short stories set in the same universe. A small ebook, Who Listened to Dragons: Three Stories, was the result of my curiosity of what else was going on in the DBS universe.

A half dozen other story ideas set in this universe--and two fully developed stories, "A Murmuration of Dragons" and "Perchance Beneath a Quince Tree" led me to the possibility of collecting the stories into a book, Stories from the Stone Dragon Inn. The last few years I haven't written much because of family obligations and also personal changes and trying new things. It occurs to me now that the smaller projects of writing short stories is a good way to move back into fiction and publishing, with five stories already written for the Dragons of Blood and Stone universe and good seed ideas already sprouted. Stories from the Stone Dragon Inn may very well be my next fiction book publication.

One enjoyable aspect of short story writing, especially flash fiction (stories less than 1,000 words), is that I can try out new styles of writing, new angles, new characterizations, and not be committing to a hundred thousand words. I published an early short story in 2010, titled "Cull," in an online magazine called Metazen, now defunct. (Ironically, the URL link now goes to a car rent agency!) I've also published two flash fiction stories not connected to the DBS universe, over the last ten years. "Spider" was my experimentation with a horror story, published in Every Day Fiction on Halloween Day, 2010. I actually got paid a dollar for that puppy. The second flash fiction story was published in a science fiction zine, 365 tomorrows, on New Year's Day, 2011. It's title is "In the Beginning," and it is a story about the genesis of our species. I seem to be hitting the holidays so far!

Two non-fiction books I've published were developed because of a friend's comment: "Tom, you should take those blog posts and turn them into a book, since they're all on the same subject." This comment was the seed idea that led in 2012 to I Write: Being and Writing, a series of essays about the writing process and consciousness.

The second non-fiction book is based on my experience providing caregiving for my parents. I left teaching abruptly in the spring of 2013 to travel to California to care for my parents (and for my brother, who was their caregiver but who had shattered his leg). I blogged about sleeping on the sofa for seven months, about reconnecting with my family again--living with them as I hadn't since I was a kid. As I wrote, I found myself writing in my mom's and dad's voices, from their perspectives as they told me the stories from their lives, about growing up and all their years together. These memoirs and essays were compiled, polished, and published (2014) as A Day Out with Mom. I'm proud of that book.

I published two books shortly after I married my second wife. Both of these books, Love Ya Like a Sister and Bare Ruined Choirs, were really about my earlier life or my "first life" (or second or third?)--with my first wife and my son, and with my life as a public school teacher.

Love Ya Like a Sister is a young adult novel I began writing during the time my first wife was dealing with cancer. It was an escape, really, a chance to write and do something creative during a very tough time, but there were long lags and gaps in the writing process, due to my responsibilities. Completed years later, after my wife had passed and I had remarried, LYLAS is a novel about neglect (even regarding parents who both work and can't help not always being at home). It's a novel about the dangers of inexperienced kids driving cars, of the dangers of sex and alcohol and drugs. It's about how so many kids luck their way through adolescence, intuitively--and it's a novel about my making it through a very tough time.

Bare Ruined Choirs is a story told in poetry of the full life of a relationship--from first-met to the final dying breath. It's a small book, but some of my best writing, and is dedicated to my first wife. I had been writing poetry for my whole life up to the death of my first wife. I realized I could select poems that would chronicle the life of a relationship--lover, spouse, parent, caregiver. This book was a chance to come to terms with the changes in my life, to complete a cycle of my life in a creative and healing manner.

I remember a story about Isaac Asimov, the great writer of the golden age of science fiction, a man who published books that were cataloged under every major category of the Dewey Decimal System for libraries, a man who published over 200 books. Later in his life he read one of the novels he had written early in his career. Reading his own novel many, many years after writing and publishing it, the story goes that Asimov was asked by a friend, "How did you like it? How was it?" Asimov replied something like, "Not bad. Pretty good writing." I'm re-telling a story that is probably apocryphal in the first place, but here's the idea as it relates to me: I've written pieces that I think have their good, strong qualities . . . but would I write the same things now, with the same content and style? I don't think so. However, that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the good qualities of what I've written in the past.

