Gut Instinct

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For my birthday last year, my husband gave me Jane Hirshfield’s Come, Thief. I remember picking it up, devotedly caressing its pages, being slightly disappointed by the cover that was not the one I wanted, then chastising myself for being picky.

I remember opening to the first poem, “French Horn”. I remember reading it. I remember not getting it. Not a damn word. My brain stayed closed like a flower with night still pressing upon it. I put Come, Thief away.

It’s been in the back of my mind for weeks now, because I realized I have not written a poem in months, maybe even closer to a year. I haven’t felt the inspiration for one. But lately, I’ve been catching others’ poems here and there, like light glinting off a reflective surface from its meridian. You look, but you can’t stare for more than a second because it hurts your eyes. I want that feeling of a poem rushing out of me. I’m ready for it. But I know I need to reacquaint myself with its language. So today, I picked up Come, Thief. I read “French Horn” again. This time, the locked language of the poem moved the machinery of my brain, allowing me to unlock the phrases, piece by piece, to embrace the whole.

Returning to the work of this favorite poet was like slipping into a pool of water the exact temperature of my body, then sinking deeper to be surprised by the colder recesses. But I was ready for it. And it was a pleasant shock to be immersed back in that language when I would be most receptive to it.

“Intuitions are not to be ignored, John. They represent data processed too fast for the conscious mind to comprehend.” –Sherlock

I finally sat down to the fourth season of the BBC’s Sherlock, and this quote from the first episode enamored me. It went so well with this idea that has been crackling in my brain about gut instinct. The same instinct that lead me back to Hirshfield at the right time.

Before my first poem was accepted, I had submitted it to maybe three or four places, along with some other elementary attempts. One day, going through these rough poems, “The Insolubility of Nightmares” jumped out at me as the one with the most potential. I revised it. When I stood back and looked at the completed picture, I had that gut instinct that told me this is done.  Now it’s ready for publication, I thought, and the right place will take it. Not that it is an exemplary poem in the Realm of All Poetry That Ever Was, but the concept of it had been teased into completion and polished to its highest form. Do I have stronger poems than that, published and unpublished? I think so. But my gut told me that specific poem was done. After that revision, I sent “The Insolubility of Nightmares” to Hello Horror, a newer lit mag at the time, and I received that coveted first acceptance.

At some point along this uphill trek to build my writing credits, I realized I don’t want sub-par work out there. With my story “The Wake“, I liked it about as much as I like some of my short stories I’ve stopped submitting because I know they’re not the best they can be. So when I looked at “The Wake” again with a more critical eye, I knew I needed a more explosive ending. Now, the note on which it ends is more faithful to my narrator’s personality and the choices she makes with her “scientific mind”. This alteration of her thoughts in the end made me get that same tugging in my gut: this is done. After this overhaul, the first place to which I sent it accepted. ☺ Coincidence? No.

For writers, I’m starting to understand that instinct is just as important as the other nuts and bolts in one’s writer toolbox. Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t feel that gut instinct crying out to you:

You’re not ready for that yet. 

or

This poem is not complete. 

or

It’s time to move on. 

or

It’s time to leap.

Just like everything takes practice to get better, so too does listening to one’s intuition, I’ve discovered. You get to know yourself, the fears that you must eschew, your lavish ambitions, your limitations, and your potential. I’m learning to let my gut instinct help sift through these aspects of myself, to better hear its call through the fog, whether prudent restraint or quiet encouragement.

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The Writing Kind

“The sensual novelist and his admirer, are beings of depraved appetites and sickly imaginations, who having learnt the art of self-tormenting, are diligently and zealously employed in creating an imaginary world, which they can never inhabit, only to make the real world, with which they must necessarily be conversant, gloomy and insupportable.”

Patrick Brontë’s children had the run of his books and must have read these words often, but no group of young people ever took less heed of such a warning.

–From Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, Claire Harman

Sometimes I wake up before the sun does to satisfy this craving. I shuffle on aching bones that ache for no reason other than holding up my person to the coffee machine. I say machine because it is not the simple device the coffee maker is. Insert cup under spit, deposit cup of grounds on top of needle, pull lever to enact piercing and scalding processes. Acquire sweet treat if one has been hunted in the wilderness and brought back home on recent scavenging trip. No, these are not the cravings this beast has woken at this ungodly hour to satiate.

I shuffle back to office and sit down. Squirm in chair. Aching bones and all. Open blinds because sometimes our kind like to feel connected to the great outdoors. Shut blinds. Dawn is too bright.

