Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Blog 35 - Writing Regardless of Mood

 



I am, as I’ve often said, going to do something directly related to writing (almost) every day. I’ll do it (almost) regardless of mood. Something, right? Gotta be something. In stating that, am I suggesting mood doesn’t matter, that it has no impact? Definitely not! Because mood is so impactful with me, I believe I’d be foolish to ignore the conditions, actions, and routines that can affect my mood prior to writing. Writing, for me, is not reflexive or organic. It is, in its own way, toil, requiring honest labor. So anything I can do to enhance mood? I’m for it. That said, I’d like to offer some of my mood-enhancing habits for consideration. So, to set the mood:     

1)      Thinking – Each session, I prefer to think briefly about where I am in a developing story and where I might like to go.

2)      (Almost) always following my (thinking) warm-up, I’ll make a page or two of notes. My intention is to get a reflection of my thoughts on a page and not just depend on memory.

3)      I do not read prior to writing. I love to read, but it seduces me to defer (procrastinate?) the onset of writing. You know the drill: “Just one more chapter.”

4)      Often prior to writing (or during a session, depending upon dog or cat), I’ll spend time with one of our pets. Giving our eighteen year-old, junkyard dog, Mufasa, his daily walk (as I did today), puts me in a more mellow frame of mind, our connection eliciting gratitude for his presence in my life. Result: good mood. Our sixteen year-old cat, Purr, will come up in my chair and settle against my leg almost any time I sit to write. Her presence is an antidote to internal tension on my part. Not infrequently, I’ll briefly pet her and she responds by leaning into my hand. Result: good mood.

5)      Morning sessions (almost) always follow a shower and a shave, gracing my mood with a fresh alertness.

6)      Afternoon sessions (almost) always follow a pleasureful activity, e.g. lunch, dog walk. I rarely pursue dual sessions the same day. For me, I risk allowing the writing to become forced.

7)      At the end of a writing session, I’ll often review and edit what I’ve written. It tends to produce an enhanced sense of direction for where I go next, leaving me mindful of tomorrow and already in a positive mood.

8)      How about chatting prior to (or during) a session? Can’t do it. It takes me out of a writing rhythm, away from my collected thoughts. And yet my understanding with my wife is that if she needs or wants to talk to me, she can. In return, she understands how the process works for me and tries not to interrupt. But she has to have the option. After sixty years together, it’s not just about me.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Blog 34 A Reading List for Those Who want to Understand

 

In the autumn of 1958, my junior year in high school, I entered the annual oratorical contest, my subject – racial discrimination in America. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium of the almost entirely white student body. I did not win the contest. In retrospect, the memory reminds me that I was already sensitized to the issue of race in our country.

With an erratic pulse in the subsequent sixty plus years, our country has moved unevenly toward a reckoning with our history of slavery and its aftermath. Today, at a time when a plethora of historians / writers, many of them African-American, are providing us with a means to confront with knowledge one of our two national sins (the other, our treatment of the original Americans), sadly, but not unexpectedly to me, a significant number of white Americans are turning away from this opportunity. I choose to look closer.

The two-plus-year pandemic has awakened me to scholarly works addressing this willful lacuna in our national education. I decided to test and enhance my knowledge base by availing myself of a selection of the book salad before me. To date, I have striven to choose a variety of approaches to this massive undertaking in the belief that no single work could exhaust the challenge of continuing to educate myself while reducing, if not eradicating, my prior assumptions.

Among my efforts, may I recommend: 1) Say It Loud (Randall Kennedy) Within an overarching legal framework, this law professor’s essays plumb the issue of justice (or its absence) while offering a window into unrelenting black American historical pursuit of justice. 

2) On Juneteenth (Annette Gordon-Reed) In what I found a gentle but effective presentation, this history professor anchors her work with the date (June 19th, 1865), too long after the Appomattox surrender, that the last slaves in Galveston, Texas were informed they were free, and then expanding from there its historical significance for all Americans. 

