Writing and Mood Swings

My alter-ego shows up in strange ways. Have you ever felt your everyday situation slip into life and death for no apparent reason? For instance, I become defensive when I think that my private life is being put on display…. Till I realize that my ego is being challenged, and not my privacy. Sometimes my need to appear in control really gets me in trouble. I leave out the moments of my life experience that are meaningful just to appear in control!

For instance: I published my novel, Telly Bobbitt, yesterday on Kindle. Years of preparation. Years of struggle, months of editing and re-writing. Finally, a contest to raise awareness of the book. Then, in a very anti-climactic stroke, I put the thing on Amazon. The plot goes something like this:

What would happen if our technology achieved human immortality today? What if a woman made it all possible? What forces would try to stop her?

At that point in the story the book morphed into a genre-bending blend of politics and science fiction, which I found to be very exciting. The possibilities of Silicon Valley research, and what is being accomplished today are already (as we read this) within the realm of Sci-Fi. What if I tweak it a little? What fun would that be?

We had no publisher. No book tour, just Gary and I sitting in our living room plotting word for word what the thing would look like, and how best to tell a story of the next ten minutes. I thought about the struggle to bring it to life… That’s when the mood swings began in earnest. The two women inside my head began to tear things apart.

“What in the world are you doing? Stop this and get a better job. You are wasting your time, and no one will care about your little story. The plot is already ridiculous, and on the way to laughable, Mary. Grow up.”

And then opposing counsel: “Wow! This could really be something. If you tell this story just right, if you string the words together in a way that tantalizes… you could really have something. Don’t stop. Don’t go to work tomorrow. Quit your job! Sell your car. Do whatever needs to be done in order to write for hours and hours on end…. Yes…. Yes….My Precious…. “

After a session like this, I usually sit down, bleary-eyed, and decide to drink a lot of red wine. I get that my ego is involved. I feel the emotions of a thirteen year-old. I decide not to care. I decide to write the next book in the series, regardless of the mood swings. The thrill of creation, of learning, trumps the fear of failure.

Is it fair to always think that our little problems are not important? Is it important to constantly minimize ourselves, as the world’s priorities become ours? I think it’s an heroic act to be ourselves, our real selves, in the face of a world which wants us to be someone else. A world which wants us to fit a notion or perception of who we are, and not who we actually are. This leads to many cases of mistaken identity, as we become what the world wants us to be, totally losing sight of who we are.

Which leads me to think: We are what we allow ourselves to be. Holding back the tide of creative output is really easy when one chooses to ignore it. But, I have found that when I deny my subconscious its audience, I invariably lose something important within myself. If I do not write down the tiny whispered clues and notions of my inner muse, it becomes a path not taken, never to be seen or heard from again. Part of me remains unknown to myself, which is a death I cannot bear. This is why I write.

Next Week: The Emergence of a Character

Putting it all Together in Ten Thousand Hours

The theory of ten thousand hours has me stumped. Is it really true that the dose of human excellence is ten thousand hours of practice? Can we all reach this pinnacle, or is it the realm of the very committed, obsessed, or simply driven to lengths to which few will ever experience?

Time travel with me. I raised kids (mine and other’s) for 25 years. During that time, I owned a day care center for infants through twelve years. I changed hundreds of diapers, sang thousands of songs, and made countless craft projects. I soothed a year’s worth of crying babes, fawned over frustrated toddlers, soothed sad kids who missed their mothers… I even wrote a song about coming to Mary’s house and being happy. It worked like a charm.

I’d become a kid magnet, as though kids everywhere knew that I was their friend. Babies smiled at me at the grocery store. Toddlers confused my skirts with those of their mother’s, running up to me to hug me. Kids seemed to be drawn to me. I like to think that they had good instincts.

What I came to know about children can be summed up in one sentence: Children are little people (sometimes wiser and better behaved than their parents), and so treat them as equals, and protect them as you would treasure. According to the ten thousand hour theory, this advice is gleaned from over seventy thousand hours, and, as such, is perfect.:)

I am currently applying the ten thousand hour rule to writing, which is harder to calibrate. Do I count writing while at work? Does classwork writing count? For my own measurement, I use my novel writing as the only writing that matters. Somewhere my word count is going up, along with my skills. When I figure out the formula for word count equals hours, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I know that the only way to write well is to write, write, write.

Next Week: Mood Swings and Writing.

