Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Just Do It!

I'm realizing that, if one seriously wants to be a writer---one who finishes what one starts---it is absolutely necessary to stop thinking about writing and start doing it! For me, today, that meant not doing my course planning first, but putting that aside to write. Strange how guilty it feels to make time for writing, as if it's some luxurious enterprise akin to basking on a beach! Maybe I have to start thinking of it as real work. Sure, I don't get paid for it---yet, and maybe never---but there are some things a person simply must do (such as eat, sleep, breathe). And, for me, there is "write"! If this is one of the ways God has called me to serve Him, then I must start devoting an adequate amount of time to honing this craft! How easy it is to forget that. So, here's to just doing the thing and not feeling bad about it!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Resolving to Write

With a new year always comes the need to resolve to do better, to take on more, to accomplish unfinished tasks. This year, one of my resolutions is to make time for writing. Here's something C.S. Lewis said. I have these words on my office wall and periodically look at them for that so-needed nudge to get down to work: "If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come" ("Learning in War-time, The Weight of Glory).

I know from past experiences that resolutions which lack concreteness never materialize. So, with a goal to actually sticking to this, I'm going to set down a couple of actual ways I intend to be more serious about this call to the writing life. Here's what I've come up with:

  • I resolve to finish my research for The Company of the White Stag (I currently have three great books at my disposal which are full of invaluable material: 1700: Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller; Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms by Tim Harris; and Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation by Stephanie A. Mann.)
  • I resolve to finish editing my latest draft of The Company of the White Stag
  • I resolve to finish my Children's Literature course by mid-year and submit at least one story to a publisher
  • I resolve to enter at least one writing competition this year
  • I resolve to read more good literature so as to better hone my craft

Part of the call of being a Christian writer is, of course, the privilege of offering our writing back to the Lord. I hope to meditate on that more this year and to become more intentional in my work. If this is a vocation, it needs to be treated as such; it needs to be nurtured.

What resolutions do you have for your writing? How can you become more intentional in the living out of the writing vocation this year?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Putting on the Polish

“Once you have ‘something down,’ as professional writers say, the job of verifying, improving, cutting, and polishing is pure pleasure. Unlike the sculptor, the writer can start carving and enjoying himself only after he has dug the marble out of his own head—pity the poor writer.” Jacques Barzun

Many writers have said what Mr. Barzun believes: that the real cream of writing lies in the revision stage. I begin to concur....True, the first draft has a certain elation attached to it. It's the first thought beginning to take shape. It's the attempt to pin down the idea or the image or the snippet of conversation which has been jostling about in your mind for weeks. You ask yourself: "Who just said that?" "What is he/she like?" "Why on earth are they gawking out that window?" etc. Slowly, the pieces of a puzzle are fit into place. For myself, the first draft stage is all about experimentation. I recently revised a children's story in which my two main characters began as brother and sister. By the time I got to the final revisions, however, it made much more sense that they should be neighbourhood friends. Clarifying that issue, made the relationships between my protagonist and his mother make much more sense. It also gave him someone outside of the home to interact with---and I was trying to convey the fact that he was beginning to embrace his new country instead of pining for where he'd come from. This was best achieved by the little guy making a friend, someone with a vastly different background from his own but who was, still, a complement to him. What seemed to make so much sense in draft #1 just didn't hold up, logically, in the final equation.

I recently read an article on revision by children's book/story author, Carol Gorman, in which she says that, just as every writer is unique, every writer has a unique way of revising. I like this! I've tried conforming to other people's set ways of revising (and drafting, for that matter) and I'm starting to realize that I need to tailor it all to suit my particular needs as a writer. This is how I generally approach revising:

  • Once I've completed a draft, I let it sit for a few days (sometimes a few months) while I read in that genre or else try to better familiarize myself with the period or setting in which I'm writing (this usually for a historical piece)
  • Once I've had a bit of time away from the draft and can be more objective with it, I read through it from start to finish on screen. I'm looking, at this stage, for obvious flaws in logic, issues with language use, flow, etc. I try to firm up the details. "If Anna wanted to ride out of town heading towards Corsham, how long would the journey be? What kind of vegetation is one likely to find in an English field? Is it realistic that a man could travel from Newcastle to London in three days?" These are just some of the questions I was faced with in my last revision exercise for my novel.
  • Having cleared away the main chaff, I then start really nit-picking. It's around this stage that I start honing in on specific aspects of the story: does the opening catch the reader's attention? what about the closing? Are the main characters believable? Is a particular scene necessary?
  • I generally do one or two (or more) read-throughs after this just to make sure the work is as polished as it can be. This requires at least one hard-copy revision which allows me to curl up with each page and scrutinize it, pencil in hand. I think doing this, at least once, is imperative (at least for me). At some point, an author needs to remember that his/her work is something people will want to spend quality time with. If I can't stand to sit with my work, I can't really expect anyone else to. And there's nothing like physically holding the page, feeling the slightly elevated print on the page, crossing out those unnecessary words with graphite! It's a liberating experience!
  • At some point (I haven't quite figured out when yet!) I have to physically move away from the manuscript and decide that it's as good as I can make it. (I don't know how convinced I am of this....I could probably revise forever, but this is not productive). As Carol Gorman says, "there comes a time...when you have to let go. After you've put your heart and soul into a piece and worked and reworked every sentence, you'll reach a point when you're not improving the writing, you're just making it different" ("The Critical Last Step: Revision" in From Inspiration to Publication, Eds. Pamel Glass Kelly and Mary Spelman. CT: Institute of Children's Literature, 2002. p.210).
Today, I put my short story, "Jacob and the Winter Boots" in the post. It's begun it's trek to the capable hands of my instructor. What it started out as is something very different from what it became. I like the end result. It was chopped down from about 1000 words to about 780-something. I think there's a lot to be said for mulling over a piece of writing until you can say in less words what you started out trying to convey. On that point, I leave you with these sound words of advice from one of literature's most stunning short story writers. If ever a man understood the art of a well-chosen word, Chekov did:

“When you read proof, take out the adjectives and adverbs wherever you can. You use so many of them that the reader finds it hard to concentrate and he gets tired. You can understand what I mean when I say ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You understand because the sentence is clear and there is nothing to distract your attention. Conversely, the brain has trouble understanding me if I say ‘A tall, narrow-chested man of medium height with a red beard sat on green grass trampled by passers-by, sat mutely, looking about timidly and fearfully.’ This doesn’t get its meaning through to the brain immediately, which is what good writing must do, and fast.” Anton Chekhov [in a letter to Gorky]

Monday, June 21, 2010

Artists: Contemplators of the Mystery

God has a way of showing us one thing and then another and then, in an unexpected moment, the unity of the two things. This morning, I stumbled upon a website, Savior.org, which broadcasts a live image, via webcam, of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The exposition is at the Chapel of Divine Love in Philadelphia, PA. It is a perpetual Eucharistic adoration centre which has been run by the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters since 1916. The aim of this online Eucharistic Adoration is to increase devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, as well as to reach those who, for whatever reason, are housebound or unable to physically go to a Church to be with Jesus.

You may be wondering what Eucharistic Adoration has to do with being a writer. Well, everything! Look what Pope John Paul II has to say in his "Letter to Artists" about the creative moment and the life and responsibility of the Artistic soul:

"Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.

"Believers find nothing strange in this: they know that they have had a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God. Is it in any way surprising that this leaves the spirit overwhelmed as it were, so that it can only stammer in reply? True artists above all are ready to acknowledge their limits and to make their own the words of the Apostle Paul, according to whom “God does not dwell in shrines made by human hands” so that “we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold or silver or stone, a representation by human art and imagination” (Acts 17:24, 29). If the intimate reality of things is always “beyond” the powers of human perception, how much more so is God in the depths of his unfathomable mystery!"

Did you catch it? The first paragraph describes that moment of inspiration when everything makes sense in a moment of startling clarity: the image in the stone is seen, the elusive symbol is grasped and described on paper, the perfect combination of brush strokes reveals the face on the canvas, the wood block gives way to the carver's hand....In that creative moment---and it sometimes is only but a moment---we "get it." Our art comes alive and we capture a glimpse of the Divine. And, in that moment, we're left a little breathless---and also a little frustrated. There's only so far "human art and imagination" can go. But, hey, doesn't this sound vaguely familiar?

I couldn't help but think of Eucharistic Adoration as I read this passage.  As we contemplate God in the Blessed Sacrament, we are called to fully utilize our imaginations to look beyond the appearances of bread and wine to glimpse the "unfathomable mystery" of the Real Presence. Few have penetrated the veil. Our Lord has been kind enough to remain revealed in Eucharistic miracles around the world, such as at Lanciano, but for the most part, contemplating Him in the Eucharist requires faith and obedience. We are called to go ever deeper and deeper in our understanding of this great Mystery and yet, by it's very essence, it is unfathomable.