Part of growing older should be learning to give ourselves and others a break, to have some tender mercy. This post is a retrospective of what I've written in the past, but more so it's a look to the future and its endless possibilities, of how I'm looking forward to my next word, my next page, my next poem or story, my next book. You all are invited follow my journey.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

I Feel This Obligation to Write

Dawn in my little camp trailer, tea and notebook.
I feel this obligation to write--another novel, a book of essays, a field guide--to be like Faulkner, Emerson, Lewis and Clark. I'm ignoring this sense of obligation, though. When I began writing at the age of sixteen in my ruled, spiral notebook, I was writing for the pure joy of it. That's what I need now, to just enjoy the flow of words.

This joy of words is central--joy is important. It is essential. Publishing in my notebook, three blogs (apply as needed), and some online interaction with folks who are interested in what has my attention right now is just what I need.

Not just the joy of words, but especially the flow of words. Fluency is not just a matter of expertise but also of engagement--not practice, but rather momentum. Use that writing muscle, flex it, stretch it, and then I start feeling like I'm in shape again. My writing stamina increases . . . and probably enough of this metaphor, even though it seems apt.

I've found my daybook an excellent writing activity for me because I can use it at odd times when away from the computer--early in the morning or during a break when going for a bicycle ride. I don't need to set up the office. Also, I really enjoy pasting in photos that relate to my entries. I write only of the right side of the notebook, when I open up two blank pages facing me. The left side (or backside of the page) I save for taping photos, receipts, or instructions from purchases. It gives the notebook this kind of "untamed" look--nothing is exempt and, consequently, the notebook is already beginning to have this overstuffed look. I'll have to find a large rubber band soon. I order photos online from my phone/camera, and then when they arrive, I slap them in. Of course, there's the incentive of making sure that I have something written about the photos I have ordered.

Out of this fluency will flow larger projects, more formal ones, I hope. For the moment, I'll just follow the joy, toss words onto the page like a literary Johnny Appleseed. It's spring, and I'm mud-luscious.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Writing in a Daybook

I've bought this book of blank pages as a writing aid to help me get back into the habit of writing regularly . . . about something, anything, just putting words on the page, much like Natalie Goldberg advocates in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. So far I've written narratives of my days, added photographs, inked in sketches and construction diagrams, included owner stickers, made lists, recorded information I might need at a later time--I'm just using the book as I proceed through the day, adding whatever is useful to me right then or what might be useful in the future.

The focus of the entries centers around my wife and my new aquisition--a teardrop trailer, the Green Goddess. I've written during our three excursions about the events of the day. I've sketched out plans for adding more shelving and storage space, plans of where to add an additional electrical socket. Pasting in information about my new trailer hitch seemed a good idea. And, of course, a few photos of the cute little trailer.

According to the online dictionaries, the technical definition of daybook is from business--a record of transactions as their occur, later to be transferred to the ledger. A more general definition is a book where one records the activities of the day, a diary or journal, but perhaps allowing for more informality. I think this definition of a daybook fits my use perfectly.

I am also reminded of the daybooks of naturalists and other folk working out in the field, books that include sketches of plants and animals, descriptions of events and the behavior of animals, narratives of interactions with weather. I would like this book to be a mnemonic device, something to look back on later to enliven my wife's and my memories of this time as we begin this adventure with our little camper. The photos, sketches, product stubs, and narratives, the lists and building plans should provide a rich source for remembering.

If all goes well, I expect this daybook to deliver three advantages for my writing: 1) a bound and permanent location to record camping experiences with our camper, 2) a place to collect plans, ideas, and materials as we develop our trailer camping techniques, and 3) a source of ideas and details that can be used as I write posts for my Green Goddess Glamping blog.

Sometimes it's good to get away from the keyboard. When I wrote poetry, I drafted in a bound book, moving to typewriter (and later computer) only once revising the poem was almost finished. I certainly can't explore an idea with word, sketch, and flow charts as easily on computer--at least not on one page. Wait a minute--I'm sure that can be done; I just don't know how to do it. There is a tactile, physical experience of writing on the page, though, especially with a pencil, the way the graphite feels as it pulls across the page with the faint resistance. It's an experience so old it feels new again. I want to buy some water colors and colored pencils. Then I can sketch and paint flowers and trees. I sketched with a black pen the image of an Americian lotus in blossom. That was fun, but it would have been more fun to add the greens of the stem and leaves, and the ivory and white of the blossom with its yellow center.

Useful, fun, inspiring--productive.