25. What Writers Do

07/09/2018

I wanted to bring something with me to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in August to put on the “consignment table,” where workshop leaders and attendees can put out a few of their books for sale. I looked through my  small personal catalog of works and decided to take a book of poetry called A Space Between Rains, and maybe a little chapbook titled Inchworms.

The chapbook was something I had sort-of thrown together in 2014 as a birthday gift for a writer friend, and never expected to publish. Besides writing, my friend was a full-time student and working part-time too, a very busy young man. His thank you, a few days later, was the best compliment I’ve ever received as a writer. He said, “I didn’t have time to read it, so I decided to just read one story. And then I read the whole book, cover to cover.”

So this year, searching for something “good enough” for the conference, I came back to it. Since then, more stories and poems have been added, and it has morphed into a viable book, with a cover blurb that says: “a lively little flea-market of a book…” A true definition of a chapbook, surely. There are stories that are blithe and happy, but also some that are deeper and dark.

This is not intended to be brilliant literature. Its essence is sometimes sweet and funny, often philosophical between the lines, and wiser than it seems. The title story is about a little girl, three years old, observing and describing an inchworm, a tiny green creature she finds in the chicken yard that is her backyard in North Carolina. She tells us about it, sharing her love of it with us. One page long, the story is simply a very young mind discovering the life around her. In later pages as she grows and sees more, the stories and poems do too. That’s it. That’s all it is.

This morning I realized that this is what we are all doing as writers, no matter what genre. We are observing life, discovering events and meanings, always more intimately, more vastly, and more truly, and we are inspired – no, compelled — to share what we have discovered. We want to shout from the mountaintop: “Wow – Look at this! This is Who We Are! This is what Life Is! Isn’t it marvelous? Isn’t it terrible? Wonderful, painful, joyous, profound, magnificent? To BE here and be alive, discovering it all?”

That’s what writers do. And somewhere hidden in a deep  place the world can’t pry into, we know that this is what we came here to do: to discover life and share it by telling it. With or without worldly recognition or reward, we write.

 


22. Good Writing / Bad Writing

04/24/2018

I love going to readings at local bookstores, like Diesel on College Avenue, Berkeley. Often there are great people there. The guy who wrote Kite Runner was there, with his wife and son. Maxine Hong Kingston read there, and the godfather of Poetry Flash, Richard Silberg is a regular. One week it was a guy who had a good opening chapter which he read, so I bought the book. The rest of the book turned out to be a rather corny contrived 1950s detective story, crammed with gratuitous violence and cardboard characters, seeded with bits of jargon and dialogue he must have picked up from reading old True Detective magazines. The book was dreadfully boring (to me, with my own tastes and prejudices) so I skipped ahead looking for something interesting. I got all the way to the end of the book without finding that. Hmmmmm… As writers, we are prone to getting so deeply immersed in “our thing” that we forget there is someone else to consider – the reader. 

You could tell that the writer loved his ending, reveling in his own brilliance. It was a long, drawn-out, TV-style scene of meaningless violence, clumsily written in slow motion. (Hey, here’s a thought: When ya write about violence, dontcha think maybe the writing should be sharp, fast-moving, or in other words, violent?) When you slow it down and do a close-up of every punch, every gory detail, and every button on the detective’s overcoat sleeve, it has no power. I would hate to have to write a newspaper literary review for something like this, and have to say “The plot was glacier-like, and the characters had no flesh, no bones and no heartbeat.”

(Okay, that’s awfully harsh, girl. Who died and made you the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Committee?) I actually have no experience or expertise in book reviewing, only that tired old basic principle I heard so many times when I was a young artist: “I don’t know much about art, (literature, music, fill in the blank: _________ ) but I know what I like.” 

Many thoughts this morning about writers and writing, and about how many books get published that are definitely not literature. The publishing business is not about literature, it’s about selling books, and schlock sells better than art or literature. In a group I once frequented, the teacher/leader had two published books. I only recently got around to reading one of them, the most recent one. (It wasn’t in the pubic library so I stalled around for years.) The book wasn’t very good. In fact I was shocked at how weak and unimaginative the first page was. (I’m no expert about professional writing or publishing, but I do know, Ya gotta have something pretty good on the first page, or else nobody’s gonna turn it over and read the second page.)

