Not giving up the Ghost

If there’s one thing experienced authors can count on, it’s that at some point in the creative process they will look at their work in progress and believe it was, is, and always will be a huge piece of crap. Success rarely comes to those unable to navigate this nadir.

That’s where I was last month, when I watched a writing challenge – one I’d really looked forward to – turn to mush. Another NYC Midnight challenge, this one was:

  • a rhyming story up to 600 words,
  • in the genre of a ghost story,
  • with an emotion of vulnerability,
  • and a theme of around-the-clock.

I couldn’t have gotten any luckier getting assigned a ghost story theme so close to Halloween. And I had entered the contest wondering why they would consider giving more than a week to finish. Then, two days into it, I felt like there would never be enough time to turn this dud into a diva.

A rhyming story? Isn’t that a poem? Well it may be. But perhaps not. It needs to actually have a story, a plot. “Romeo and Juliet” is a rhyming story. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” is not…in my opinion. Emily Dickinson fans should feel free to weigh in.

I love a good rhyme. In college, I wrote a paper in rhyming verse format on the topic of Jonathan Swift’s “On Poetry: a Rhapsody”. The topic was assigned, the format I chose for kicks. When this challenge came along, I knew I had this! I was made for this.

And yet shortly in, I began to wonder why I had signed up, why I ever thought I could do this, and why the story in my head just wasn’t coming out on the page. I had a likable, vulnerable protagonist Ghost. The story arc was there, the inciting moment was solid.

But what was that theme again? And why had I chosen this rhythm? Why couldn’t I come up with something more sophisticated? Surely others would have ravens quoting “Nevermore”, and winds chilling and killing.

Although my writing eventually turned a corner, in the end I had to bow out of the contest. I didn’t give up on the idea or the character and story it spawned. Competing non-discretionary priorities just made it too tough to pull off in a way I could be proud of…or even stomach. The challenge offered a valuable reminder, though.

The difference between failure and success is often a matter of continuing to work through it. We need to keep walking the path until the woods clear before us – until we see how to get through, feel the joy of finding, and begin the run to the end.

I suspect someday I will write the story I envisioned, though likely not in rhyming format. It was a beautiful story, and beauty is best when shared. Don’t worry – I haven’t given up the Ghost just yet.

Happy Halloween!

No, I don’t want a seat at the counter.

The slog through struggles to solve relationship issues, tease out how I really feel, or plan my future often unfolds and resolves in restaurants. It’s true. Along a spectrum from fast food to fine dining establishments, I find the change of venue helps me think best. In work and personal matters, getting out of my seat and into a new environment jump starts my brain.

You may recall from an earlier blog post my realization that everybody and his brother has published a book…except me. So when I began to find it hard to break from work long enough to find an optimal flow for writing, I revived my go-to: Dining Out.

It’s a two-fer remedy because it offers the stimulation of a divergence, and also demands I carve out a block of time for the experience. Now at least once a week, you can find me in a restaurant with my iPad, ordering breakfast, and writing. I go at times that aren’t busy, don’t overstay my welcome, and place a substantial order and tip so it’s fair for the restaurant, the server, and me.

I’m comfortable dining alone, since starting during my college days abroad. Some of my best journaling, life planning, and tough decisions have taken place at tabletops with emptied plates and coffee refills. Recently, though, an innocent question caused mental blips. The past two times I went to the diner closest to home, hosts greeted my approach with, “One?,” and followed my affirmative with, “Would you like to sit at the counter?”

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked, but I felt an unexpected interruption of emotion, neither welcome nor warranted. I declined and took a table, but felt irritation veering toward offense at what I believed to be a suggestion that I didn’t rate a table like those who dine with companions. After all, at a relatively empty restaurant, parties of three rarely get offers for counter seating. Still, my response seemed irrational, and led me to wonder what lay beneath.

I have very fond memories of sitting at the counter of this diner with my boys in their younger days. I often sat in the middle, one sweet child on each side of me, ordering chocolate chip pancakes for dinner. My earliest counter memory is sitting with my dad at a stop on the way home from Pittsburgh. It was just the two of us that night nearly fifty years ago, but I can close my eyes and be there today.

