Writer’s Block

Over this past year I’ve thought a lot about being a writer — more than I’ve written (f you don’t count this blog). I had always mocked people who whined about writers block, but I was stuck in it. I mocked myself, too, because, you know, there’s no one holding a gun at my head saying, “Write or die!” I took my own advice and backed off from the whole thing. I wrote some good short stories in the interval and occasionally worked on The Schneebelis Go to America so I didn’t lose touch with it. I put together My Everest, a labor of love that taught me a lot about myself as a writer (and as a person). Sometimes I’ve been frustrated, but mostly I figured, “If it happens (continuing the novel I was mired in) it happens. No one really cares, anyway.”

There’s liberty there. I wasn’t aware during this whole time that my mind was coming to an understanding of what it means to me to write, self-publish and, in my limited way, promote books.

Sometime last fall I was notified that Martin of Gfenn had been short-listed for the Chanticleer Reviews Chaucer Award — that’s an award for historical novels set in a time period before the 1750’s. That’s thousands of years, BTW. I was happy and confused. Did I have to DO something? Because godnose I didn’t want to DO anything. I didn’t even remember sending the book (or the entry fee). While there had been an honor bestowed up on me, there was also a problem. I am not walking really well. I didn’t want to go through the airplane (and financial!) nightmare of getting out of the San Luis Valley to a small corner of the Pacific Northwest. The conference where the awards were being bestowed was at a place I’d love to visit, but only when I’m able to sightsee, hike, go on boats, etc.

And, I didn’t think I’d win. I mostly forgot about it. Time passed, the conference occured, and I didn’t win the prize. I was mildly disappointed. I think my friends were more disappointed for me. In my time thinking about what it means to me to write, I’d already discovered what the prize is for me as a writer, beyond the work itself, (ah-HA!) It’s readers who love my work. I could sure use $1000 prize money (it would pay to board the dogs while I’m rehabbing from hip surgery) but otherwise? I don’t need a another prize. I have the book, the experience writing the book, the thrill of opening fan letters from Switzerland (where the book is set!), the reviews in Swiss newspapers, the heart-felt reactions of my friends to the novel, the expressions on their faces when they talk to me about it (wow ❤ ). What, in the currency of this ephemeral world could be more? There really isn’t anything.

Meanwhile, the situation with my arthritic hip progressed through a cortisone shot, a brief fling with mobility, physical therapy, the failure of the cortisone shot, scheduling surgery, etc. ad nauseum. And my manuscript began calling to me. I printed it, read it and thought, “Some of this is beautiful.” I used Grammarly to help me with the invisible typos and made that level of revision as well as some changes to make it consistent, then I contacted the woman who’s been my great and helpful editor in the past for help “seeing.”

Through all this (and there’s more but…) I saw that writing, for me, is like flying as it’s described in one the Hitchhiker’s Guide books; you throw yourself at the ground and miss. And now? I’m thinking all the time about the Goliards and Michele, the Italian painter who was Martin of Gfenn’s teacher. My Schneebelis need work, but I don’t know what work, and in a few weeks my editor will get the book and help me out. And I’m getting a new hip. I don’t know, it’s all pretty good from where I’m sitting. ❤

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/bestow/

The Wonderfulness of Ignorance and the Limitations of School

I was a teacher. I even — as a student — mostly liked school. BUT I had a dad who was maybe a little unusual. In second grade when I decided to become an archeologist, my dad handed me the book, Rivers in the DesertIn second grade, I couldn’t read it, but I could KIND of read it and I thought it was GREAT that I was lying on my stomach kind of reading a grown up book about archeology in a place very far away. The Negev Desert — what the book is about — showed up again later in my life when I was ten and saw David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Of course THAT led to my first love, T. E. Lawrence, and reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom. ❤ Good times.

I didn’t know what foundation all that was building until grad school, which I hated. By then I had learned that I am a self-directed learner and the greatest thing I got as a kid is curiosity and the willingness to do research. The best thing I got in grad school was a refinement of the research skills I’d learned all through school.

School is bullshit except for the things it teaches you how to do. You might learn some interesting stuff, too, you might get a foundation in the mainstream basics of everything (I did and it was great!) but, as I used to try to explain to my university students, anything you WANT to learn you’re on your own. Godwilling you have good tools.

One of the things that happened to me as a student in university — undergrad — was the discovery of an interest in what people in the past were ACTUALLY doing on a more individual level. You can’t get much of that in a history class.