3) Woke Racism (John McWhorter) Possibly an iconoclast to some, I feel this African-American linguistics professor, in exploring examples of a negative impact of woke racism, reaches to balance efforts within ‘the cause’ rather than permitting shrill adherents of political correctness lead to detrimental results despite good intentions, i.e. criticize when indicated, but refrain from using this freedom to destroy. In other words, let the punishment fit the crime. 

4) Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo) Key to this writer’s focus is a historical examination of the negative impact of white male violence upon women, people of color, and, ultimately, whites themselves. Perhaps expecting a polemic based on the title, I found it more a call for a reckoning with our history, past and recent. 

5) The 1619 Project (Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator) Though it has been lauded by many and criticized by some, I plan to read it in keeping with my determination to maintain my own mind. The more certain politicians criticize or dismiss it (without having read it), the more I sense there is something there. 

My intention is to continue to reach to learn more about my (our) history. I want to know, always have, whether engaged in a discussion or knowledge for its own sake. And so I read on.                                          

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

 

Blog 33

Third in a Series: Responsibility as a Writer

I’d like to return once more to the theme of my sense of responsibility as a writer (an
d reader), the third in this series. The first more narrowly focused upon self, the second more broadly examined connection to country and the world. This time I’d like to explore middle ground, to examine the issue of personal responsibility as a writer and citizen in relation to family and neighborhood (as an extension of family).

Responsibility to family might be assumed; in my case, it can be. My wife is the sun, our children orbiting planets, our pets reflected light, all of them the source of joy and, more constantly, satisfaction in life. Motivated by caring for family as I approach sixty years of marriage, can I extend at least some of that bone-deep caring to my neighbors, and in that remain connected to country and world? A fair question: How do I actively attempt to carry out a drawing-board intention? One caring act at a time.

As part of my daily physical exercise, I regularly walk through my neighborhood, an approximately one-mile circuit. More than limiting my route to mere physical exercise, I greet my neighbors. I introduce myself to those I don’t know or am less familiar with, the icebreaker often a beloved dog. I request first names as a starter, offering mine in advance. Foremost, I always ask a dog-owner if she or he is comfortable with me petting their animal, requesting the animal’s name at the outset. Rarely does a loving owner refuse my interest.

From that moment, I strive to memorize the names of the neighbor and the pet. Henceforth, I not only watch for them, but I try to watch out for them, to stay attuned to a neighborly flow of information as to their welfare, alert to the possibility one may be struggling. I would describe my citizenship attitude as microcosmically universal – again, one act of caring at a time. As a citizen, I’ll engage a neighbor in conversation or, as more often happens, I’ll respond to their attempt at engagement, allowing the other to share what they wish. If my views diverge, I try to listen as fully as I can, requesting clarification when needed, then offering my view non-argumentatively or choosing not to in consideration of moment, purpose and neighborliness. When I encounter a disappointing difference of opinion, I try to develop a sense of why that particular view is so important to them. This relates to my perceived roles as writer and reader. I try always to be alert to a possible story and I require myself to read divergent views, i.e. the whole as the sum of its parts.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

My Sense of Responsibility as a Writer

 

Blog 32 February 17, 2022

                                                                                                          
This month, I want to return to the issue of my sense of responsibility as a writer, but more broadly as it relates to being an American citizen. I visualize my citizen’s stance as one person, one act at a time toward the greater good. Central to this perception is a dedication to truthfulness, even when the effort proves daunting. My lens is focused specifically on pride and what this word means to me conceptually, how I identify with it, how I clarify it, and how I attempt to remove any assumptions about it that infiltrate my thinking or writing.

Often, it seems these days, there is public pressure to submit to a pre-ordained profession of pride, e.g. “America, right or wrong.” Most simply put, it can attenuate to a required declaration of pride as an American citizen. Do I feel pride as an American? Sometimes, but not automatically. I do flush with pride when we, as a nation, do something right, something that tilts us closer to achieving our stated ideals, something that reflects who we can be to the world. In my novels, I try to imbue my protagonists with a congruent morality.

I have, however, also experienced doubt, even shame, not only over what our country has done historically, but at our current efforts at denial. Same country, different channels.

