Literary Nirvana: The Social Art of Writing

Sitting spread eagle on an antiseptic floor across from my Sensei, painfully aware that the woman next to me could easily lick the aforementioned floor if she chose, I began musing about writing motivations. Having shunned exercise classes in favor of walking to the local café – only to write very little as eavesdropping in Mill Valley is too delicious, writing in public places is out of the question. But here I was, pushing my middle-aged self to do something completely out of character, striving to get my nose an inch closer to the floor twelve inches below…all because the person next to me could!

My first karate class was fBlog-Karate Girlocused, challenging and fun. Much like my writing classes at Vermont College of Fine Arts or seminars with the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, where I have also been motivated to do things I never considered. What induced me to take-on their challenges? Being in a room with other people. Being a social being. Being human. And, yes, stellar teachers. Who are all human.

Writers, although human, tend to be placed in the less-than-social Linnaean sub-category of humanity. We need time alone to work, to think, to get into the heads of our characters and settings. Our writing spaces are our altars and privacy is sacred. How else can we hear our own voice? But we all know the importance of feedback, of having a writing community, of a social network within the tribe. To call upon a term rarely utilized within our group – colleagues.

Blog-Linnaean Classification Print

If we didn’t know this before attending a conference, seminar, or MFA program, we certainly learned it.  Through exposing our work, we know the value of constructive feedback. But how many of us are able to maintain a consistent focus, work flow and quality when removed from these nourishing environments?

As many of you have no doubt acknowledged, a good writing group is important. Since graduating, I need meetings more than once a month. Since establishing a weekly group, my production and publication have been more consistent. Instead of being a critique only group, we meet to set goals, share publishing opportunities, and do group writing exercises.  Last week, we booked our first weekend retreat to a lighthouse.

A thriving writers’ organization, The Grotto in San Francisco, is based on this Blog-Stay Up With Mevery human need to have writing colleagues come together in a consistent space and time. If you review their roster, you’ll see that it’s working. Although I’d heard about it at the San Francisco Writers Conference, one of their many stars Tom Barbash, whose novel Stay Up With Me is a sharply crafted series of short stories, dished details over a counter discussion at The Depot Bookstore. At The Grotto, writers have a desk, keep a schedule, and enjoy a group area to share their work and information. I bet, they also keep each other inspired and improve their individual works out of collegial competition. It’s human nature.

A rather painful post-MFA lesson is that self-imposed deadlines do not work, at least not for me. My clever writer’s brain wriggles around them! Irony of ironies, it is not the deadlines that make one accountable. It’s having to communicate with the people you’re accountable to which is motivating. I bow in your general direction if you have mastered this discipline without any outside accountability.

In my first karate class at Goju Karate, I not only pushed bodily parts that did not want pushing, made guttural sounds out loud and machinegun kicked my beloved former boss despite all personal sense of decorum, but was reminded about the motivating nature of the competitive spirit. Although sore today, I’m inspired to keep going, stretching until my nose smudges that blond floor, and honoring the discipline this practice will take. For me, having a community provokes me past my personal limitations. Sometimes passion needs a push. The art of writing is not exempt.

 “Competition has been shown to be useful
up to a certain point and no further,
but cooperation, which is the thing
we must strive for today,
begins where competition leaves off.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt

Literary Nirvana

Welcome to one and all!

A year out of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program and I’m finally putting fingertips to keyboard to pen this blog. One might think that walking out of a writing program, degree in hand, and landing a job as a manager / buyer of an indie bookstore would inspire reams of gigabyte worthy publications, antidotes about celebrity book purchases, musings on the geopolitical state of Amazon.com, etcetera… But, alas, no.

What it did inspire was a year of juggling several additional jobs at a time and trying to keep the “Creative” part of my “Writing” degree at the forefront of my efforts.  I suspect I am not alone in this post-grad adventure into the real world.

In the San Francisco Bay Area writers are blessed not only with expensive housing and great weather we love to look out at while sitting at our desks, but so many support groups and organizations that we can be triple booked on a Thursday night! Last Thursday, amidst the tidal wave of LitQuake events, the North Bay pitched-in with a special edition of Why There Are Words featuring stellar readings by local authors and those from afar. Close to my heart was Molly Giles’ life in flash fiction while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge entitled Bothered.

If your writing has climbed up the sticky tree to play in the kiddie-lit clubhouse, then look no further than the NorCal Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators to fill-up your creative candy jars. As an Adjunct Professor of Children’s Literature at a Dominican University of California, I feel qualified to state that the speakers and sessions provided at their Fall Conference, Spin a Magical Story, would have been worth flying out for.

The presenters and exhibitors included authors such as Newberry Award Winner, Katherine Applegate, and VCFA’s own Jennifer Gennari, illustrators, agents and editors – and much wisdom was shared by all. Nina LaCour opened with an excellent treatise on character noting that, “Character must exist outside of the page.” A great character is more than the words you use to create it – how true! Children’s literary agent, John Cusick of Greenhouse Literary, handed out machete-worthy advice on dicing our manuscripts to keep the pacing at a “Roller-Coaster Arc” and recommends Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel.  Editor Bethany Strout of Little, Brown’s Books for Young Readers gave an excellent list of flashback and flash-forward technique examples including a new work on one of my favorite historical fiction personalities, Eleanor of Acquitaine, in E.L. Konigsburg’s A Proud Taste of Scarlet and Miniver. She also recommended Grace Lin’s Starry River of the Sky. Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary outlined opportunities in children’s nonfiction literature, noting the importance of knowing your Core Curriculum standards (research them through your states’ Department of Education) as well as publishers’ and teachers appreciation for back matter such as glossaries and source information.

The final speaker of the day, Kelli Chipponeri of Chronicle Books, editor of a hot Steam Punk meets Goth fantasy by Colleen Gleason featuring the progeny of two more of my literary loves, Sherlock Holmes and Brams Stoker in The Clockwork Scarab, spoke about World Building and gave examples for creating your book’s “Bible” – the details that will guide your writing through a complicated novel. Although the focus was on fantasy novels, her advice on creating a dossier of your characters and a vernacular for the period you’re writing in would apply well to historical and science fiction works. There is an excellent example of a sci-fi/fantasy television series bible for BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA which provides an outline authors of all genres may want to peruse. If you’re a die-hard BATTLESTAR fan, yet another club I’ve joined, you’ll see both the solid through-line the bible provided the series and why it stayed true to the end. You’ll also see where the fluid parts are and will be able dissect where and why changes were made.  

Competing for my literary refill time was the Historical Novel Society’s meeting and several LitQuake events in San Francisco! How does one choose? Particularly when you’re trying to finish that novel, preferably before NaNoWriMo so you can work on that other project – a conundrum for the writer in literary nirvana…

 Image