We were losing my favorite grandmother in a year filled with the loss of family members on both sides. My mother had flown back to Jersey, and my dad and I pulled up the rear, driving home. He needed a coffee and bathroom break on the long night drive. Sitting at the counter, I ordered an English muffin, and he asked if he could help me butter it. I was old enough not to need the help, but I remember feeling very small and very young. It was a simple offer filled with love and strength. I took the help.

He did such a great job. No one in the world butters bread like my dad. He butters generously, patiently waits for the butter to soften on the warm bread, then spreads it. He did it that way for me that night, and then topped it with grape jelly. To this day, English muffins with well-melted butter and grape jelly remind me of my dad taking care of me when we all needed it.

My favorite counter memories aren’t times when I’m alone. They’re times when I’m seated close to people I love, closer than I would be at a table, and enjoying their company in a different way.

My host’s counter offer reminded me that I’m flying solo. Though loneliness wasn’t along for the ride at my arrival, it glommed onto me at the host stand after our exchange. Couldn’t the host see the laptop in my hand and realize that although I need only one seat, I am accompanied by my work? And must I now, having been unwittingly and silently labeled “alone”, put my solitude on display at the counter for all to see, the single diner who can’t possibly need a table? I suppose there is sediment stirring in my otherwise clear waters.

This morning, though, was different. Rather than subject myself to another sparring of innocent inquiry and simmering sentiment, I set off to a diner a bit farther away. It’s larger, with an expansive counter in comparison, so I could have been setting myself up for more of the same.

I was greeted by a host who asked, “One or two?,” despite the fact that there was no one standing near me. “One,” I replied. He looked at me with my iPad case in hand. “I have a nice booth for you over here, and it even has an outlet so you can plug in.” Now that’s the kind of host we all need.

NOTE: My very accommodating host and serving staff were at Amphora Diner in Herndon, Virginia. Thanks, Amphora!

Writing fairy tales

Would more people write fiction if they could imagine characters they’d like to be around? Wouldn’t it be fun to get lost in worlds of your own making, populated with a cast of perfect characters? In theory, yes. But it’s not that easy to execute. Stories move forward through tension, opposition, and conflict. Characters grow to correct flaws or underdevelopment. They improve and become interesting when their status quo is insufficient for the tasks at hand, and so they rise to meet them. The action can’t be all wine and roses, and the characters can’t always be at their best.

I recently thought of a storyline that had legs. I had a hard time breathing life into it, though, because it took awhile to find a likeable and sustainable main character. My mind crafted possible protagonists, and as quickly dismissed them as boring, shallow, or agitating. Some characters had the chops to go the distance for a sequel or series, but I just didn’t think I’d like them enough to keep them going. I had visions of wanting to kill my own hero off so I wouldn’t have to write yet another saccharine missive.

Birthing a novel is a significant undertaking in terms of emotional investment and time. There is the actual writing effort. Even for a fast writer, 60,000 words or more doesn’t come easy. An article in The Writer discussed the variety of writing speeds of some well-known authors. Ranging from around 600 words per day to over 2,000 per day, one couldn’t expect to write a novel in under a month. Hence the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) month-long challenge to write 50,000 words each November.

Add to that, those word counts aren’t in “salvageable” words. Many fall to the cutting room floor, only to be replaced with more writing, more words. And of course you’ll spend more time in creative thinking, editing, and rewrites. Something about your fictional world and its people has to keep calling you back. So you have to like it at some level.

Once birthed, the manuscript can’t exist without your nurturing.  It takes more effort to get it packaged and staged for shelves, virtual or otherwise, and to market the work.  During that experience you’ll talk about the character, consider the character, speak to their motives, strengths and failings in your effort to gin up interest and engage future potential readers.

When I consider the level of effort, I’d rather not embark on it with a main character that is petty, miserly, miserable, sociopathic, or just plain irritating. It might be satisfying in a redemption work, like watching Scrooge become a better self in A Christmas Carol. But redemption stories have inherent limits. After all, there’s no Scrooge franchise with Another Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s Fourth Ghost, or Educating Tim.