I might be a snob-reader, it certainly could be justifiably argued. I tend to be too critical, of myself and others. But is there really much point in putting pen to paper for stuff like that?  Unless you do it to make money… well, after all, that is a necessity in this world, to pay the rent, and writing is an honest profession, mostly.  So I admit, shamefully, that I’m a snob (or something equally wormlike) in my tough standards for writing. In my defense, I’m as hard on myself as I am on anyone else. Anyway, I have put the group-leaders’s book into my goodwill collection box. Somebody will love it.

Which brought me to the bottom line of what I think is true.  Whether you write for an audience, or for the benefit of humankind, or simply write for your own pleasure, writing is expression, which is always a good thing. It’s a natural thing, like the wordless songs babies sing in their cribs in the morning that wake you up with a a laugh.  It’s not exactly music… or is it?


20. Illegitimi Non-Carborundum

01/11/2018

Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, was the book that sparked my literary/artistic ambition to the point of making a rock-solid commitment to completing and publishing my book. Before that, I was just working on it quietly, privately, as a maybe-someday-author. But after that, I took the pledge, literally, out loud to myself one night before I went to sleep. I told God I would do it.

Well, lots of never-published-authors do that. That was important, but still safe. Then I read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and it resonated with my own life and mistakes, the circus-characters of my family and my expatriated state of Texas. (Her town in The Liars Club is a disguised Port Arthur Texas, where Janis Joplin was born and her troubled lonesome soul never really escaped from.) I went to hear Karr in one of those interview/conversations at an old hall at UC Berkeley, and that clinched it for me.

I had been genuinely writing my book, but still on the down-low. Anybody can do that. I realized that I had to take the leap into the abyss. I had to become A Writer, publicly, brazenly, and make myself emotionally bare-ass-naked to the world. OMG. From that moment, things started to change. The lens shifted, somewhere out in the universe a gear clicked, and it was scary as hell. Now I was no longer invisible; anybody could take a shot at me.

I took a few hits. I said ouch. But I had served eight years as a line firefighter a decade before, where I’d learned how to take a hit, get up quick, and get back on-task. But this was different. It wasn’t physical. It wasn’t bad reviews that stung, I didn’t get so many of those. What I got was, strangely, entirely unexpected subtle but discernible bad vibes from other writers. Veiled snarkyness.

We writers are a jealous lot. Hypersensitive and neurotically vulnerable, most of us. Perhaps it’s this artist’s temperament that enables us to receive profound meaning and God-sent talents of expression, that also makes us easy victims to insecurities and self-doubts. Sometimes we fall into something less than our truest and best selves.

Lately I’ve been learning and practicing the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. (It does take practice, like a foreign language.) It works like this:  When you feel yourself being snagged and pulled down by an emotion like jealousy, self-doubt, fear (the worst one) or any negative feeling, first, just notice it. Notice how it makes you feel bad/ uncomfortable/ unhappy, and you don’t like that. The action to take to change this circumstance is simple but effective. Admit it to yourself, (yes, I’m feeling like this) and then Let the feeling go. Push it away, and go on to something else you do like.

Easier said than done of course. So I devised a trick upon myself. (You could try it if you like, it might work for you.) I say, out loud, right in the middle of the feeling, “I don’t need this.” And then I visualize myself picking it up with two fingers, (like something nasty) putting it into a plain white business-size envelope, securely sealing the flap, and dropping it into the trash. Done.

I actually do feel noticeably better, lighter, and I feel like a real smarty-pants for so cleverly handling myself and refusing the annoying aggravation. I smile a smug little smile, think to myself, I win. And I go back to work.

The truth of the matter is that in the expression of the gift that has been given to you, no one else’s opinion matters as much as yours.  Every day remind yourself. Recognize, (“re-know”) and commit to this truth: This person may be either trying to help you, or hurt you. It doesn’t matter which, because nobody else can tell you how to be your best you, nobody else knows. You will find the answer inside yourself if you keep on seeking it. Everything else is not “the truth,” it’s an opinion. A perception. A different perspective. These can often be useful and valuable, as long as you don’t forget that they are not necessarily the truth.

