Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Scuba Diving

Opened up Choice tonight for the first time in what seems like ages. I've been noddling through this one scene that wasn't working and figured out how to fix it. So, done. But then what to do? The fear set in, the panic - I've lost Matt's voice! The thing I've been dreading the most has finally happened!

So I panicked at the page for a bit. Panicked into my journal for a bit longer.

Then remembered...

I've been here before.

It's a little like what I imagine scuba diving is like. Letting yourself slowly submerge. Letting yourself float. Letting your body and mind forget that you live on land, that you're not an ocean creature and you are totally out of your element. Okay, I imagine it's a little like what I would feel like if I ever scuba dived (scuba dove?).

But I remembered...

I've been here before, and it's just a matter of relearning (again) to let my conscious brain have its panic attack and let my writer brain get on with the business of writing the novel.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Musings on Mediums (not to mention Smalls and Larges)

Betcha couldn't get enough of that stale blog I've been feeding you for the past couple of weeks, huh? Sorry. Holidays and all, you know? And nothing much has been happening, either. So it didn't seem worthwhile to fire up the blog just to sit starting at a blank post screen.

To catch you up - I did a couple of end-of-semester readings that went pretty well. Missed one of them due to having no voice, and was still hoarse for the other two, but, all in all, they went well. I always love reading my work.

And then the semester ended, and I let myself take it easy. Got ready for my younger son's birthday party (overnight gaming party at our house - big hit, plus we excavated the downstairs so it's a usable part of the house again), did the Chanukah thing (dog loved it - this is her holiday - by the second night, she had the pattern of candles and then presents down and was heading up the stairs to choose her present as soon as I started putting candles in the menorah), and then laid low for a bit. My grades came in and I'm finishing up my course work with a 4.0, which, to put it mildly, thrills me to no end.

I haven't written a lot over the past couple of weeks - I did a bit of noodling, but nothing substantial. I had a section that wasn't working right, so I just let it sit. Read Wolf Hall, the Booker Prize winner by Hilary Mantel, along with a couple of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics (calling them comics is like saying Leonardo Di Vinci drew pictures, they're definitely graphic novels). The novel germinated. Finally figured out what I'm going to do with it yesterday, which is good because I will be doing a week-long writing retreat starting on the 4th, and I'd hate to be spending all of it thinking about what to do next.

I broke out the paints today so I could work on our New Year's cards, something I haven't done since my residency ended. What I like about painting is that I get to see the result of what I've done almost instantaneously. I can see the whole piece, see what my changes have done to it, make corrections, and gauge their effectiveness immediately.

It's very different when I'm writing. Like the past couple of weeks while I sat here knowing something wasn't working and trying to figure out what I needed to do - because I couldn't see exactly what wasn't working. It's not like looking at a painting and seeing the shape of an object isn't right or the proportions aren't working or the color of blue in the shadows is at odds with the rest of the painting's palette. This is more of gut feeling that it isn't working or falling short of what I want the scene to do. And knowing how to fix it is much different than looking at an object and what's on the canvas and seeing that the handle isn't round enough. I know. Painting also involves gut reactions to what's in front of the artist - knowing where to put the extra line that's so subtle only the artist knows what's been added, but everyone who looks at it says, "ah, yes." Every art form has its intuitive process. I'm not claiming a special level of artist's hell for writers. We all go through it.

But...when you are dealing with an object you can not absorb in one moment, you're dealing with a slightly different animal. The novel is difficult precisely for this reason - I think it's more akin to making a full length movie, with its multiple moving parts that must be kept in mind and under control and contained within consumable parameters, than any other art form. Even a full length play can be assessed in one sitting. There are very few people who can read an entire novel in a few hours and absorb it in the degree of detail necessary to remember everything. And when something isn't working, it's difficult to diagnose for precisely this reason - you can't keep everything in your head for the length of time it takes to read through it. For example, Wolf Hall, which is 530 pages long, took me over a week to read it. Imagine being the writer who has to remember that on the tenth page of the novel there's an image that you want to come back to in 400 pages, and then you get to the 400th page and think, hm, there's something missing here, what was it? Oh, it was the image of the dying dog. That's right. You don't have a blank spot on a canvas to remind you that you wanted to put something in just that place.

Anyway...it's nice to have another medium to work in, sometimes, to exercise different creative muscles and remember that, even though I can't see all of my novel at one time, at least I do not have to risk destroying my work every time I pick up a brush. I have multiple copies of my novel, copies of scenes that have been deleted in both data and hard copy forms. If I delete something, I can always retrieve it. Unlike the painter who, while trying to correct the shape of that handle, discovers that it looked better the first way and can't, no matter how many attempts are made, get back to it.