The Mechanics of Writing, or Freezing to Death for Stephen King

I have a process. Like all writers who doggedly sit in the basement for hours on end, I literally try to make sense out of a stream of babble being dictated from God-knows-where. My process is time-consuming and ever-present. I often wonder just what my process is, but sometimes it’s easier to think of what it’s not.
It’s not sitting down in a blissful haze, writing a stream of love and logic that inspires the world. Usually, it’s a knife fight: Me Vs Me, and no one knows about it except the two Me-s and the Me-observer, who criticizes everything being written: “It’s all crap. Stop this nonsense and go get your teaching license. Clean houses, you’ll make more money. IS THIS all you have to offer the world?” etc… Ad infinitum.
Then, usually in the 3rd hour of the struggle, the clouds part, the sun comes out, and the story starts to get interesting. The voices die down into a chorus of “let’s comply with her wishes… she will not stop until she’s satisfied.” So, in my messy discord, I manage to get something onto paper when all the rebels and naysayers inside my mind settle into a common purpose: cooperation with the boss. Probably a lot like any other workplace hierarchy. Productivity is a beautiful thing when it happens.

I had the opportunity this past week to hear Stephen King at a recent book event. In order to get good seats, the Watermark Books website instructed everyone to be at the Hughes Metroplex by four pm, which is a tall order for working folks (My boss, Donnel, was cheerful about it). Our friends, Bev and Zak, also scrambled to be ready at such an early hour on a Friday afternoon. Gary and I picked everyone up, and we sailed through the greenlight at Oliver Street to a sight rarely seen in Wichita: A line at least a quarter of a mile long.

We looked at each other in disbelief. Only the first seventeen hundred people would be able to sit in the main room; the rest would watch on a monitor in an overflow atrium. Quickly, Gary jumped out of the car to save us a place in line. I used my skills as a California-trained driver to find a parking spot in short order. We caught up with Gary on the other side of the building, almost in front of the entrance. People were talking, news trucks were pulling up, and the temperature was about 25 degrees. We stood in line for almost two hours, our feet frozen, wishing we’d brought more winter gear. People around us looked absolutely wretched, not used to simply standing in the cold, and certainly not this cold before winter. We joked about the hazy thin clouds in the skies, which looked a lot like snow: “Wichitans Freeze to Death Today While Waiting for the Master of the Macabre in Huge Publicity Stunt.”

Sighs of relief were heard all around when we received our bracelets. When we finally reached the warmth of the door, we were searched and told to go forward. The place was packed, and the only seats left were in the wings that rose to the second level, in a bowl-like configuration.

Now, we were told that there would be no autographs, no on-the-spot book signing, and no pictures during Mr. King’s talk. We were also informed that some of the books were pre-signed, to be interspersed equally at each book station.
I suppose that no human can really sign 2000 books each week, but I was still disappointed when I did not receive one. Our friend Zak got one, and we were excited for him. I jotted down some quotes from Mr. King’s talk which I thought were worth remembering:

“I am not what you would call an organized writer. I start with the image of the red thread that comes out of the mouse hole. I don’t know where it’s going.”

“Language is the tendon, it’s the link between the writer’s mind and the reader’s mind.”

“If you’re going to come into your own, you’re going to be an outlaw.”

“I think that writing can be learned, but I don’t think that writing can be taught.”

“I am a freak about (bed) covers, ‘cause covers are my monster kryptonite.”

My take away? Stephen King has a dark sense of humor and a process. Just like me.

Next Week: Putting it all Together in Ten Thousand Hours

Writing Songs

I began playing piano at the age of nine. We had a great big upright grand which sat in the hallway of our cabin- house in the mountains above Los Gatos. I say cabin-house, because part of it was constructed with frame and drywall, and part of it was a redwood bark and log cabin, built long before the other more modern addition. The “hallway” was more of an atrium with two levels. One level had the telephone desk near a window, with the piano next to it. The next level was an uneven rock floor with a redwood pole (still covered in bark) in the center, which supported an intricate circular ceiling made of redwood. In addition to the redwood atrium, there was an actual tree growing just inside the back door. We considered it to be quite normal, living in a house with a tree growing inside of it. Another door led to the long C.S. Lewis-like closet (filled with furs) next to my parent’s bedroom door, and a hallway leading to the children’s bedrooms filled out the rear of our unique home. It was a magical place.
I practiced every day after school. The hallway reverberated the sounds of a nine-year-old playing piano. Gradually, after a couple of years, I could play Beethoven and Kabalevsky with a certain amount of confidence. I quit lessons at the age of twelve, and took up the guitar after my brother received one. He did not stick with it; I became obsessed, and soon I was playing Stairway to Heaven at his birthday party. It was a cool moment for a little sister. Soon after that, I began to write songs, some of which I still sing to myself when I’m doing menial tasks, such as cleaning or mowing:

I touched the wheel,
And I looked all around.
I couldn’t be sure where I was going.
Or if I’d turned around.
Then I heard a voice that said,
You know you’re running aground,
Hey boy, you’re hell bound,
You’d better turn around.