Human life is a tapestry; even looking at my OWN life I see that. Maybe this will make sense. Today I spent alone, in pain from physical therapy yesterday, I was tired, but I walked the dogs which was nice, I fussed on my front flower beds and talked to the mailman and planted my second Scarlet Emperor Bean in a pot. I had contact with friends via computer and I missed a phone call. BUT — an example of just one design — in Colorado Springs, at the hospital where I will have surgery, they’re busy trying to get me organized for that. In the background, a nurse is planning a phone call because I don’t want to drive 3 hours for the pre-surgery class and 3 hours back and board the dogs. MY part of the tapestry (that they weren’t aware of) is where I live. THEIR part is to get me ready. WE have to come together and work that out. I will answer the phone at 10 am and we’ll weave our parts together for a little interval.

That’s how I think about the past or the lives of characters in my novels. I am interested in what ordinary individual (probably fictional) people were doing in an ordinary day. That isn’t taught in school. Martin of Gfenn is full of details of life in Zürich in the 13th century. To write it, I had to become a medievalist. I wasn’t before. I’d “specialized” in 19th century American literature, but that’s minor. It was the way I learned to do research. And how did I get interested in something like that, anyway? I was following an Irish monk (St. Gall) whom I’d just learned about and my friend’s mom said he should take me to see the little medieval church in the village of Gfenn. It was nearby, so why not? Well, turned out the pamphlet explained (in German which I could barely decode) that it had been part of a leper community in the 13th century.

I knew nothing about the 13th century, leprosy or Swiss history at that moment but my curiosity was piqued and I had been struck by the paintings on the walls inside the little church.

In my new role as a medievalist (Swiss medievalist to add absurdity to absurdity) I was frustrated because I couldn’t answer questions. It was only when I found — and hung out with — a Swiss Medievalist Historian who was interested in the same period in the same place, that I understood, “We don’t know.” We were “in” the 13th century, and the further back you look through time’s reverse telescope, the less certain knowledge there is.

To make it worse (better? more interesting?)  history like all other aspects of scholarship these days, is making giant strides thanks to technology. What was believed to be true about lepers in the high middle ages at the time I began writing the novel (1998) had been disproven by paleohistorians by the time the novel was pretty much finished (2005). In MY case, because I prefer primary sources — the words, paintings and artifacts of people living at the time — it wasn’t much of a problem for me. Nothing in the primary sources said ANYTHING remotely resembling the common view of the medieval leper as it was perceived in 1998 (marginalized, shunned, and persecuted). Nothing.

The most important thing is never what we KNOW but what we don’t know and how curious we are to learn more. I do a lot of research because I write historical fiction and I care a LOT about capturing the moments of people in my stories. I don’t write historical romances or didactic, polemic fiction to push an agenda. I have no agenda and romance is (to me) just pretty boring.

I don’t know why I write historical fiction. No idea at all. But when I get into a “new” world I love it. It’s like a great glowing labyrinth I can just wander in and glean what I need for the “world” that will (hopefully) live between the covers of a book. All the schooling I’ve brought with me to my novels is how to read, write, and do research. The facile superficial present-centric stuff that passed for history in my education doesn’t begin to help me — but every once in a while some little bit of it gleams, “Hey! Look at me! I’m useful!”

The biggest moment of THAT was when I was living in China in the early 80s and WISHED I’d paid attention to that paragraph in my sophomore world history class on the Boxer Rebellion. BUT the humiliating recognition of how my juvenile hubris betrayed me later in life was a lesson in itself.

As a teacher, I believed the best thing I could offer my students was something worth pursuing — they were already trained to pursue a grade, but an idea? Or a fact? Or a better answer? That was (for a lot of them) something new. But that was the best thing I got out of my time as a student — the desire to learn and the drive to pursue what I wanted to know. As for why I’m a writer, I have no idea other than I like it.

The upshot is that I know a lot of weird stuff no one needs to know and that isn’t useful to anyone but me. The way I see it, everyone else knows weird stuff that’s useful to them and useless to me (until I find I need it, then I will seek you out whether you’re dead or alive). That’s the essence of the great tapestry of human knowledge and experience. Ignorance — which is so often derided — can be — is! — the launching pad for curiosity.

Writing and Sorrow

A long, long time ago I wrote an essay about writers suffering depression. First of all, I think depression is something all by itself distinct from writing (or painting). Then, I think that artists who experience depression have often discovered that — for them — the ladder out of the hole is creative work. It’s been discovered that creative work raises the “feeling good” hormones in the brain. To read about it, go here. Creative work is actually kind of a drug. 🙂 I’ve thought this for a long time.

I’ve been stymied on my novel in progress for months. I’ve been bored by it, uninterested in the characters who people it, not interested in the journey on which they’re traveling. I’ve blogged about that, too, at various times, knowing that sooner or later I’d either finish it or forget about it.