Incidentally, the photo accompanying this post is from the spring of 1986 when I was in London. I loved this guy, I even bought his pamphlet after I took the picture and had it for a long time (it's one of those objects that appears and disappears at intervals. I haven't seen it for many years now, but I'm sure I will find it eventually). The "Less Lust" man would appear all over London. It gave me a great deal of pleasure, when I read Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, to discover that Neil had seen him, too, and recorded him in text.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Waxing Poetic about Reading

I gave the last of my scheduled readings last night in the Poetry Center at San Francisco State. After having no voice for most of the past week, it was a relief that it returned enough that I was able to do a good job because the audience was fairly large and my spouse and kids were able to attend this one.

I have to say, I LOVE reading my work. Absolutely love it. Actually, I love reading. Anything. I would read the phone book in front of an audience if someone asked me to do so. Seriously, if anyone needs a reader, call me, I'm available.

I know a lot of writers who hate readings and, while I can sympathize, I don't really understand it. Yes, I understand the nerves and the anxiety about standing up in front of an audience. I felt them last night. This was a new audience for me, filled with a host of unknown faces, professors, classmates and even students I had taught as a TA a few semesters ago. I wanted to do well. I wanted to show off. I wanted to WOW them all. Even with the laryngitis, I did pretty well. People laughed in the right places (including one that, though it always gets the biggest laugh, I swear, I don't quite understand why it's so funny to people) and stayed with me to the end. I can tell when the audience is with me. There's a special electricity, a feeling of connection with the audience, that is incredible. I love it, it gives an extra bounce of animation to my voice.

I find reading my work to be valuable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it gets me out there, lets people know who I am, what my work is like, and, hopefully, helps build me build an audience. But it's also a valuable part of the creative process for me. The time limit imposed by most readings has helped me cut and edit and hone several stories, made them razor sharp. I also listen to places where I change wording as I'm reading, listening for the flow of my words. As I rehearse pieces and as I read in public, I'm paying attention to the cadence and rhythm of the writing in a way that's different from how I hear it in my head. I tend to read my work out loud before I begin rewriting or editting anyway, so this is just a continuation of that process. And then there's the immediacy of the feedback. Writing is an artform that usually takes place at quite a distance from its audience, usually in private, and the writer rarely, if ever, gets to hear or see how the work is received. A public reading is different. The audience is right there in front of you, you can see and hear how the words are received. You can feel when the audience is with you and when they drift away. That instant feedback is valuable information for any writer.

So...if you are a writer and you dread reading, how do you get comfortable with it?

Above all, practice, practice, practice.

Way back in the misty reaches of time, when I was trying to be a good corporate worker, I spent seven years honing my speaking skills in Toastmasters. It was an incredible learning ground for becoming comfortable in front of an audience. The main thing to remember about being in front of an audience is that really, they're on your side, they want you to be fantastic.

I also had another phenomenal learning ground, though I didn't realize it at the time. I spent at least five years reading the Harry Potter books out loud to my kids for bedtime stories. I've read the entire series out loud at least twice, once to each child. That was five years of practicing reading out loud every night for five years.

For a specific reading, I practice reading the pieces I'll present over and over again. Last night I presented two short pieces, one of which I'd never read out loud before and, because of the laryngitis, I didn't practice that much before hand. I could tell. Practicing your own work does a couple of things - it helps you get into the rhythm of the piece so you're more comfortable when you get up in front of the audience, but it also makes it so you know where you are on the page. I had to keep putting my finger on the lines so that I didn't lose my place last night, which makes it harder to use my body to give added emphasis to certain lines.

Practicing the piece also means that you can lift your eyes from the page and make eye contact with your audience. Guess what? That means you're connecting with them, you pull them in more because it seems like you're speaking to them. And, because you know the piece so well, you don't have to worry about finding where you were or forgetting the next line.

If you don't like to make eye contact, and I don't, here's a Toastmasters trick. Look at the top of the person's right ear. The ear is at the same level as the eyes and people in the audience can't tell the difference when you're looking at them, the focal point is so broad at a distance, it doesn't matter. I'll make "eye contact" even when the audience is sitting in the dark and are just gray balls out there because I think it helps keep them connected.

Above all, when you give a reading, speak up. Take pride in the words you wrote. This is my biggest pet peeve at readings. Writers who mumble, rush through their work, don't let the words have the weight and magnificence they deserve. Make sure you breathe from your belly while you read - it makes a difference. I always try to use my chest voice as well, it's deeper, carries further, and has a resonance that my thin, high head voice doesn't have. It sounds much more confident, too. Speak slowly, carefully, and show the audience that you care about the work - it helps them care about it, too.

One of my professors this semester, Anne Galjour, offered great advice for reading. The nouns carry the information of the piece, but the verbs carry the emotions. When you read, put the emphasis on the verbs.

And, seriously, if anyone out there wants me to read, give me a call.