Tag Archives: writing

Five Ways to Start that Book You’ve Always Wanted to Write

1. Read, read, read. There is no good writing without deep reading. Find books that mirror some aspect (stylistically or topic, for example) of what you want to do.

2. Carry a notebook, or use a digital note-taking system (like on your phone) everywhere at all times. The germs of ideas come when they want, not always when you want them to.

3. Research and use analogue or digital ways of organizing your content, from paper notecards to the program Scrivener (my fave), which allow you to group and re-mix clusters of ideas.

4. Find a work-flow (writing on weekends; or daily at certain hours; or a daily page limit) that works for you. Some people carve out time in every day to write; others carve out chunks of time (weekends, vacations) and write deeply and thoroughly only then. It’s not as important what you choose as whether you follow your own system, and are willing change that system if the first one fails.

5. Don’t just talk the talk. You can jabberjaw all day about the book you want to write, but in the end you have to sit down alone with the page (or computer) and get cracking. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about what you’re doing, but don’t mistake talking about writing for actually writing.

Next: The mission-driven memoir: blending personal history and big idea.

Amtrak Residency: The Writing and the Railing

SunsetLimited_poster Right now I’m listening to the whistle of an approaching train, and the laughter of ‘tweens a couple of roomettes down the hall. They’re adorable, part of an extended family traveling together — three girls and two women who give off an auntie/Godmomma vibe — a little permissive, but definitely in control. A different pair of women wait in matching flowered PJs, holding their toothbrushes, for the showers (rooms have their own; roomettes do not); while a couple sits reading in their cabin with the door closed against noise, but the curtains open so others can view their tableaux. My curtains are drawn on the side facing the hall, and open to the mainly dark exterior. Occasionally there is a passing train or, every now and then, a grand house rising out of the countryside between Houston and San Antonio. Of course, even less often, there’s a town, the kind with a Dollar General store and a gas station but not much else near the noise of the tracks. But mainly from where I sit there is the dark; a few lights in the far distance; the whisper of air through the vents and the rocking of the train.CrescentPoster

As the Amtrak Residency hinted it might, the rails have been good for writing. I’ve been noodling with a TV treatment, a new genre for me. Book edits. Taxes. Arranging interviews for a travel article, and actually doing the reporting, some of it by phone on the train; some on my stops. I break my time into chunks by project and never find myself bored or mentally trapped, although I do sometimes feel a bit physically confined. (You cannot do sit-ups in a roommette without putting your legs on one of the chairs that becomes the lower bed.) The scheduled pit stops where you can stretch your legs are often eaten up by delays. Freight trains don’t care that you want to do lazy woman’s yoga. But this was my choice.
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Amtrak’s generous offer to writers was that we could, for free, take a roomette (with meals included) up to four legs on two connecting train routes. I could have gone round trip on one train — 3 days of travel back and forth on the LA to Seattle Coast Starlight, for example, which is supposed to be beautiful. But I chose 8 days of cross country train travel plus stops along the way in New Orleans and LA, for a total of 12 days. Specifically, I took the Crescent from New York to New Orleans; spent three nights and two days there of reporting and seeing friends; and am now on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles and will spend 3 days and 2 nights there, reversing to head back to New York with a brief pit stop in New Orleans. The roomettes on the Crescent are roomier than the Sunset Limited; but the Limited is a double decker and has better views. I am fascinated by the scenes of both historic and dying towns; of industry and industrial decay. I’m Instagramming photos as MissMetropolis.
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This blog post has become about the mechanics of the trip. I wanted to talk about the extraordinary conversations I’ve been having, but I’ll have to save that mainly for another time. In the dining car, unless your party naturally forms a four-top, you’re seated with strangers. Something about trains and the people who take them make for good conversations and conversationalists. I’ve had very deep and friendly encounters with people who pretty clearly don’t share some of my cultural and political perspectives, but as we listen rather than debate we find we have much in common. There’s something about the train that seems to create an expansive space for intimacy amid the physical confines.

