Tag Archives: writing about writing

Metaphor Monday: The Painted Closet


Metaphor Monday is a new thing we’re trying out around here. Every week, I’ll pick a thing and compare it to another thing. Probably writing, since that’s what this blog is about, but who knows? Metaphors are awesome. Alliteration, doubly so. Got a suggestion for next week’s metaphor? Drop it in the comments. And yeah, I’m a day late today — you’ll see why below.

We’re moving (finally!) and as a result, most of my thoughts bend in that direction. The whole affair got delayed and postponed and we ran out of time this summer to deal with it the way we would have liked, and now we’re having to rush through things. Instead of two weeks to sort our lives out before we got back to work, we were left with more like two days, so it’s a frantic rush of movers and building furniture and unloading boxes and the house looks like a war zone if the war were fought between rival manufacturers of styrofoam peanuts.

So we’re hustling to get the kids’ rooms painted (because if we don’t do it now, it’ll never happen), and I catch my wife sort of staring into the closet. Hands on hips. Thoughtful frown on her lips.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“I don’t know if I can handle these closets,” she says.

I look. While most of the rest of the house is immaculate, the closets are not — especially the ones in the kids’ rooms. They were obviously occupied by kids before, and bear the scars of it. Dings and chips in the drywall where toys or sporting equipment were chucked heedlessly in. Aimless, careless scribbles in crayon and marker — not a design or an attempt at artwork, just an outburst of uncertain creative energy.

I shrug. “It’s a closet.”

“I know, but it’s going to bother me.”

Really? I’ve got bunkbeds to build and a rain forest in the backyard to trim down and about a bajillion boxes to haul up the stairs and you want to waste time painting a closet? Why? Who’s going to see it?

Come to think of it, I mean, when’s the last time you saw the back of your own closet, let alone anybody else’s? Leaving the closet in that state is a crime without a victim; literally nobody will ever know. I begin to protest, but I don’t get very far.

“No, I really want to paint over them.”

Happy wife, happy life, they say. So I go down to the basement in search of the primer. We crack it open and go to work with the rollers, and the job is done in less than an hour. We don’t even do a good job, really — the color’s not a perfect match to what’s in there already, and some of the really dark marks show through — but the closets look miles better.

And my wife is smiling a little more.

And so am I.

So, what’s a painted closet have to do with anything? Well, it’s exactly what it is: a lovely little detail that nobody else knows is there. It’s Van Gogh’s signature twisted into the whorls of a sunflower. An authorial flourish added, not for the well-being of the observer, but for the well-being of the author.

An oft-quoted bit of advice for the writer is “kill your darlings.” Generally, it means that those weird little things that you stuck into the work for your own benefit? Because they made you laugh, or amused you, without serving the story as a whole? Those are things which distract from the narrative, that seem to stand for bigger things and thus demand the reader’s attention, and then frustrate the reader when they don’t. They’re a waste of time, in other words. Everybody involved has better things to do. So they deserve, to butcher syntax in a way I feel rolls right off the tongue, to be got rid of. (Diagram that sentence, Ms. Finch!)

But a closet doesn’t take that much time to paint, and there’s the odd house guest who might poke their nose into the nooks and crannies of the place; wouldn’t we rather give them a nice, finished closet to look at rather than a pockmarked and graffitied (graffiti’d?) hidey-hole we hoped would never see the light of day?

By the same token, a story needs a few diversions. A few rabbit holes for readers to dive into, even if there’s nothing hiding at the bottom.

And, after all, a happier wife is worth an hour’s worth of work with a paint roller.

 

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Spiderwebs


What else in nature is like the spider web?

Horrible, lovely little creations, woven by horrible, lovely little creatures — a perfect little metaphor for writers and their stories.

Well, kind of.

Spiders, after all, spin webs not because they’re getting older and they’ve always wanted to be web spinners, and if not now, when? They spin webs because their spidery nature compels them to. They spin webs because if they don’t, they will literally die. That’s writer-y.