When you get a disappointing response to a heartfelt endeavor, the problem is not that there’s anything about you that someone else should or could fix, the problem is that they didn’t know this. What they don’t know, as well as what they think, actually can’t hurt you unless you choose to let it. Don’t choose to let it. Don’t give in to doubts, misunderstandings, or insecure jealousies, and never give them squatters-rights in your mind. Get a big box of plain white #10 business envelopes…
(and be sure to empty the trash every day.)


19. How To Learn How

12/30/2017

When I was much younger than I am now, I wanted to become a firefighter.* Never mind why – it’s a long story. I was small compared to the male firefighter Wanna-Bes I was competing with. I went to the gym and pumped a whole lot of iron and didn’t get much bigger but I got  hecka-strong. (It took a while.) I applied at every fire department hiring opportunity that came up and took the tests. First is the written – easy enough if you study hard. (You should study really hard.) Next, if you pass the written, you get to take the physical agility test. I failed the physical agility tests of first three departments I tried for, at first by a mile, and then by inches, and finally by 2/10 of a second. I went back to the gym. I applied at more fire departments and took more tests. I failed another one. Maybe two. I forget now. Once I passed, It didn’t matter, I would pass some more…

I had to fail, to learn how. I had never encountered those kinds of challenges, or even those kinds of objects, lifting and carrying heavy rolls of fire-hose, climbing the 100-foot aerial ladder, dragging the 160-pound dummy through the tunnel. (At first I only weighed 115 pounds myself.) Very early I learned two Essential Truths, and I’ll share them with you in a minute.

There are wonderful things you can learn from Brooks, that’s one of the reasons I love them so much. But there are some things you cannot learn that way. You can’t learn how to play home-run baseball…   out of a book. You can’t learn how to downhill ski… out of a book. And you can’t learn how to be a firefighter and perform the skills a firefighter must do extremely well, very quickly, and absolutely reliably… out of a book. Here comes one of those Essential Truths I mentioned. (You may want to take notes.)

Essential Truth #1: The only way to learn how to do it is to do it.

Take downhill skiing, for example. The first day when you go out to the bunny hill with awkward boots and slats for feet, what’s going to happen? Right! You fall on your butt. Not once, but many times. And there will be people around who will see you fall on your butt. Little kids will laugh. Some adults will smile smugly. Others will be annoyed because you’re messing up the good snow with your sit-splats, besides getting in everybody’s way. “She shouldn’t even be here! She doesn’t know how to ski at all.”

The next day, you will again fall on your butt in front of everybody. A lot. But probably you will be doing a little bit better, and there will be thrilling moments when just for short distances, you get it, and miraculously, it works. It feels like flying! Your heart, for sure, is flying. Now when you fall, you get up quicker, you want some more of that good feeling.

By the third or fourth day,  your spirits soar more times, for longer moments, right before each time you crash clumsily again. But now you will be up more time than down, and though not exactly smoothly or elegantly, you are skiing!

We must expect the same from our writing.  In the beginning, it’s the beginning. While the first levels of success in skiing may take a few days, writing more likely will take a few years. We’re learning how to express our gift. For every great writer, there was a beginning. Thus, Essential Truth #1 about writing: The only way you can learn how to do it is to do it. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. Oh, and the skiing is fun too.

Essential Truth #2: Failure is a necessary part of the process.

Falling down is one of the first things we do in life. It is necessary, inherent, and valuable. Failure is how we learn what to do and what not to do. There is no other way.

Besides, we never learn as much from success as we do from failure. Therefore, allow yourself this. Expect to not be a brilliant writer right away. Expect a cartload of disappointments and possibly humiliations along the way. These do not prove you are un-brilliant. They only mark a serious commitment to the truest and best expression of whatever is your unique personal gift. It will be different from most people. Most people live their whole lives without expressing their truth, not because they don’t have any gifts, but because they don’t have the enormous courage it takes to do it.

Don’t be one of those. Fly down the hill, again and again. Fall on your butt with determination, and with embarrassed, wounded, but unconquerable pride, Get up.  Fall down. Get up, keep going. You can do this,  if you want it bad enough. Because if writing is truly your path, you will do it.
__________________________________________________

*I did become a firefighter and served eight years with Alameda County OES Fire Department as a line firefighter and officer.
ofcr me w2w

 


18. Write On

09/29/2017

I’m still looking for a beta reader or two. I never imagined they would be so hard to find. A few  friends began to read the book, but when they got to the hard parts, they just stopped. Admittedly, this book is not for every casual beach-reader, it’s not a romance, Sci-Fi  or a fairytale. It’s true, and there are parts of it that are dark, where people do things that are not kind, and things happen that are ugly.

