I’ve Got 99 Problems, But a Book Ain’t One

I was doing so well with this blogging thing and then something called “life” decided it didn’t want me to do that anymore. After a series of herculean struggles too horrible to mention, I have returned. My apologies.

I’m going to need to get back into the habit of writing if I’m going to survive the next month with my wits intact. You see, November is National Novel Writing Month, 30 days and nights of literary abandon. The premise may seem ridiculous at first: write 50,000 words in just 30 days; however, it’s not as crazy as it may seem.

I caught the NaNoWriMo bug last year and while I barely eked out 18,000 words during that month, I did learn some valuable lessons about how to approach the daunting task of writing a novel. For instance, I finally grasped the importance of outlining before you write (a revelation that was too little, too late). I also learned about bribes, self-imposed threats, and the adrenaline rush of hitting upon the perfect phrase (Seriously, who needs drugs when there’s NaNoWriMo?).

Now, like most people, I am completely buried in things I need to get done in the so-called “real world.” I have a capstone project due in the middle of November, papers to write, and discussions to attend on top of a 25-30 hour work week. I have a million things that already demand my complete attention and this might be the straw that breaks my back. Or I may rise above the insanity into literary nirvana. I’m really hoping for the latter.

I am now just 5 days away from the starting line; from allowing my soul to be devoured; from complete surrender to the creative ether. This time, I have a plan. I am armed with research, character sketches and an outline pinned to a large bulletin board in my house. At the stroke of midnight on November 1st, I will take the plunge. Who’s with me and what are your strategies for getting to 50,000 words?

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[Also, you can add me as a Writing Buddy at NaNoWriMo.org. There, I’m jeberle.]

Forget What You Know — Write What You Feel

“Write what you know.” It has been the maxim of writing teachers for decades. We have all been told to write what we know and the universe will reward us royalties and renown.

I hope the writing gods forgive me, because I am about to commit an act of literary heresy. Don’t limit yourself to writing what you know. If you let yourself be tied down by that thinking, you’ll miss out. What did J.R.R. Tolkien know about being a wizard? What did Shakespeare know about being a twin separated from his brother at birth?

You don’t have to have firsthand knowledge of your subject to write a classic that will enthrall readers for generations. You do need to get your facts straight, though. You don’t have to write what you know now, but you should write what you can research (Tolkien spent a lot of time creating the languages of Middle Earth, you know).

Now, does that mean that “write what you know” is dead? I don’t think so. I do think we should reevaluate what it means. I don’t want to be stuck writing story after story about writing papers or worrying about grad school. Perhaps we can look at it another way.

At the heart of any good story, in my opinion, is human experience. That is something which cannot be faked. We are drawn in by emotion and we react to authentic emotions. So, how about we simply write what we feel? Think about it. I have not personally dealt with cancer-related deaths in my family, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write about a family that is forced to deal with it, because I do know loss. My characters can pop off the page because the emotion is real — derived from my own painful experiences.

As a human being, I’m intimately familiar with love, heartbreak, success, failure, happiness, despair, friendship, and loneliness. Aren’t these feelings at the core of every great story? I may be limited in my knowledge, but my background is rich with experience. If I make the emotion the center of my characters, then I will have crafted characters readers can identify with. Everything else will then crystallize around it. It’s that kind of raw human passion that makes the great novels so great. In the end, it is the emotion that will carry your narrative, not your research (though it will go a long way toward reinforcing your credibility).

So, forget what you know — write what you feel.

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The Enemy of Completion

As an amateur filmmaker, I occasionally get contracted to film an event. In most cases, this is a simple undertaking. Bring a camera, set up in a corner out of the way, press record when it starts and press pause when it’s over. Other projects are a little more demanding.

Take, for instance, the wedding I filmed last summer. No, not Summer 2011, but Summer 2010. It was a big deal. I had never filmed an event of such magnitude or importance, so I was taking no chances. I borrowed cameras and tripods, I tripled my memory card reserves. I brought along my trusty AD to run half the show. We spent hours running ourselves ragged, trading out cards when they filled up and cameras when the batteries gave out. We raced around to get in everyone’s face and capture even the most incidental moments for posterity. Between the two of us and four cameras, we recorded over 12 hours of footage.

And 12 hours of footage has lived on my hard drive ever since. I was making progress over that summer until I got a job that demanded my attention and the school came along to gobble up little time was left. As fall gave way to winter, I experienced a hard drive crash (actually, I had physically damaged my drive by being too rough with it over the years, but that’s a different story). Luckily, I had all of the raw footage on an external hard drive, but all of my progress was lost.

In the spring, I bought new editing software (Goodbye iMovie ’08, hello Final Cut Express) and had to begin the long and arduous process of learning a whole new editing language. Once again, jobs (of which I currently have two) and classes (of which I take five — all upper division) have sucked dry the watering hole of my free time. Time is the enemy of completion.

So, here I am. Over a year after the nuptials, feeling like a scam artist for cheating a nice family out of a sizable chunk of money with nothing to show for it. Unprofessional. Inexcusable. All accurate.