And when they spin their webs, they don’t stress out about it. They don’t look to the great web spinners of days gone by or read web-weaving advice on the interweb (haw). They get that hot little urge across the thorax and set about spinning the web that nature intended. Writers, on the other hand, are a bit prone to obsessing. A bit emotionally attached to their work. A bit more neurotic.

And they (spiders!) weave these bloody marvels. Stunning in their perfect cascade of concentric circles, yet shot through with smears of imperfections. Mathematical in their construction, yet organic in their execution. Each one a thumbprint or a snowflake — perfectly like every other, yet perfectly distinct. Poetry in nature. The kind of thing that could make even a frozen-hearted atheist like me think there’s a design behind all this.

(Of course, the spider web’s design isn’t there for beauty, it’s there so the spider can entrap hapless insects and devour them from the inside out, but that part doesn’t really work for my metaphor, so we’ll just skip over that.)

But that’s hardly our regular interaction with a spider web, is it? Our usual, default interaction with a spider web goes something like:

  1. *walking along, minding my own business, probably thinking about that video with the fainting goats I watched*
  2. *steps into spider web strung between a car and a tree in a parking lot of all places*
  3. *staggers around blindly trying to pull invisible threads off my face and shoulders*
  4. *spots a speck in my peripheral vision and oh GOD IS IT ON ME IS IT ON ME*
  5. *sets fire to self in an effort to banish that sticky feeling*

Because we just don’t notice them. They’re not a part of what we’re looking for as we go through the world, so we walk right by them never knowing they’re there in the best case, or blunder into and destroy them in the worst. And we therefore miss out on a treasure trove of ephemeral jewelry every day.

Unless something forces you to see them.

Like, for example, a foggy haze hanging over your early-morning run.

Fog is its own wonderful writing metaphor. It obscures what’s in the distance and forces you instead to pay extra-close attention to what’s all around you. Like the spider web hanging in the branches of that tree overhanging the road. Or that one nestled in your neighbor’s topiary. Or that one clinging to the underside of a streetlamp. Or — holy sharknado, there are spider webs EVERYWHERE.

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Like this one, captured with my terrible smartphone camera.

Invisible and unnoticed most of the time, the kiss of the morning fog makes them explode into life. Each of them the tiny and insignificant void-shout of a creature fighting for its survival in a pitiless universe. Insignificant, that is, for all but the unwitting fly that finds itself ensnared.

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Or this much prettier one by AdinaVoicu.

And those are a writer’s ideas, aren’t they? Perfect little imperfections spun into existence by a creature that literally doesn’t know how not to spin them. Beautiful and terrible and sticky and OH MY GOD IT’S IN MY HAIR AND I CAN’T GET IT OUT.

Look a little bit closer. Notice an idea that might have slipped by otherwise.

Get some spiderwebs in your hair.


Magic Signs (Are BS)


The stream of consciousness prompt for the week is “sign.” And when it comes to signs, my brain only really goes to one place, and I was all set to write, but I went and clicked on Linda’s post. And I think that’s kind of beautiful.

Creative types tend to be superstitious types, don’t they?

I mean, we kind of have to be, right? This thing we do — creating sparkly new things out of nothing — it’s a kind of magic, innit? Scratch that — it’s not kind of magic; it is magic. An idea germinates in my head over here. I nurture that idea, shape it, water it, and finally put it in words. Those words, like spores on the wind, float into your eyeholes or earholes or whatever and bloom there, erupting like fungus to paint the picture in your mind. And the messed up part is: the picture in your head is almost, but not quite, exactly like the picture in my head. And the picture in the next guy’s head is almost, but not quite, exactly like the picture in your head.

It’s this cascading wave of creation, interpretation and invention, unfolding like evolution at an accelerated pace. Creating art is magic.

And in a world where magic exists, how can we not be superstitious?