But no soul is ugly. This is a deep lesson. It’s the one I learned in my years as a caregiver in a hospital emergency room. That’s where every kind and level of human life comes together in one place, sooner or later. To see the Soul  in some of these— lifelong drunks and drug addicts in rain-and-urine-soaked clothes with lice and cockroaches living on their bodies, and the stench was horrible – it was nearly impossible. But what the a 13th-century Persian poet Rumi said  is still true:

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” 

And these wretched remnants of humanity I served and fed and cared for, I finally learned, were the Bodhisattva who have come to teach us what not to choose.

So I write on, as writers do, it’s what we do because we must. Today I still have a ton of work to do and it all seems so impossible. There are times when it flows, but sometimes it’s like turning the crank on the old steel hand-operated meatgrinder my Greek grandmother used, part of the necessary work to prepare the marvelous spaghetti sauce that only she could make.


17. Writing From the Inside

08/11/2017

What I’m writing is a memoir but has become something of an epistle of faith. When I look across my history and the history of my family from the outside now, I see patterns and meanings I didn’t see when I was looking from the inside out. I’m not leading, I am led. It is being written like a letter not from my usual ego view, but more as if spoken from some inner voice, seen by inner eyes, uncontrived and unplanned. Whatever comes to me that rings true and real, I write it down. If it has value, it will stay. If it is meaningless or useless, it will be discarded. These things take care of themselves. All of my poetry came this way – as gifts of grace, never as the product of conscious effort, craft, or intention. I trust the soundless voice that speaks, much more than I trust my own limited and confused intellect.

When I was in my twenties, an artist and a fledgling poet, I said to God “Make me your instrument.” Maybe God will finally do that, or maybe that’s the One who placed the desire there to begin with. Either way, the prayer has not really changed much, for I have learned and relearned: by myself I can do nothing of real importance or significance, but when I’m driven to the page by that unnamed voice, something clear and clean and beautiful emerges into the light of ordinary day. In that moment, the ordinariness, the stories, the simple truths of life become what they have always been, but unseen: they become sacred. My response to this can only be awe, wonder, and gratefulness.


#16 About Writing Your Memoir

06/21/2017

Angelou quote.png
I always tell people, “Everyone should do this.” But with the caveat that you probably should not do it until you’re at least 50 years old, because you might not be able to handle it.

It’s no small deal. Telling your truth honestly and earnestly means time-travel, not just remembering. Being a disembodied observer looking down impartially like a sacred voyeur. You will see things you never saw– about your life, yourself, and the people along your path– truths and revelations you could not have seen with your younger eyes.

This will be painful. It will also be healing. Old wounds you didn’t realize you had will open right before your eyes, and bleed and leak other nasty stuff you never realized was in there. That’s the bad news. The good news is, you will see other things too, that you didn’t notice before: the beauty of yourself and other “imperfect” souls in your story. I promise you, you’ll be astonished, and quite possibly overcome with love and respect for that stumbling, blundering, courageous innocent that you really were.

Emotional wounds,  big and small, are like abscesses, scarred over with guilt and denial. When opened again in a clean place with a good light, they have the opportunity to drain their poisons and finally heal. We all have old wounds, many from our earliest years on earth, because they go with the life-path. A big part of the adventure of life is about managing them, rather than just allowing them to manage you. This takes a mature observer, an experienced blunderer, a sympathetic listener.  This is the heart of my book.

Writing a memoir forces us to re-open the time again, to look at ourselves and others in our story with mercy and compassion that puts whatever regret or guilt we have been carrying into a truer perspective. We can honestly forgive, and be forgiven.


#15 Why We Write

05/01/2017

I believe absolutely that life is inherently and necessarily about adventures, starting out innocent, blundering along, and discovering things. Learning about life, one way or another, is what it’s all about, and we write because we are inwardly compelled to share.