Not infrequently, I hear people speak of pride in being (fill in the blank), citing a race, a hue, an ethnicity, a religion, a gender. My ethnic heritage is at least fifty percent Irish. Am I proud of that? Frankly, pride doesn’t seem to enter into my reaction. But I enjoy the connection. I feel positive about the historical roots of people who survived attempted genocide by starvation and indifference while managing to produce a stream of writers and poets who contributed to the literary canon.

Pride for me personally, relates to accomplishment, not to an accident of birth. If I strive to do something (writing a novel) and I do it well (to be determined), I very likely will feel the blush of pride, briefly. Again for me, it’s akin to being an American. My responsibility is to display good citizenship; in return, my country owes me good governance. When we behave badly as citizens or as a country, why would I take pride in that?

I do feel fortunate to be an American, feel positive about doing my share to help my country be what it could be by striving to be what I can be, to achieve the standards I try to hold myself to. An example of this effort: a refusal on my part to allow political mania or expediency carry me off into a soul-decaying resentment of others or to surrender to the lure of a convenient explanation to make sense of a dizzying array of complex data.

I am deeply grateful to my country for allowing me opportunities I might not have in too many other countries, e.g. the freedom to express myself through the written word. How many Russians or (again, fill in the blank) would feel at ease expressing these feeling in writing?

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Blog 31 January 22, 2022

 


Already “at it” in a new year, I’d like to share some of the directions the journey we call life seems to be taking me. In discussing my thoughts early in 2022 and what I might likely pursue, I would prefer “challenges” to the more prosaic “resolutions.” I’m promising nothing as I lean into the year and its possibilities. Broadly speaking, my thoughts are imbued with and channeled by a sense of responsibility threading self, family, neighborhood, country, world. I hope to return to these challenges next time (and perhaps a time after that), but this time I’d like to focus on how early thinking is impacting my sense of self. More specifically, I’m considering the reality (to some extent) of age-determined aims, notably any activity partially affected by physical well-being. At this moment, to my knowledge, I’m in good health.

The move to Virginia from North Carolina in 2017, an age-related consideration, deracinated me from writing “roots,” e.g. clubs, associations, informal groups, kindred individuals at whose tables I found brain nourishment. The cost: at least some loss of ferment. The loss has been heightened by my hesitation to reinvest in similar contacts here. I tell myself the hesitation relates to the time and responsibility required to re-associate myself. Age related? Possibly. Awareness of time shapes decisions. Part of being responsible, a promise has to be kept.

All that said, I have noticed changes in my writing life that I suspect relate, somehow, to aging. I seem to be letting stories come to me more now whereas up to the last year of two, I actively sought them. I also spend more time than in the past on pre-writing thought, editing, revision, and research.

I still read selectively, interspersing fiction and non. Within fiction, I still mix genre with literary, probably on a ratio of two or three to one. Within non-fiction, while my interest still feels protean, I suspect the range has narrowed slightly. A factor of time left? I suspect so. Then too, it also appears there’s a quantitative lessening as well. For decades, I averaged reading eighty to ninety books per year, occasionally more. Now the average appears roughly to be sixty to seventy, possibly fewer. Am I enjoying reading less? Heck no! If anything, quite the opposite; I continue to treasure the endless pleasure a good book offers. Perhaps I’m less driven to pack away knowledge and more open to the rhythms of optimal absorption. That’s just a guess.

            Back to writing, please don’t misunderstand; I still write, engaging in some aspect of the writing process almost every day. I recently completed the first draft of the fourth novel in the Quarry crime series. I’ve also been reviewing earlier work that, for various reasons, I’ve allowed to lie dormant. The writing goes on! It’s what we do, right?

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Blog 30 History Through Fiction

I recently finished Tracy Chevalier’s A Single Thread. The protagonist, Violet, was a “surplus” woman, one of tens of thousands marooned in their lives in post-WWI England, widowed or without prospects of marriage resulting from the war’s carnage. Set in 1932, the story reveals the cramped, restrictive lives forced on these manless women. Often relegated to living in financial poverty, they were further impoverished by societal restrictions. Unaccompanied by a man, they couldn’t enter a pub, the center of British social life, without accompanying judgment as to their intentions. Men and women tended too often to treat them as suspect. In cities, without family support, they were required to live in boarding houses for women only, their freedoms subject to the Victorian whims of the women proprietors. Ultimately, they were excluded from almost all facets of British life.