Which is why you get authors going on about inspiration and muses and writer’s block and “looking for signs”. And that’s all well and good when the fire is burning and the muse is perched on your shoulder, force-feeding you caffeine and brilliant ideas and you feel the urge to write (or paint or compose or whatever) like you feel the urge to breathe — so strong and involuntary you couldn’t not do it if you tried. Problem is — in my experience at least — creating doesn’t work like that all the time. Or even half the time. Or a quarter. Not even ten percent. Maybe one day out of twenty I get the urge to create like that, where the words flow like a river overflowing its banks. The rest of the days? The muse needs coaxing. The inspiration needs a push-start. And I don’t get signs that I should be writing so much as signs that I need to rethink my major life choices.

Hell, for years I had the inkling that I should be a writer. I need to be telling stories. I feel that creative urge. But I wasn’t sure what. So I kicked back and sat around watching for the sign. And waiting. And watching. And waiting. Watch. Wait.

And the paint started to peel and the kudzu began to reclaim the yard and before I knew it, years had passed and I was no closer to writing a damn thing.

But the signs, man! When the time is right, won’t I see the signs?

No.

Signs are bullsharknado.

There’s no such thing as a “sign” that it’s time to write that novel. We like to think there might be, but that’s because we rightly believe in the magic that makes our craft possible. But signs are a form of communication. A sign means somebody, somewhere, is sending you a message, and I hate to break it to you, but if you’re going to be writing, the only real person you’ll be having meaningful conversations with about your work most of the time is yourself.

If you do see a sign, it’s because your subconscious brain is tired of sitting around waiting for your conscious brain to get in gear and do the thing you’re sitting around waiting for a sign to tell you to do. In other words: if you see a “sign” it’s because you want to see a sign.

Which, by the way, doesn’t mean that if you don’t see a sign, you don’t want to see a sign. The brain isn’t that simple. But your own brain isn’t going to hit you over the head, either. (That’s not good for the brain, incidentally.) But to return to a theme I occasionally espouse here at the blarg, things don’t always mean things.

A “sign” is a sign if you think it’s a sign. Otherwise it’s just a thing.

Which is a little bit pessimistic, but there you are. Of course, the other thing that means is that, literally, anything can be a sign — if you’re ready to see it as such.

I’m rambling now. Time to reduce this grumpy word soup down.

There’s no such thing as a “sign” that it’s time to start that project. The “sign” is that tiny voice in your head that says hey, maybe I should do that thing. The moment you hear that voice? Jump on it. Do the thing.

Don’t waste time looking for signs. If you’re doing it right, you’ll soon be ignoring all the signs anyway.

Except for this one.

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This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Any Words Are Good Words


Writing is a little bit like owning a dog.

You have to deal with it every day: give it some attention, let it out to poop in the yard, feed it, love it, clean up its poop from the yard — elsewise it gets antsy and angry and starts chewing on the furniture, peeing in your shoes, snapping at the kids. Except in this metaphor, the furniture is your sanity, the shoes are your productivity, and the kids are your own kids.

Writing is a monster, in other words, in a cute, lovable outer shell — one that needs taming every day. Not a lot of taming, of course — a well-exercised writing habit remembers who its master is and will generally come when called — but a neglected writing habit will turn on you faster than you can say “bad dog.”

Problem is, unlike a dog, who, when it needs water or food or to go take a dump, will paw at the walls, nose at your feet, and generally bug the hell out of you, the writing habit will quietly turn sour when you neglect it. It won’t snap at you right away — it takes a passive-aggressive approach. The words don’t come as easily. Or even when they do, they turn to hot sewage on the page. Or the urge to write just doesn’t show up.

Which is where I found myself this week. Lots going on at work and at home. Little time and energy left over for writing. Neglected the habit a little bit and found myself struggling to even want to do it.

But in that situation, any words are good words. Because if a writing habit is like owning a dog, the writing itself has the attention span of a dog. Ideas and words aren’t flowing on your main project? Just take the words for a walk — write about anything: Donald Trump, ridiculous naming conventions, whatever — and the dog will quickly get distracted just being out in the world. They’re flowing anyway, and all of a sudden, the ideas and the words are bending themselves toward what you wanted to write in the first place, just because you let them out of the house.