The images of a recent dream dance a quadrille in my mind’s eye: a formal dining room resplendent with light from a three-sided bay window; the room occupied by a crudely made dining room table circa 1970 at which nobody sits; outside the window were rose bushes, not all the picture of health, some new blooms, some leaves snail-bitten, but the coral pink of their petals struck the eye amid the shaded garden vista.

Return to the now. Sometimes it’s not even my own inner voice demanding it, but that of them, those clamorous beings in my head. Mind torn between sickly leaves and murmuring voices caressing my brain, I turn back to the work at hand. I do not know where to begin. So I just open a door. Sometimes the words that satisfy the craving sputter out as though from the irked coffee machine. Sometimes they pour out as easy and rich as cream.

Sometimes the craving is fixed at night over coffee again, of course, and often a mischievous cigarette. The sounds of Saturday night surround us like the rings around Saturn. As massive and exclusive as our inner worlds are, we cannot seem to shake the rest off the world. But the company, the indulges of nicotine and caffeine, again, are not the primary cravings sought at this assembly.

It is the build up of weeks in planning, the preparation, the carefully laid stonework and mortar of verb, noun, and article. The layering of tone, character, and story. It is of like minds meeting like, kinfolk in this art sitting down with me on the other end of the screen before the sun rises, or in a patio chair across from me at the local coffee shop until midnight. It is solitude, as well. It is living two lives: the external, full of aching sorrow, vivid joy, and twisting nostalgia; and the mind’s life, full of aching sorrow, vivid joy, and twisting nostalgia.

For the writing kind, this craving is necessary.

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5 Unusual and Practical Ways To Break Writer’s Block

Below are 2 practical and 3 unusual ways to help overcome writer’s block. Most of these revolve around immersing yourself into your story, while some suggest taking a step back. Sometimes all you need is a seed of inspiration to have you busting through that writer’s block like the the Kool-Aid man. Ah, apologies. Only people who grew up in the 90s or earlier will get that reference.

Unusual

1. Draw your characters. Or draw the warehouse or stronghold or spy headquarters in your novel. Design the room your gentleman frequents, or even more intriguing, the room your lady finds respite in. Or just doodle something entirely irrelevant to your novel and let your mind wander.

If you don’t like to draw, Pinterest is a great way to stimulate visualization of your work. If you want to be a perfectionist about it, here’s a how-to to make a really professional, themed storyboard for your novel. Below is the board I am working on for my novel, The Seer. As you can see from my board, there are foreign landscapes and travel in the novel. Because The Seer takes place in faraway places and dated societies, Pinterest has aided me in going to those places and seeing those societies.

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Board for The Seer

Practical

2. Read. You’re probably rolling your eyes, writers. But truly, stop drafting/editing/revising and take some time to read. And read outside of your comfort zone at that. Here’s a WriterUnboxed post on the benefits of changing up your reading habits. I never read biographies, but I’ve picked one up on my favorite author, Charlotte Brontë (Harman, 2015), and have gotten loads of inspiration for my Gothic romance WIP, Wrathmoor. And from the smallest things too:

“Patrick Brontë’s [Charlotte’s father] quirks included…having a ‘volcanic’ temper that he sometimes relieved by firing his pistols out of the back door ‘in rapid succession’.”

Unusual

3. Make a mix tape/CD/youtube/spotify soundtrack for your novel. There are songs I will forever associate with certain novels of mine, because they belong, heart and soul, to those characters. For instance, Loreena McKennitt’s Beltane Fire Dance will forever be associated with the novel mentioned above, The Seer, and Apocalyptica’s Metallica covers are being hardily applied to Wrathmoor for the good ole’ Metallica rage expressed through a mid-nineteenth-century-approved instrument, the cello.

Practical

4. Take a day off. Or a week. Seriously. Either from work, or from your writing, or both. Sometimes all you need is a reboot to come back to your work with a fresh eye and mind.

Unusual

5. Make a map. So your novel has an epic scene in a Buddhist temple or maybe a battle on a mountain side? Or maybe it has a ton of townships, cities, and ports. Make a map. You can do this the old fashioned way. For my fantasy WIP, Blood of the Realm, I dyed watercolor paper with tea water to make an approximation of parchment. I may or may not have referred to Tolkien’s Middle Earth for inspiration.

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You can also take a more modern approach. If you own the PS3 game FarCry 3, you can use the map feature option for your novels! Writers, even if you’re not a gamer, this game–which would surely be on discount now–might be worth it solely for this feature. The game takes place on a tropical island amid the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There are countless combinations of different landscapes you can create and landmarks. You can even adjust the time of day and weather. It is one of the most unique and immersive ways, in my opinion, of diving into your own story.