However, there is hope. I have become fairly competent in my new skill set on Final Cut and finally feel comfortable enough to tackle this monumental project. As always, time is my nemesis, but next week, a ray of light is calling to me. I’m flying to New Orleans for a few days, meaning at least 10 hours of uninterrupted, Internet and text message-free time to sift and edit. I will not waste this time. After more than a year, I will get the long awaited DVDs to the family that so generously paid me upfront and regain a measure of the personal and professional integrity that I lost somewhere along the way.

Problem solved. Case closed. Now, about that year-old play footage that’s taken up residence on my SD cards…

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The Obsession

The life of a writer is often quite lonely. Even in a writing group or a room full of people furiously weaving words together, the creation of a new world has a strange way of trapping its creator inside.

Last night, I finished co-writing a script for a play and came back to my house, which felt empty and deserted, even though there were two cars in the driveway and the lights were on. It was as if I hadn’t been there in weeks, despite the fact that I had been home only a few hours before. I was coming out of a daze of character and plot that had thoroughly consumed me for more than a month. Even when I wasn’t writing, my mind was turning over the endless possibilities of the narrative. It’s the natural high of neurons firing continuously in the right hemisphere of the brain that can put an artist into a trance-like state. It’s great…until you emerge from it.

My room is a mess. Dirty and clean clothes are flung over the chairs and on the floor, empty bowls are piled high on my desk, envelopes and Post-It notes blanket my nightstand, and my bed looks as if it hasn’t been made in days. Who destroyed my living space? I guess it was me, while I was sunk deep in my creative madness.

It feels good — therapeutic, even — to get it all out onto the page, but as I pick up the mess, I wonder what else I haven’t made the time for, or have ignored all together. There is a single-mindedness to the creative process. It makes room for genius by pushing aside anything the mind (or the muse or the subconscious or what have you) considers to be “nonessential.” This has gotten me in trouble before. More than one woman has been jealous of the characters in my latest story.

It’s an incurable obsession, this whole writing business. It gets under your skin and burns like a fever. It’s an addiction — you become dependent on it. Perhaps that’s what makes it so lonely. When you’re so in love with your creation, where could anyone else hope to fit in?

For now, the thirst has been quenched and I get back to picking up the pieces of my life that I left scattered and abandoned at the end of August. In many ways, I wish I could descend under the surface of the insanity again, but for now, there’s a real world to get back to dealing with (begrudgingly). I know the cycle will bring me back soon enough.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is this: Be careful if you fall for a writer, because their affections will always be torn between two lovers.

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From “Once Upon a Time” to “The End”

I have nine unfinished novels on my hard drive. The longest runs almost a hundred pages; the shortest about two paragraphs. I have several folders full of research, character sketches and plot outlines. I have poured untold hours and progressively larger pieces of my soul into these projects and not one of them has panned out.

I don’t know why I struggle so much when it comes to finishing what I start. I don’t know if I’m so paralyzed by perfectionism that I can’t continue for fear of ruining the story or if I’m just easily distracted by the thousands of other things I could be doing on my computer instead of writing. All I know is that sooner or later, I hit a block. Is it the result of perfectionism? Laziness? Poor planning? Cheating on my beloved novel with a new idea?

Maybe my problem more basic than creative infidelity. Maybe what I’m really missing is structure. In a newsroom, things get done because everyone is working under an immovable deadline and everyone is held accountable for getting their contribution finished. I think my novel writing process needs to work more like a newsroom. Accountability and deadlines are a writer’s best friend. When you’re working under pressure, all kinds of magical things happen. Your right brain goes into overdrive, solving problems as they arrive instead of languishing on them for weeks or months (or years) and your inner editor doesn’t have time to convince you to go back and rewrite. There will be time to rewrite when this draft is finished, your right brain tells you.

Deadlines can be an incredible tool for a writer. So, as I gear up to embark on yet another excursion into novel land, I’m going to try to give myself some structure. With any luck, it will keep me focused all the way from “once upon a time” to “the end.”

Tenth time’s a charm, right?

— 30 —

Why Write?

I am a born storyteller. I penned my first book at the age of 4 (by dictating to my mom, because I couldn’t write yet). I won my first short story contest in second grade. In eighth grade, I successfully convinced my English teacher to let me write a novel during our daily silent sustained reading time. I wrote my first screenplay during my freshman year of high school and my first one-act play during my senior year. I tell stories. It’s what I’ve always done and it is everything that I feel I am called to do with my life.

Words are powerful. In many cultures, to name something is to become the master of that thing. In the Bible, Adam’s first task in subduing the creatures of the Earth is to give them names. In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argues that language creates our reality. Those with the ability to craft stories — to piece together letters into words and sentences — can literally change the world.

Writers have always been among humanity’s greatest thinkers. Writers can record history, criticize society and topple governments. The pen (or, in the 21st century, the keyboard) truly is mightier than the sword.

That’s what I love so much about writing — the ability to create lasting change. What better use can a person have for their brief time here than to leave the world a little more beautiful than it was before?

So, why do I spend so much time writing? The answer is simple: Because it comes as naturally to me as breathing. You could no more stop breathing than I could stop writing. As Walter Wellesley once said, “There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

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