Writer’s Block is only as real as you allow it to be. It doesn’t block you from writing, it just blocks you from writing what you want to write. It’s your dog saying, I’m not gonna eat that new kibble. So what do you do? You give it something else it wants to eat, and mix some of the kibble in. Write about anything — any words are good words — and soon enough the kibble, which looked so unappetizing a moment ago, is disappearing from the bowl.

The same principle works on almost anything. Breaking the momentum is the hardest part. Don’t feel like going for a run? Put your shoes on anyway and jog to the end of the block — odds are you’ll feel like continuing. Any miles are good miles. Don’t feel like cleaning? Wash a single dish or pick up a single toy off the floor, and you’ll feel silly when you think about stopping before it’s all done. Any thing cleaned is a good thing.

Any words are good words.

Have you walked your dog today?

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.


The Authorial Short Leash


What happens when you bring your new canine companion home from the pound and take him on his first walk?

That furry little bastard gets the scent of nature in his nostrils and goes wild, that’s what. He feels the breeze of the great outdoors across his fur and he bolts. He tugs you this way and that. Darts into flower beds. Takes off after squirrels and rabbits (man, my neighborhood is lousy with rabbits right now — it’s like Watership Down in suburbia). Scrambles into the weeds to poop. Runs off into more weeds to sniff at some other dog’s poop.

You’re trying to have a nice, leisurely stroll with your own personal man’s best friend, but you’ve got a hellhound yanking your arm this way and that, tangling your legs in the leash, and, depending on the size of the animal, threatening to pull your shoulder right out of its socket. And suddenly, your nice, relaxing walk is nothing like nice and a rough shot away from relaxing.

The only way to reclaim your walk — to get the critter under control and take back the calm you set out for — is to break out the short leash. You take all the slack out of the rope and keep him locked in step right there at your heel. He tries to get ahead of you by a step? You tug him back. He veers off course? Yank. He so much as lifts his head to sniff after a squirrel? Doublebig yank.

The point is not to be cruel, the point is to demonstrate to the animal — which is only operating on the same basic evolutionary programming that’s served its species well for eons (chase, hunt, kill, survive) — that there’s a new game in town. That there is a new master. No longer does he answer the beckoning call of nature, now he answers to the man on the other end of the rope. It is only by the grace of “I” that he’s even outside to begin with.

And slowly, slowly, with the patience of the glacier, the dog begins to learn. The instincts, the darting this way and that, the bolting — they curb and decline. Then you can let the slack out a bit. Allow him to sniff at the root of that tree. Let him lock in on that bunny scampering across the neighbor’s yard. Only now, he’s not just doing it — he’s checking with you first. He knows where his food comes from. He knows that the walk through nature is conducted on your terms.

You break him on the short leash so you can break out the long leash again later.

That guy (or gal!) who wrote the first draft of your novel? He’s the rescue dog that’s never breathed the free air. Writing the draft was his fly-the-coop moment: he got into the neighbor’s rose bushes with his deviation into needless character development. He chased squirrels into trees with those bizarre plot turns. He went shoving his nose up another dog’s butt with that trope he borrowed from that wicked sci-fi novel he was reading at the time. He shat on the sidewalk when he just stopped writing that one character two-thirds of the way into the story.

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Editing time is time to break out the short leash. Correct those errors your drafting self makes the moment he starts to make them. Can’t let these things fester, or they’ll keep pulling your arm out of the socket. Nip it in the bud now and he’ll get the message quicker.

Of course, we can’t cut out all of that bad behavior — after all, it’s when the story does unexpected things, when it goes off into the weeds and comes back with a dead rabbit in its jaws, that we enjoy story the most. But our story can’t be one long, unleashed romp through the neighborhood. Much as we love the unbridled id that our authorial selves bring to the table, we also need the structure that only the editorial self can provide.

So by all means, take your inner author out for a walk. But keep that thing leashed up. That way, when you finally do let him loose, he’ll know it matters.

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And here’s one more dog meme, just because they’re awesome.

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This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.


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