Given my unwillingness to commit to writing worlds and personae I don’t like, I began to wonder how writers of grizzly horrors or psychological thrillers manage to live in their novel worlds long enough to finish their own books. I found some great answers in Lee Murray’s piece, “Horror in Real Life: Writers and their Mental Illness Demons”. This is not to suggest that all authors who write horror stories struggle with mental illness. But Lee’s interviews of horror story authors provide fascinating insight into how the writing process impacts different individuals.

In fact, after reading Murray’s article, I even felt brave enough to consider adding some menacing characters into my storyline. But don’t get ahead of yourself. I may be willing to sprinkle them in, but there’s no central role for them anything I plan to write.

Is there anyone who hasn’t written a book (besides me)?

I feel like I can’t shake a stick and not hit someone who has just published a book. It begs the question, “Is there anyone out there – besides me – who hasn’t published a book?” And the obvious followup question arises: “Was it worth it?” And then the next: “Should I do it?”

When I began writing my blog, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read it. As I continued to write post after post, I found some posts focused on the audience, and others were more about personal expression. Balancing the content so that there is enough of both allows me to continue to connect with an audience and express myself.

That’s not the case with a book. A book is all about the people who will read it. They will spend a healthy amount of time with it, so it shouldn’t disappoint. Orbit Media’s Annual Blogging Survey, now in its 8th year, shows average blog post length to be rising year over year. Still, the per post length for 2021 is estimated to be just over 1,400 words. Blog readers may give five minutes to a post. Masterclass estimates an average book is around 90,000 words depending on genre, or six hours if you did nothing but read cover to cover without a break.

Books also present the need to engage readers’ interests through or between disruptions, to inspire them to return often enough to read through to the end. While a blog post is short enough that it may not fight for attention once a reader begins, reader distraction for longer pieces is real. It’s been attributed to an increasing loss of “reading habit” prevalent in those raised in the digital age, the prevalence of multitasking, and even a fear of missing out. Universities and their faculty are exploring ways to support “engaged and active reading” and to promote a “reading culture” to offset the trend, which has a significant impact on learning.

One thing that many people who feel they have lost the ability to concentrate mention is that reading a book for pleasure no longer works for them. We have got so used to skim reading for fast access to information that the demand of a more sophisticated vocabulary, a complex plot structure or a novel’s length can be difficult to engage with.

“The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world”, Harriet Griffey, The Guardian, October 14, 2018.

With all of the challenges presented by longer pieces, it’s ironic that more new authors than ever appear to be emerging. It’s very difficult to get any reliable statistics on newly published first time authors, but the growth of indie publishing platforms in recent years seems to indicate a growth in authorship. Statista research into 12 independent publishers indicates a median growth rate of about 77% for indie publishers from 2018 to 2020, with some doubling and tripling their sales growth during that period. The pandemic and access to self-publishing platforms is thought to have increased indie-publishing in 2021, as well.

The answer to the question “Should I do it?” is simple for me: If I have something of value to share, then I should. But whether the road to writing and publishing the average book is worth it or not is something into which I have no personal insight. Written Word Media’s 2021 survey of indie published authors found that the median number of books per author was 10. At some point you would think that if it wasn’t worth it, authors would simply lose interest or momentum before reaching those numbers.

In terms of worth or return, it doesn’t appear to be about the money. Most authors don’t make a living on book publishing alone. And the road can be extremely long. Take Nancy McCabe, whose 2020 book Can This Marriage Be Saved: A Memoir was 30 years in the making. So what is it that sustains authors on the long journey from blank page to publication? Was it worth it, and why or why not?

If you’ve written a book, I’d love it if you’d share in the comments below whether you feel it was worth it, and why. It’s the story that statistics alone can’t tell.

Wading into writing contest waters.

Although I love a good challenge, writing contests hadn’t interested me until recently. A friend shared her experience with NYCMidnight, a contest that launches at midnight on a specific date, and allows you only 24 hours to write and submit a newly written piece. It sounded like a fun effort, and I loved the idea of so many people taking the same prompts at the same time and turning them into unique works.

I decided to give it a go, and signed up for an October 15 contest of micro-fiction (250 words or less). As midnight approached, I couldn’t wait to find out what my prompts and genre would be. The anticipation was so exciting! It felt like Christmas! The launch message came, and I navigated to my name for my group assignment. My face fell. I’d be writing something in the Romance genre, including an activity of swimming in a pond, and using the word “dawn”. A few important points here:

  • I have never written micro-fiction in any genre.
  • I have never written or desired to write romance.
  • Swimming in a pond is my personal nightmare given my aversion to dark water and what lies beneath.