In the back of my mind, of course, was the sweet admonition of my Aunt Dickie, “Please continue writing the story of my mother’s family.” I wanted to, but didn’t want to. She died the week of Thanksgiving last year. I was in the middle of trying to get back to the story when she passed away.

Most of the fruitful moments writing my novels have been times of intense duress. Martin of Gfenn finally became a long novel during the days when my brother’s life was going seriously sideways, and I was at the point where I needed to make a decision about whether I’d continue to support him or not. The Brothers Path happened during the darkest times of the financial crash which caused me to have a financial crash combined with health and professional problems, not to mention the death of my favorite aunt, Aunt Martha.

And, suddenly, a few days ago, all I wanted to do was work on The Schneebelis Go to America (working title). It’s been a ridiculously productive four or five days. The novel is finished, I’m editing like a bitch (thanks Grammarly) — I don’t know. But it hit me last night. Ten days ago I had to put Mindy to sleep. Five days ago my remaining aunt went into hospice care.

Sorrow is NOT depression. I’ve suffered depression, and there is a distinct difference. A person can be happy and depressed at the same time. A person cannot grieve happily. BUT now I see a connection between hard times in my real life and the drive to create.

My recent progress on my novel has made me think about the essay I wrote long ago. In my essay I wrote that some artists write or paint their way out of darkness. I’m sure Hemingway did this. I’m sure van Gogh was not in mental agony during the moments in which he was painting. The teacher I wrote it for didn’t agree. She held the view that writing and painting lead people to depression. I’ve since learned that’s a pretty common view.

Years ago I read Kay Redfield-Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. She’s not an artist; she is a psychiatrist. Her knowledge of depression and bipolar disorder is both academic and personal. She, herself, has struggled with bipolar disorder all her life. I read this book when I was sliding into my own depressive crisis some 25 years ago. It was very illuminating to me, though I no longer agree completely with her premise that writers (in particular) are special and endowed with apocalyptically complex brains. It helped me understand my own brain and it helped me understand my brother.

When my depression began to lift (thanks, PROZAC!) I began painting like crazy. Nothing serious. I painted tables that were puns. A picnic table with a picnic painted on the top — potato salad, burgers, and ants. A tea table with a tea party. A pool table with people swimming. You get the idea. It was pure fun, pure pleasure and very uplifting. I started to see that I had in my own hands and mind the way out. So far, I have not returned to those dark places for more than a moment. I know what it feels like, I can distinguish it from real emotional highs and lows, and I’ve learned to hold on. I’ve learned that authentic emotional lows can be triggers.

So, sadness at missing Mindy T. Dog and my sorrow over the imminent loss of my Aunt Jo led me back to my novel. It’s way better than I thought it was, and I’m so grateful it was there when I needed it. ❤

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/rush/

A Real Prize? Vote for Me Please!

It’s a sign! I got up this morning and found comments on my blog. I learned from them that my blog has been nominated for a fairly legit award, The Annual Bloggers Bash Award for Best Overall Blog.

I’d love some votes and you can vote here.

In other news, I spent my two days of not writing the Daily Prompt working on The Schneebelis Go to America. It’s the first time I’ve printed and read my work. I wanted to wait until I had an ending I could get behind (ha ha). To my total surprise, I love it. It still has a fair ways to go, but it’s a good story. Best of all, it doesn’t seem to have many typos. It’s about 10,000 words too short to be a serious contender for conventional publication. I am not sure I’ll pursue that, but I hate to knock it out of the running completely.

In other news, my last remaining aunt, Aunt Jo, is now in hospice care in Billings, MT. She’s 95. It’s a situation in which one wishes they could do with a person as was done with Mindy T. Dog, but Montana doesn’t have a law allowing that, so…

Anyway, I think I’ll continue to “eschew” the daily prompt for a while and just post when I feel I have something to day. I think The Schneebelis need the quiet hour or two in the morning that has been given to the Daily Prompt, even when it’s one of my favorite words, as it is today.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/inchoate/

Freedom in Obscurity

I woke up this morning dreaming of taking some Tylenol and thinking about the Novel-that-I-do-not-write; “working” title, The Schneebelis Go to America. I thought of all the writers who stopped writing after one book. Those who died with a work in progress. All of them. I enjoyed Hemingway’s “posthumous” novel, Islands in the Streamvery much. It was published in 1970. Hemingway worked on it in 1950/1951. He killed himself in 1961.

Capote’s story is similar. After In Cold Blood, he basically never got his shit together adequately to finish Answered Prayers (which I also liked). In fact, he lost his shit big time.