Going off to college in Austin Texas was an adventure that took me out of the shelter of home to another city and an infinitely more exciting and joyful way of life. When I quit school and got married, I went on another adventure, not so joyful, to a cold and lonely East Coast. Life changed completely, irrevocably, when I gave up my life to support his.

When I got divorced, I took my life back. That was the biggest leap of faith, and the most terrifying: to set out alone into unknown territory. I had stepped off the precipice into the abyss, with nothing but an utterly groundless faith and hope that there might be something else for me out there. There was. First the West Bank hippie-ghetto of Minneapolis opened up a different world and a different way of living and believing in Life with a capital L. Five years and lots of adventurws later, I came to California– a new state, a new time zone, and another new life.

All this was jammed full with learning experiences, far beyond anything I could have imagined or ever would have planned. Some were wonderful, some were terribly painful and wounding. But I survived them, and I am, as they say, “still here to tell the tale”

I know for sure that the most valuable thing I learned was that the nature and function of life, the reason we came here at all, is to venture out beyond our beginnings, beyond our safe-zone, and discover. To seek and find our own unique adventures and bring back the stories to share. If it had not been for the blundering rocky path I’ve traveled, I would not have this book to write.

Think about this the next time you stub your toe on the lifepath. At the next rejection form-letter. You are out here in the cosmos for a reason, and no matter what happens, you always fail forward. Nothing can take you backward. No mateer where you find yourself right now, whatever genre you write, your treasure-trove of Life-Experience Resources is growing. Be aware of it. It gives you something more  to say that matters. You’re on your way, your own way. Write on.


#14 Dear Beta Readers

03/10/2017

First of all, thank you for participating in this pre-publication First Read, and helping me to write the best book I can. Some of you have known me at some period in my life. It’s going to be a task for you to step back from that, and read the stories as abstractly as possible, as a group of characters you’ve never met. That’s the way you can help me most, in the writing process.

As you read, or after a chapter, just notice things like “what was my impression of this chapter? What stood out for me? What seems strong? Weak? Too fast or slow? Confusing? Unrealistic? Vivid?.” Was there enough of __(fill in the blank)__ or too much? Those are the things I need to know, that if spotted and corrected, will make the book clearer and better at saying what I really want to say, in a way that is understandable, not phony, not preachy, not fancy, and as genuinely as I can.

In writing the stories, I found it enormously helpful to think of the protagonist/ storyteller as simply a character in a book. Not me. That changed both my perspective and my perception surprisingly. When I stepped back and looked at this funny little girl from a distance, as someone I was observing like a character in a movie, I saw things about her that I never could have seen when I was her.

So if you are one of my friends, don’t take Victoria with you into chapter one, dump her at the gate and leave her out of it. She is someone else, who came much later. The first time you meet Vickie, see her as somebody you have never met before. And in your comments and suggestions, please refer to this character as “the little girl” or “the storyteller.” That will really help you keep a fresh unbiased perspective. For example, write “she was…” Not “you were…” Other than that, just enjoy a free book.

Congratulations, you are now a Developmental Editor. Professional ones make big bucks for this. So please know how much I value and appreciate your participation in my creative process. This will surely bring you lovely Karma. I’ll be blogging more here about the beta reader experience, so y’all come back.


#13 Beta Readers = Fresh Eyes

03/08/2017

A beta reader is someone who reads an unpublished manuscript at an early development stage and gives feedback to the writer. Beta readers provide a second perspective (or third, or fourth) which can often spot fixable flaws or shortfalls in the manuscript that the writers didn’t see, because we are too close to it.

How does the process work? Choose the way that’s easiest for you:

1. Read the chapters on the web and give a bit of feedback on the Logout page message box, or if you want more space and optional prompt-questions, click “Beta Readers Comments.” Both links are at the end of each chapter .
2. Download chapters as PDFs to read later. You can email your response in a note from the “Contact” link in the header menu on the Writer To Writer site & blog pages.
3. PDFs can also be exported as Word.docs and marked-up using the “Review” system, if you’re into the fancy editing stuff.
4. Can be sent to you by Email, you can read at your leisure and return your notes by “reply” email.
5. The old-fashioned way (that most editors like) Chapters can be sent to you by snail-mail, as hard-copy print-outs to be read, ”marked-up” and sent back with your comments scribbled right on the actual pages. Organic!