The thought of ditching it crossed my mind, and not just once. But I pulled my big-girl socks up and gave it a shot. Given the challenges with the assignment, I am pleased to say that I did manage to write something and submit it. I’m also pleased that, despite falling into the romance genre, it’s not too blush-worthy for prime time. I won’t know how I fared in the contest until December, but I have to admit that I enjoyed rising to the challenge of stretching into a new genre and format. I’m sharing the micro-fiction here, as likely the only piece in the romance genre I’ll ever write…unless another contest comes along.

Sunday Ritual

Written October 15, 2021

She caught her breath as the chilled night air greeted her. Walking toward the pond he’d built, her lips spread into a smile as she thought of how his vision, though not his hands, had made it reality. A pond for their children to swim in, but no ordinary pond. She walked past steps flanked by urns with cascading bright flowers. Her toes broke the dark water, irises and rocks surrounding it on all sides, backlit as the sun peaked up in front of her.

Waist deep now, she spread her arms wide, and watched the water swirl around her fingers as she moved through. In an hour it would be dawn, and she would lie next to him in the silence of the smooth teak deck, slightly warmer than the night, but not as warm as his chest and thighs. They would watch the sun rise, and speak quietly words for just the two of them. When another hour had passed, the patter of tiny feet would run toward them, starting their day, wondering about breakfast.

Having crossed the length of the pond, she turned back toward the house just in time to see him slip out of the bedroom doors, a towel slung around his waist. He was more than she had imagined when they married. He became even more each day. She waited for this man who had made her the woman she was at that moment. Waited for their Sunday ritual.

Some lessons never leave you.

Creative Writing is not usually a high point in one’s high school experience, and unsurprisingly it was not in mine. In fact, I believed I barely had a memory of it until I decided to wind up 2020 with a reading of my past journals…about 40 years worth. Though the teacher – Mrs. Campbell – was not mentioned by name in any journal, her creative writing assignments are likely the reason I had the journals in the first place. I was not a willing vessel, but Mrs. Campbell’s class provided me with two worthwhile lessons: The importance of proofreading, and the benefits of journaling.

I learned Lesson #1 when my first writing assignment came back with a C+ in red ink at the top. The grading policy included a zero-tolerance policy on misspellings. Even one resulted in a starting grade of C+, and the grade would decline from there based on the work’s merits. I paid little attention until the rubber met the road (or the red hit the paper). Ouch! I can practically still see the grade circled on the paper, and feel my self-righteous indignation welling up. Complaints to my parents that evening about the injustice of it all were met with no sympathy. I’d known the rules, and I should have proofread.

I thought it was stupid at the time. In truth, though, typos and misspellings are a distraction. However good a piece is, your message suffers when the reader is distracted. And on the rougher end of the spectrum, especially in business, those who would like to see your points dismissed can point to those errors as defects illustrative of the quality of your work, thoughts, or care. It may not be fair, but that’s how it goes down in the real world. So well done, Mrs. Campbell!

Lesson #2 came from an assignment to start and maintain a journal each day. The subject was undefined, but we were required to write for a minimum period of time to develop the habit. I was generally unstructured and impatient, and hated the assignment. Still, I found that when prompted by silence and the ticking of a clock, new thoughts would form, and words flowed. I’d tried to diary and journal at earlier times in my life but without “success”, or so I thought given my sporadic activity. The journaling assignment taught me that there could be value in the effort even if it wasn’t a daily event.

I took up journaling after the class continued, and kept journals through most of my years. Over the years, I’ve had mixed feelings about the journals. Near the 2020 holiday season, months after completing some estate planning, I began to wonder what would happen to the journals when my time expired. Would others read them? What would they find, how would they feel? If that wasn’t okay with me, should I just destroy them? If I did, would I live to regret it when I was old and wanting to remember the good…enough to read the bad?