Writing songs built my confidence more, and I began to play piano with other musicians while relying upon the theory I’d learned as a child. It was pure pleasure to sit and create new sounds, both with others and by myself, in my bedroom where the piano migrated when I became a teen. I played for hours in the quiet solitude of my room with the woods outside my back door for an audience.
I started playing on the mall in Santa Cruz, and earned enough attention to start playing in small cafes. I was also part of a Bluegrass group that played at festivals. It was exhilarating and nerve-racking to perform in public. After a while the sheer terror of playing for others started to wear me down, and I stopped playing. I often wonder about that road, and what it might’ve held for me. My alter-ego loved it.
Next Week: Mechanics of Writing

What a Writer Learns

My alter-ego first emerged on paper when my parents sent me away to boarding school. My brother John had been kicked out of our high school, and so my parents wanted me to accompany him to a boarding school in Arizona, some 12 hour’s drive from our house in Los Gatos, California. As it turned out, John refused to get out of the car when we reached the school, and so the school denied him entrance. My parents, for whatever reason, still insisted that I go to the school in Scottsdale.
And so I settled into what would become a half-year of boarding school, under the shadows of Camelback Mountain. I learned many things in that boarding school, things I would remember when dealing with homesickness, teen heartbreak, and the meaning of friendship. I also learned that I was a writer.
I was assigned to read the James Michener classic, Centennial, and to write an essay on mountain men and their contribution to the settling of North America. My loathing of this thousand page book was matched only by my homesickness, and although I tried to read the book, it became an undoable task. The lines blurred together after the first few lines of, “Some 65 million years ago…” I was unable to continue.
So as not to create more misery in an already miserable situation, I faked it. I thought about all the movie images that portrayed mountain men in a romantic, leading-man sort of way. I compiled these thoughts into a fantastic mélange of memories (the likes of which Mr. Michener would never imagine), and turned it into Mr. Keyes, my US History teacher.
I walked into class a few days later, and was greeted by Mr. Keyes, who told the class: “None of you understood the assignment. None of you, except Mary.” He beamed at me with the pride of a mentor. “Mary, would you read your essay to the class?” Mr. Keyes said as he passed out the graded papers which were clearly marked as Fs for most of the kids, who became agitated by the sudden bad news of their failure versus the positive attention that I was receiving.
I was floored. I felt such guilt that I blurted out, “I did not read the book, Mr. Keyes. I made this up.” I laughed nervously, waving the paper through the air. The class went wild. The smartest girl in the class was mad and yelled out, “I worked all night on this paper! This is not fair!”
I still remember the glares of everyone in the room, looking vehemently at me. I had crossed the line, and they were not happy that I’d flipped the grading curve from writing down facts, to making stuff up. Mr. Keyes’ expression was the worst of all. I had embarrassed him, and he looked defeated. I felt terrible. How could I turn a room upside down, with just words?
I went back to the dorms that afternoon and practiced my guitar, hoping not to bump into any fellow US history students. In the meantime, my alter-ego was smiling.

Next Week: Writing Songs.

What a Writer is

A good friend once told me, “You can solve all of your problems by writing them down…”
I began writing letters to my mother during my marital separation, before and after the massive California earthquake in 1989. Although my divorce had nothing to do with the earthquake, the earthquake had everything to do with my divorce. Aftershocks, as you may know, can be more terrifying than the real thing, due to the emotions of repeating the original trauma. I decided before and after the earthquake that I was in a bad marriage, and I needed to get out.
I wrote to mom about being alone with three little children, my fears about the future, and the strength it would take to raise them alone. The letters ran the gamut from grim determination to funny anecdotes about children, to love and faith in the future. I have a tendency not to ask for help, which, coupled with being ashamed of my newly divorced status, caused me to work constantly to prove to myself that I was OK. I listed my accomplishments in letters to my mother (which I never sent to her), which became a comforting way of seeing progress in my life: “I paid the rent on my own”, “I got the car to the repair shop by taking my bicycle with me and riding it home”, “I got up early to run while the kids were still asleep”, “I decorated the house for Christmas”, “I took the kids to Lake Tahoe”, “I am so very tired, but I enrolled a new child today, which means that I can pay all the bills.”
I ran a home Day Care, which allowed me to be with my kids, make a living, and develop a network of supporters, who, as I look back, wanted nothing more than to help me. After the divorce, I’d decided that doing it alone was the safest and most effective way to live. To be fair, those thoughts started long before I met my husband, which is another story. So, this was one of the ways in which I started to write. In between my letters of hope and hard work, I started to write bits of fiction, in which friends became super spies, or animals developed super powers. It seemed the best way to vent my subconscious, which has real meaning for me. Everyone should vent their subconscious, don’t you think?

Next: I began to write a character for my alter-ego.