I think our artistic endeavours are a little like contemplating the Mystery. We try to go deeper and deeper to capture the ideas in our hearts and minds and to bring them forth. Sometimes, we "get it." Other times, we come close. Still other times, we fall far short of grasping the expression we hoped to make. Yet, we keep pursuing the image, the word, the emotion which will bring to life our characters, plots, settings. Sometimes, we can only move forward in faith---faith that we will understand where our stories are trying to take us, faith in the fact that our vocation calls us to keep trying to breathe life into our little worlds. We discipline ourselves to continue doing the research we need to do to make our stories authentic; to continuing to find out about the people we want to write about and to make their lives as believable as possible.

I was so thrilled to come across the online Eucharistic Adoration site! I want to suggest that we try to visit Him there as we embark on our daily work. Whether we can make it out to Church or not during the week, the reality is that we can't sit in His Presence in a physical Eucharistic Chapel all day, but we can turn to Him periodically as we type away madly on our computers. It is quite possible that this is the solution to writer's block. The more we open ourselves up to the Author of Life, the more able we will be to give life to our own work. And let's face it, being a writer is one of the loneliest endeavours in the world! Spending time with Jesus might help alleviate that loneliness and give us the courage to go on for one more sentence, one more paragraph, one more page.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Making A Start

"Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them" (Flannery O'Connor).

Formidable first words with which to start a blog, but they nicely sum up why I've decided to start this blog in addition to my other one, The Luminous Heart. My first blog is less than a week old, but I've already begun to feel that it's mission---to focus on the joyful everyday things of life---doesn't quite provide an adequate creative space for the mental exercise and reflection every person needs---especially those who, like myself---presume to call themselves Christian writers. O'Connor's quote strikes a chord because, sometimes, I wonder if someone should have stifled me way back when I first showed signs of wanting to venture out on the writer's journey. I'm not trying to be falsely modest, neither am I in search of praise. I'm well aware that not even the best authors are wonderful 24/7. Welcome to being human!

But, I do sometimes wonder if I'm like some of the contestants who have the nerve to go to auditions for shows such as So You Think You Can Dance? and actually are flabbergasted when they learn that they shouldn't quit their day jobs? Two years ago, I completed my first real novel and very promptly received my first major criticism as an author. Dealing with criticism is a subject for another posting. Let us just say, I always thought I was good at taking criticism until that moment!

You see, I wonder: does it follow that a person who loves to read, make up stories, and can string together a grammatical sentence necessarily should spend all her free time "penning"? True, not writing feels like not eating, but maybe I should be keeping all my scribblings to myself and not forcing them on an unsuspecting public. The thought is a daunting one, but not entirely impossible. As I said in The Luminous Heart last week, I may be the only one interested in what I'm blogging about. If so, I need to figure that out now before I set about to answer, what I like to hope is, indeed, a vocation to be a Christian writer. So far, since none of my teachers, friends or enemies have seen fit to tell me to rethink what I do (yet), I've decided that I'll keep plugging away until someone does. Perhaps this blog will provide some anonymous person the courage they need to finally tell me to call it quits. Then again, I may discover that writing is exactly what God wants me to be doing.

So, if I am to finally set off on this journey in earnest, I need to start taking myself seriously as a writer. Now, I know Chesterton says that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly---which is a good and fair warning to A-types like myself who tend to overanalyze everything. However, it's also true that practioners of any craft should strive to be reflective and to know why they do what they do. That's what I hope Quills and Candles to be---a space for myself and others to reflect on why we write, what we write and how we write. Being a Catholic Christian writer, in addition, requires a particular brand of reflection which is more like a spiritual examination. Art, for the Catholic artist, is self-conscious art and, more importantly, Christ-conscious art.

It is my fervent hope that, the more I figure out the whys, hows, and wherefores of my craft, the better of a writer I'll become. I hope you'll come on this journey with me. The old maxim, "Know Thyself", is truly sage advice. As we strive to do that, I hope a community of intentional authors under the ultimate Author might burgeon and blossom here. So, sharpen your quills and put in a good supply of candles for those late nights and pre-dawns and let's make a start!