Those questions became a challenge as I wondered whether I myself would ever be brave enough to read the journals. Serendipitously, a quote I’d cut out and placed on a memento board many years ago helped me out. It is the only quote on the sparsely populated board, and as it caught my eye it begged the question of whether there were small boldnesses hiding in those books, should I have the courage to look.

“In the cellars of the night, when the mind starts moving around old trunks of bad times, the pain of this and the shame of that, the memory of a small boldness is a hand to hold.”

John Leonard, Private Lives (1977) https://www.nytimes.com/1977/02/02/archives/private-lives.html

So I breathed deep, called up my strength, and spent the last months of 2020 reading those journals and their witness to 40 years worth of experiences. I approached with trepidation, opening each to the first and last passages to put them in chronological order. Even peeking that much caught my breath. As I touched the covers and bindings, felt the textures of paper and saw the colors of pages and scripts written, memories flooded in. I remembered squirreling them away at a friend’s house during a divorce when I worried their sanctity could be violated. It was good to have a friend I trusted enough to take the heavy box and store it knowing curiosity would not get the upper hand.

As I found gaps in dates, I remembered I’d stopped writing at some periods. In some cases I was having too much fun to stop and write, and at others the weight was too heavy to shift onto the page. Sadly, I’d failed to capture the development of the greatest romance of my life, for the former reason. I resumed writing at some point, but wished I’d done so sooner. I broke with it again as my children grew. I didn’t feel free to express myself knowing that at some point my boys might read Mom’s journals and see me in a different way. And if I’m honest with myself, I think maybe it was hard for me to bridge the person I was becoming with the person I had been.

Despite the strength it took to even begin reading, once I did, it was a true page-turner. Seeing yourself in your younger years, knowing how the story being told at any time actually turns out, knowing how you grew as time passed – it was all such a gift.

I could literally see the quality of my writing and the depth of thoughts change during the months I spent in Paris during a college semester abroad. Almost instantly the experience of being in another country, of being a fish in new water, an outsider instantly recognized as such by the locals, transformed me by years. Even the parts of the story I hadn’t written about flooded back to me as I relived that time through written words. I remembered how much I hoped to look like I belonged. My hair was styled in the latest French fashion at a high-end Paris salon; I dressed in clothing bought locally from head to toe – even down to the shoes and winter coat; I smoked French cigarettes and wore French perfume and used French toiletries. Even without opening my mouth, locals would walk up to me and begin speaking English. They could spot me as an American a mile away.

And I remembered that it was a round trip problem. When I came back to the states and rejoined my college, I no longer felt like I quite fit in there, either. Still, I was glad to be home. And my journal bore witness to my delayed flight home and my literal kissing-of-the-ground in the good ol’ USA upon deplaning.

Those journals brought back beautiful memories of everyday blessings that I’d failed to remember on my own. At parts I steeled myself, bracing for times and events I knew had been so hard. But I found that, though I wanted to hug the girl in those stories, I read them as a different woman seasoned by time and experience, stronger for the paths trod and choices made between then and now. It was comforting and healing seeing them from the other side, knowing I had made it through mostly better for the wear and that these events shaped the person I am today.

One of my journals began with entries that were simply excerpts of songs, poems, and other published works, as if my own words were insufficient to convey my thoughts and feelings. It included a quote I’ve considered many times over the years. It seemed oddly appropriate both to life and to this reading adventure.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot Little Gidding http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

When I’d finished reading all of the journals, I had gained a new inner peace believing that my life was surely at least half over, but that it had been a life well spent. I mused about what the next half would bring, as if having reached the top of a mountain, I surveyed the descent before me understanding it better than I had on the way up. Indeed I knew the place for the first time.

I was reminded of Mrs. Campbell today. I told my now high-school-age son that something was serendipitous. He said I use that word a lot. I remembered the first time I’d heard it was in connection with a compendium of pieces from various students that Mrs. Campbell called “Serendipity”. She seemed delighted by the word. I do not recall what my contribution may have been. I do remember thinking in my then salty-as-a-sailor voice, “What the F—— is Serendipity”? Maybe serendipity is best seen from the perspective of an age and experience I didn’t have when I’d heard the word the first time. Certainly from where I am now, I can see that Mrs. Campbell’s assignments turned out to be serendipitous for me.