On the web, the works and your comments are both  password-protected; they can’t be seen by search engines or anyone else except you and me.

I’m seeking two or three readers who might be:
(1) fellow-writers, but don’t know me personally, and
(2) non-writers, people who like to read.
(3) people with backgrounds in EMS, ER, and Fire Service especially helpful.

The book is Victory Is My Name, A Memoir. If you are interested in reading and being a contributor to my creative nonfiction book, please go to this page, request a password, and introuduce yourself. I look forward to meeting you.  http://w2w.victoriachames.com/workslogin.html


#12 Trust The Inner Voice

01/03/2017

I have learned to trust my intuition and the lines that come to me in the middle of the night, I get up and write them down. So many times, this is a stream from an unseen source, but it very often, very surprisingly, tells me truths I don’t even know yet. The book I’m writing was intended as a memoir but has become more like an epistle of faith. Looking

The book I’m writing was intended as a memoir but has become more like an epistle of faith. Looking across my history and the history of my family from the  outside-in, I can see patterns and meanings I didn’t see when I was looking from the inside-out. It is being written like a letter not from my persona’s usual view, but more as if spoken from some inner voice, seen by inner eyes, uncontrived and unplanned. Whatever comes to me from this source, I write it down. If it has value, if it that rings true and real, it will stay. If it should turn out to be unimportant, it will discard itself along the way–these things take care of themselves. All of my poetry came this way – as  gifts of grace, never as the product of conscious endeavor, craft, or intention. I trust the soundless voice that speaks much more than I trust my own limited and conflicted intellect.

When I was in my twenties, an artist and a fledgling poet, I said to God “Make me your instrument.” Maybe God will finally do that, or maybe that’s the One who placed the desire there to begin  with. Either way, the prayer has not really changed much, for I have learned and relearned that by myself I can do little of real importance or significance. But when I’m driven to the page by that unnamed voice, something clear and clean and beautiful emerges into the light of ordinary day. In that moment, the ordinariness, the stories, the simple truths of life become what they have always been, but unseen: they become sacred. My response to this can only be awe, wonder, and gratefulness.


#7 Why I’m Writing The Book

10/28/2016

Today I got up late, made coffee, and worked on the book all day till about 3 o’clock, and then ate lunch for breakfast.

I talk about it in the preface, but have never talked about it here, the reasons that made me scrape up the due diligence to write this book.

I had two reasons. The first one was a sense of duty and decency, to tell my birthmother’s story which had never been told, and never would have been, because of the pain and shame and regret that I think we all felt, but helplessly could not change.

Mary Karr said, somewhere in her Best-Seller memoir, The Liars Club:

“kids in distressed families are great repositories of silence, and carry in their bodies whole Arctic wastelands of words not to be spoken, stories not to be told.” (as well as)“ … a grave sense of personal fault, for failing to rescue those beloveds lost or doomed.

My deepest impulse for writing the book is my own need to understand and forgive and finally let myself be forgiven. My hope is that when the book is done and all of our stories are told, the past will finally be completed, and then can be released.


#6 Saying Yes To The Calling

07/27/2016

We write because we must; it’s what we writers do. It’s a calling. What we write about is sometimes humorous, light, and uplifting, or sometimes serious and fraught with meaning, or some of both. We can only write from who we are– even in fiction, because that’s what we’ve been given, and so that’s what we have to give. It might not be everybody’s cup of tea.

Reading a book is a journey we take in consciousness. There have been a few books I’ve started to read and then stopped, because I realized I didn’t want to take that particular journey. Intuition, that little voice from the inside, told me there might be glimpses of truth I wasn’t ready for yet, or things that would hurt me or reopen old wounds, and so I chose not to go there. The little voice inside is always my best guide. Sometimes it says No, not now” and later it may say yes, or it may not. Everybody has that little voice. The book I’m writing now, a memoir, has some dark passages. A few old friends who started to read it, stopped when they got to the hard parts.

Of course I want everybody to love my book, but I know that not everybody will. Books that tell the truth will always be uncomfortable in places. Like life, books take some commitment, courage, and pushing on through.

This book has claimed me, it is my calling. I can see clearly now, that all the events of my life, even the worst of them, have had a purpose, and what I’ve learned from them, I have a duty to share. The time has come to do the work, and I have said yes to the calling.


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