As did Hemingway.

I’m sure not Hemingway or Capote, but right now, I feel sorry for those two guys. Their lives (and livelihood!) depended on writing bestsellers. I wonder if — when they began their lives as writers — they felt like I did when I began Martin of Gfenn. Enraptured, intoxicated, carried away on the sweet river of inspiration. I think they did. I’ve read pretty much everything they’ve written — fiction and nonfiction, including interviews where they talked about writing. Both of them were in love with it. Looking at their lives post-success, the love faded into desperation. Everything depended on something beyond them, other people, the sea of eyes and pocketbooks called “the public.”

I wonder (I suspect, I believe) if they ever wanted just to go away somewhere and write without a public, without a publisher, without external demands, even those in their own minds.

But even for someone like me, not a famous writer with a public clamoring for more of The Sun Also Rises or more In Cold Blood, it’s hard to stay “in love” with writing a story, with a story. Ideas incubate. I thought that, too, as I woke up this morning. Maybe the story of the Schneebelis coming to America is incubating, but I don’t think so. Personally, I think it’s just boring to write. I know where it has to go, I know what needs to happen between the people, and it doesn’t interest me much. The question now is do I serve the story or not? It’s a compelling tale, but, at the moment, it involves two people who need to fall back in love, get married and raise a family.

Honestly, I could not care less about falling in love and raising a family, but I recognize the imperative. There’s always a moment when a writer has to step back and serve the story. Or not. Luckily, it doesn’t matter to me or anyone else if my characters manage to mend their ruptured love, procreate, and board the Francis and Elizabeth at the port city of Cowes and head into the sunset.

“There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers.” – Saint Teresa of Avila 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/incubate/

I Could Use a Little Help

I’m asking if you’ve read My Everest and enjoyed it (or not) if you could leave a little review on Amazon and/or Goodreads, I’d be very grateful. I’m not trying to make money on this book, but I’d like it to have a high enough ranking that others who might enjoy it can find it. Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!!

Goodreads link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37922936-my-everest

Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.com/My-Everest-Thirty-Years-Hiking/dp/1975994337/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1518040162&sr=8-1&dpID=51v7eEpj8OL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=detail

Cover My Everest small

Quotidian Notice, 4.5.1a — Bidness as Usual, Again…

I just want to wake up some morning, look at the news and NOT see something completely wack and absurd coming out of the Twittering “mouth” of the whatever that is occupying the White House. I say this without even being a liberal. I don’t ‘understand why anyone complains about His Grossness being at Mar-a-Lago playing golf.

In other news, I’ve resolved the question of the protagonist of my novel-in-progress. I think I knew all along, I just had reservations because I just don’t much like the guy. BUT what makes him unlikeable to ME is the same thing that makes him an interesting, compelling, character, so I am slogging along, trying to balance the background information my readers  need while (hopefully) writing an interesting story and creating, replicating a world. Always the problem of someone who writes historical fiction. It is not always fun. (What? Not always fun?)

Fortunately, I have my assistants to keep me on the right track and remind me that the really important stuff is feeding them, cleaning up the yard after them, taking them for a walk and generally arranging my life for their convenience. 😉

Mindy T

Mindy T.,

Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog

Polar Bear Yeti T. AND

Dusty

Dusty T. Dog

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/reservation/

Flawed

Yesterday, not long after my blog post went up, I got a text from one of my neighbors who’s currently a “snow bird.” “I want to read your hiking book.” She’s originally from San Diego and her grandson lives within sight of the main locale of the stories.

I texted her back, “It’s not happening,” with a little explanation, then I went about my morning. In the back of my mind was the book, of course.

The book is flawed. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about that. Its flaws are, in their way, reflections of MY flaws. I fixed the two new typos I’d found and closed the file.

Then I did my chores, thinking the book was a done deal, a closed subject.

I looked at Bear’s blue eyes, which are very beautiful but they are also, probably, the reason I have her.

“Whoa,” I thought. “Whoever bred Bear thought they were a flaw. Thought they indicated deafness or blindness or?” Then I thought of Dusty T. Dog. He was so flawed the shelter didn’t think he was adoptable. He’s STILL flawed, but WOW. For nearly 12 years he’s been my loyal, loving companion no matter WHAT.

Then I thought of Mission Trails Regional Park itself — the location of most of the stories in my book. It’s not perfect. It was never where I WANTED to be. It was simply what I had, the only place I could hike with my dogs during a long and VERY flawed time in my life. And it ITSELF was barely snatched from development and freeways — by whom? A group of San Diego citizens INCLUDING me! I, with all my flaws, was one small agent in the protection of 5800 acres of chaparral for future generations to see, know, enjoy.