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WallpaperSafari.com

 


After finishing my 6th novel in January, I had been pretty stagnant, just working on rewrites to an older novel, and nary a poem or short story in sight. But since I took vacation from my job, unearthed the “soundtracks” for my novels, and reading a lot, including things outside my usual reading repertoire, something has opened inside of me, creatively.

Have you ever tried any of these block breakers? Any others to suggest?

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6 Awesome Books I Read in 2016

I read approximately 30 books last year, and there were some gems among them, including a new favorite. I narrowed it down to six favorites for this post. I can only tell you what I loved about these books, sans spoilers,  and maybe convince one or two of you to pick up something that you wouldn’t usually turn to.

Sharp Objects (Mystery/Thriller)

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This book, this book right here. Wow. You want to be punched in the face and then falsely comforted by a book? Look, I didn’t think I did either, until I read this. All you have to do is go ‘look inside’ on amazon, and read the first couple pages. Flynn reads like a Sylvia Plath poem in a crime noir. Every sentence builds on the previous all the way to the sick-to-your-stomach merry-go-round ride at the end. Read Gone Girl or Dark Places? Great, now read this, and be happy you saved the best for last.

Camille Preaker, fresh out of the psychiatric hospital and looking for approval from her editor, is sent back to her hometown to look into a potential serial strangler of little girls. Problem is, returning to Wind Gap means facing her past, specifically her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship, her ethereal half-sister Amma, and the ghost of her dead sister, Marian.

Sisterland (Contemporary/Women’s Fiction)

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A compulsive contemporary read with a semi-fantastical element, this book was shocking in its vivid realism. Kate is the good girl of the sisters, the one that cares about what other people think, the one that ‘does things right’. Violet is the non-conformist, brutally honest, true to herself sister that embraces the psychic ability that they discovered at an early age and her premonition of an impending earth quake that gets her a spot on the national news.

This novel should not be written off as only chick-lit or a book about psychics. Sittenfeld combines masterful storytelling with subtle acknowledgement of all those what-if forks throughout our lives. Bringing to mind Niffeneger’s deft handling of that slice of magic through ordinary life in her Time Traveler’s Wife, Sisterland observes friendship, and romantic and familial relationships with a sharp emotional clarity.

Night Film (Mystery/Thriller)

10112885Horror is a third genre in which this novel fits (from my 2016 reads, see also A Head Full of Ghosts and My Best Friend’s Exorcism). Though this novel did call to mind House of Leaves in its experimental story-telling method, it is also unique.

Night Film had a hard-boiled tone to it in some parts, a thrilling ghost story in others, and the recounting of great and dark man’s horrific legacy overall. While about a prolific horror film director, who went to all lengths to capture true, unaffected horror, the story is told by Scott McGrath, the reporter who once tried to out director Stanislas Cordova’s sinister methods and lost everything in the battle. Now that Cordova’s daughter Ashley has turned up dead (and was pretty ghostly before she died), McGrath declares war. Will he find the truth he is looking for? You’ll have to read to see.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (YA)19547856

I read a lot of YA last year. My reread of Carry On aside, this was the most flawless, engrossing, teen-angst-ridden book I could have devoured in two days. And I did. (I can also highly recommend First & Then and P.S. I Like You for light-hearted, touching reads, but for heavier/darker YA, NestLooking for Alaska, and Wintergirls were also great.)

Simon’s day is already going south quick when he realizes that awkward class clown Martin (think Ackley from The Catcher in the Rye) is blackmailing him, threatening to reveal his homosexuality far before he’s ready. A timely disturbance to the butterflies he feels when emailing his also gay, anonymous pen-pal, who quite possibly attends Simon’s school. This book took me back to high school, to drama club, to starbursts in your chest of like-like and love, and to trying so hard it hurts to define yourself while defying the definitions placed on you from without.

Longbourn (Historical)

18399238After diving into Downton Abbey, I thirsted to read about how the other half lives in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as represented by Baker. I was not disappointed. Some Austen and/or historical purists disdain this book for historical inaccuracies or perceived misinterpretations of Austen’s text. In my opinion, it is a good story beautifully written. It dug into my heart and lives there still. How can I convey how much and why I love this book? Okay, you have a certain food that you love, right? The ultimate comfort food. Maybe you throw it together on rainy days, maybe you just need it after having a really bad day…or a really good one. And you know how you feel, afterward, in the pit of your stomach? Not just full, but satiated? This is a book you will want to eat. And it will satiate you, I promise.

*FAVORITE BOOK OF 2016*

The Madwoman Upstairs

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And my absolute favorite book of 2016, which has been bumped up to my top four favorite novels ever (sitting prettily aside Jane EyreHouse of Leaves, and The Catcher in the Rye), was The Madwoman Upstairs. 