If I’d been passingly aware of the surplus women, my awareness was now a fleshed-out memory, embedded within my consciousness by the fictional palette painted by Chevalier. It reminded me of the trove of potential learning offered by fiction, especially when the writer is faithful to the historical context in which she has set her story. Presented contextually, I believe historical facts (or the facts of almost any body of knowledge) are more impactful, more easily remembered. To a teacher, I would say: if you want to land a lesson, historical or otherwise, present it not as a linear progression, but as a mosaic, a tapestry designed to elicit attention.

A close friend of mine, ironically a history major in college, claims he only reads non-fiction. (In the case of my fiction and on the basis of our friendship, he offers me dispensation.) I have suggested to him how one might better learn from and retain historical knowledge from fiction by the way it stimulates thinking about historical context in a way that non-fiction often does not. Not atypically, non-fiction states its theme, then, delivers the message along its promised route. Fiction allows one’s thinking to diverge, to branch in unexpected ways, while simultaneously solidifying memory embedded in a context other than itself. The linkage to memory is further etched by the sensory experiences evoked by fiction.

An exception to this premise is narrative non-fiction. But then the writer is using a fictive method, creating a storied atmosphere, utilizing the scaffolding of a story, to deliver the message.

Of course, this is what I think. How about you? What are your thoughts?

A Single Thread: A Novel: Chevalier, Tracy: 9780525558248: Amazon.com: Books

Monday, November 22, 2021

A Wondering

 


Blog 29 November 2021

Earlier today (11-21-21), I finished typing the first draft of my latest novel, the fourth in the Quarry crime series set in rural North Carolina. In the original writing, as well as the process of entering the manuscript into a computer, I experienced a phenomenon I would describe as a “wondering.” Specifically, I found myself wondering if the quality of my writing has, perhaps, lessened around the edges. Has there been, is there, a diminishment in my capacity to express effectively and fully that which my mind imagines?

I recalled reading Witness to a Century, a memoir of a lifetime of journalistic experiences by George Seldes. I believe it was 1987 because Seldes, who was born in 1890, was ninety-six the year of publication. This was an individual who’d spent the bulk of his life traveling the world, reporting on major events involving larger-than-life personalities. He’d lived history while reporting on it.

My point in raising this memory is that I found Seldes’s writing spare, not just journalistically lean. It was as if there were empty spaces in his descriptions, as if something was missing. I sensed a diminution in his capacity for fullness in his writing. I found an absence of layering in the composition, the difference between a modern, smart phone photograph and the flat image of an old Kodak Brownie.

This should not be viewed as a criticism of Seldes. The man was, again, ninety-six. (He probably should have received an award recognizing his accomplishment.) Rather, citing this memory is part of my “wondering” as to the quality of my efforts at seventy-nine.

As an aged writer, are there detectable changes in my writing? If so, am I capable of detecting them? My wondering emerged from reading my latest effort at a novel. I suspect there may be changes and they’re likely not favorable. In part, it had to do with what I found to be a more prosaic aspect to my wording, a triteness of expression about something original emerging from my mind. Was I in too much of a hurry to get the story out of my head and onto paper or is my concern, again, reflective of changes in capacity?

The awareness of time left to write effectively was a major factor in my decision to retire as a Clinical Psychologist at sixty-four. I wanted to take the plunge to writing full-time while I possessed my faculties, rather than continuing to search for time niches in which to write. Regrets about that decision? NONE!

My response to the above concern: I plan to tear as vigorously and rigorously into the editing process as I ever have. This manuscript will abide in active limbo (is that an oxymoron?) until I’m satisfied I’ve applied whatever I have left qualitatively to the enhancement of the product. For me, hope (as it always has) lies in the trying.

Blog 35 - Writing Regardless of Mood

  I am, as I’ve often said, going to do something directly related to writing (almost) every day. I’ll do it (almost) regardless of mood. ...