BEYOND that, the place itself has seen a lot of life (and destruction) before it became a park — dirt bikes, ATVS, and people four-wheeling up the steep slopes. Stolen cars dumped in the stream and over the embankments. When I first started hiking there, a Ford pickup from the 40s rusted away in the stream leading to Oak Canyon. During WW II it was a military training base, including exploding shells (some unexploded shells have been found in recent years). There had been developer dreams of cutting across the hillside with a four lane freeway on the bed of a road that had been used by the water department. Neither it nor I are a pristine perfect flawless wilderness. I began to wonder if maybe it was a BETTER book because it’s not perfect.

And more… My father’s flaws, his MS, inspired me to propose, design, and raise the money for the building of a wheelchair accessible guided walkway to one of the most interesting historical features in California, Old Mission Dam.

204220

Walkway to Old Mission Dam, Mission Trails Regional Park, San Diego

Late yesterday, I decided to write a note for the readers of my book explaining its flaws, that Createspace COULDN’T print the cover right no matter what and directing readers to the website where they could see the actual photo (including the featured image for this blog), apologizing for my weak proofreading skills and the relentless and (to me) invisible typos (just now found another one 😦 ) and explaining that it all reflects my flaws and the flaws of the world as it is.

“Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” M. Teresa

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/jolly/

As for “jolly” the word of the day, it’s one of those Christmas words. I never use it. Sorry WP.

“I Should Believe Only in a God Who Knows How to Dance” (Nietzsche, “Zarathustra”)

After being surprised by good news yesterday about my novel, Martin of Gfenn, of course, I felt like dancing, but my house isn’t conducive to it (too much furniture for a small room, too many dogs on the floor and my kind of messed up body) so instead I hugged my big white dog for a long time and thought about how you really never know. You just have to keep trying (and forgetting about your efforts).

In other writerly news, a few days back I took a look (after a several month hiatus) at what I call (working title) “The Schneebelis Go to America.” I was surprised. It’s a strong story.

I’ve been disgusted by writing for a while, disgusted by writing itself and by all the BS surrounding publishing etc. I had to come to grips with the external aspects of writing (that really do not concern me) vs. the seminal aspects of writing that concern ONLY me. I had to figure out what it means to me to write. Oddly, the answer came to me when I was thinking about the spiritual practice (newly acquired) of one of my friends.

She’s had a hell of a year and, though she’s hiding it, denying it, scared of it, she’s lost. One morning she got up and decided to take a drive. All drives here are long, though we are a “neighborhood” (as big as Connecticut) and she ended up at a meditation garden in San Luis. San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado. It was founded by Spanish immigrants and it is a very, very beautiful place.

This part of the American southwest is littered with churches, old churches, mission churches, ruins of mission churches and rebuilt mission churches. It’s a place that has an intense and somewhat scary spiritual past. In San Luis is an old church. There is also a new church on a hill built like an old church. On the hill is a trail with bronze sculptures representing the Seven Stations of the Cross. The figures are life sized.

But this place was not the objective of my friend; she was going to something else. There’s a labyrinth and meditation garden dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. My friend had a major spiritual experience there and, when she came back, she came to tell me about it and invite me. I said I would go with her (and I would) if she needed me to, but I also know this is absolutely categorically not and never will be my thing. The mere thought of walking around in a labyrinth — even one that’s open to the sky and easy to navigate — well, life is already labyrinthine enough. I could see doing it for fun, but as a route to God? In my mind it was “Walk THIS path” and that’s not new.

Then I wondered, “What is my thing?” It’s kind of bewildering that I have written three novels about Christianity and I’m working on a fourth. I’m really intrigued (I guess) by the human search for God. I’m most intrigued by those who fall outside the borders of the established church. But I’m not “consciously” intrigued. I don’t go around thinking, “I’m interested in lepers and Mennonites” — not at all. I’m not even all that interested in Christianity. So where is it?

When I returned to my abandoned story, “The Schneebelis Go to America,” I also began, again, to research things I need for the story. The research was suddenly easy; sources appeared where they hadn’t been last time I looked. For me, that’s a “sign.” Reading (as I am now) an online book, Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania in the 18th Century by Henry Smith, Ph.D (1929) I finally had a linear narrative that ties together all the little pieces I’d assembled by myself AND more. I found other things, too. Somehow, I found the “open sesame.” I have no idea how — maybe by stopping and thinking things over.

My life hangs on two hooks; wandering around in nature with my dogs and creative work. These are whatever I have of a spiritual practice.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/dancing/