So, if you’ve ever done any type of feminist research on the Brontës’ works, you probably ran into a little tome called The Madwoman in the Attic (Gilbert & Gubar), not to be confused with the novel, The Madwoman Upstairs. Lowell’s title is a play on the excellent collection of feminist analyses, but I promise the book is less homework-y and more fun. 🙂

If you take immense pleasure in archaic romances (as defined here), you will enjoy this book. Not to be shallow, but debating great literature and semi-colon use with my hellishly good-looking Literature tutor in the pubs of England and yes, the halls of Oxford University, sounds like a little slice of heaven. Even better though, someone else struggles with inarticulateness in the face of the intimidating don. Samantha Whipple, the last Brontë descendant, was home-schooled by her late eccentric father. She is a bit of an odd ball and fairly alone in the world. She comes to Oxford to study literature, gets sequestered in what must surely be an inhabitable tower of the school, and begins to find startling pieces of her past on her doorstep. The mystery of whether her father left her the Brontë legacy, or any legacy at all, absorbs the reader into Sam’s growing obsession. Sam is far from perfect, but this is what makes her a heroine you will adore (or maybe you’ll hate her, but I adored her). Her sense of humor had me laughing out loud, ex:

“The trajectory of the academic year was now spanning out in front of me, and it looked like one blackened stream of intellectual dictatorship. The more time Orville and I spent together, the more I would become one of those pale-faced vampire children in films who emerge only to say something unsettilingly prophetic in a half whisper” —The Madwoman Upstairs

God, I could pull so many passages from this book, but I don’t want to spoil it for you (because you’re about to go buy it, right?). However, it wasn’t just about the narrator voice, or the romance, or the Brontë ghosts Sam spends over three hundred pages chasing (and avoiding in some parts). This book made me think, made me reconsider my own analyses on the literature addressed therein. Part scavenger-hunt, part romance, part spiraling descent into academia (with a touch of madness, of course), this novel leaves you struggling to discern truth from fiction.

Read any of these books? What did you think?

Other recommendations?

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2016 in Review

2016 was a tough year. It was a year of learning how to balance being a mother and wife, while working full-time, and trying to write in the crevices between. It was also the year of losing my grandmother, my last grandparent and the one I was closest to. I’m still learning and recovering.

But it was a good year too. I married the father of my children. I learned so much about being a mother. I learned that you cannot measure just how many nooks and crannies of the heart you can fill with love–I learned that on some days you have to allow that love in. I learned to be a writer, you have to write. I learned that you have to respect yourself–I’m always learning that. I keep the good moments in the lock box of my brain, to which I hope I never lose the key: laying on the floor with my daughters as they crawled over me like I was a jungle gym, giggling as I chased and caught them and gobbled them up; the conversations with my gram and getting to see her joy and pride as she watched the girls; the gratitude for my job and all of the new experiences I’ve gained from it; the shining moments of producing something that made me feel good, and that disembodied but assuring voice said ‘you are still a writer. And you’ve got this.’ It was a tough year, but it was full of good moments too.

In 2016, I was promoted to manager of my own property and moved to the new property to live on site. I set a goal to read 25 books on my goodreads. I ended up reading 33 mind-blowing, thoughtful, wonderful books (favorites will be addressed next post). I started a new novel in August to which I am in the process of writing the last chapter; I won NaNoWriMo in November by writing over 50,000 words to that novel. I had three publications. My poem Nest came out in February with Eunoia Review, a publication I respect and enjoy to which I had submitted before unsuccessfully. My collection of poems on my father’s death, The Stages of Grief in Four Parts, was published by a local college literary journal in May. I had the honor of attending the release party  and sharing some of these poems for my first reading. My story The Wake (scroll all the way down) was published in Jamais Vu in October, a story even more dear to me now for being loosely based on a story my grandmother told me. Once you read it, you’ll have questions about that. Just email me. 🙂

I made a list of new year’s intentions  last January. I didn’t achieve most all of them. But that’s okay. I found that the large, quantifiable intentions were often pushed aside when life got hectic. Or I just wasn’t ready for this art project or that revision. The smaller, bite-sized intentions were more manageable, like submitting more than I did the previous year, blogging once a month, and correcting some negative thoughts or behaviors–I still have a ways to go on this front.

I achieved a lot in 2016, not everything on my list and many things that weren’t on my list at all, but enough to be proud. My goal is to learn all of these things again, this year. To read more, write more, love more, be more present. To hug and kiss my babies and husband every day. To remember my grandmother and spend as much time as I can with all of my family and friends because every day is not guaranteed. To stop being so hard on myself. To embrace productivity, health, and love.

And I hope you all do too. Happy 2017, Everyone.

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