Where I’m At

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For the past month I’ve been in upstate New York at a writer’s colony in the Adirondacks, working on a new novel and a nonfiction book. I drove here in blinding rain and road-obscuring fog, on roads with no GPS coverage, with a tank quickly running out of gas. I left the city seven hours later than I originally intended, running smack into Friday rush-hour traffic; a torrential downpour; and a subsequent traffic jam just to get in to the Holland Tunnel. After the strip-mall feel of the highway in suburban New Jersey, I entered different areas of rustic beauty… just as night fell. The rest was a comedy of going slowly on rural roads with yellow road signs of leaping deer warning me not to speed. Not that I could…. It was far too foggy for that. I had to pace myself and forge on as steadily as I could, while the fog crept in around me (for which high beams just create brighter fog, not clarity) and I wondered why and how the road I drove was both 28 North and 30 South. In other words, I was heading towards something (in this case, a physical location) that I knew existed but had never seen; taking a winding and confusing path; with fogs which seemed (though they were simply nature) engineered to confuse and confound.

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I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for writing, particularly for fiction writing. You know in your heart there is a story, or, if not a traditional structured story, something to be explored and told. Something (you think) needs to be said (you truly think) and consequently you set out in a downpour of ideas; creeping through the fog of writer’s block; sometimes stopped entirely by downpours of new ideas that threaten to wash away the old ones. At the end, if you reach your goal, your destination, your work is influenced by your journey. Aside from the most banal writing, and perhaps not even that, writing requires staying focused on the goal (of producing a viable work) while dealing with distractions of time, new data or emotional input, and life. Life? (Could you be more specific, my inner critic says….) Yes, life intervenes. Deadlines; family crises; family joys. Money. Travel. Sometimes illness, yours or others’. Your energy level. Yet somehow, like wending your way down a country road in a fog, you see signposts of what might be up ahead, and remain engaged and alert as possible so you don’t miss the mark.

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The greatest gift of my time here has been time. For years, I worked a 9-to-5, which in my case was often more like a 10-to-8, or sometimes (ugh) a 4am-1pm, and on top of that more work later or earlier in the day on other projects. I’m not saying my work was/is unworthy of the time I spent on it, but my attitude was not always healthy. I let myself get sucked into work-frenzies both to accomplish goals (an article, a book, a radio or television piece) and also because it was what I thought made me worthwhile. I can’t speak for other countries, though I have hints as to how work functions in some of them, but Americans generally have a whole matrix of emotional values that we apply to how we work.

For some of us, like in my family, the striving of work is done as a collective empowerment, the betterment of the family and the neighborhood and the race as well as the country. You are, then, judged on whether you live up to a high work ethic, and how adept you are at circumventing others’ misperceptions of you (racial, gender, otherwise) if you run into that vein of power play. You are expected to give back with your work, and not just get. Some families and cultures/subcultures judge you based on income, regardless of what career you choose; and others would prefer you be highly educated in a field where you might earn less rather than judging you on what you bring home. The good part of the work-ethic I grew up with is a spirit of both individual and collective achievement and also an embrace of creativity. The bad part is (a common, I think) subcurrent of feeling that whatever you do is not enough — that the world is filled with holes that need to be plugged or pits that need to be dug and if you weren’t always cranked until 11, you probably weren’t working hard enough.

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While I’ve been up here in the mountains, kayaking and hiking; cooking; and learning from the other writers and artists in residence, I’ve slowed down a lot. First off, cell phones are forbidden; and even when you pull one out to check the time there are too few bars to actually get a call or sometimes even a text. That radically changed my daily behaviors, which included so much checking of my device (I’m not such a big phone talker; but I love my mobile interwebz) I started to get knots in my shoulder. So — strike a million micro-interruptions of my thoughts off the table. Then, the internet here is crawlingly slow. I have been editing my podcast and unwisely I did not download all of my raw tapings before I came up here. With failed tries due to poor connections, it took me two days to download 5 hours of tape. Technology, aside from basic email; plus using my computer for writing and curating photos; was mainly off the table. This allowed me to sink deeper into my work than I have in a long time.

I also let this earth sink into me and my work. The novel I am working on includes a long sequence in the woods. Originally, it was meant to be in Virginia. Now I moved it to the Adirondacks. I’m here. I know what the weather is; how maddening it is not to scratch a blackfly bite and how beautiful it is to kayak in the early mist of morning. I know what the lichen looks like on these birch trees, and what the local chipmunks and loons and mohawk-sporting ducks look like. I know what it is to meditate at the waterside, see the shimmering of the lake reflected on my closed eyelids; hear the water splashing the dock, with an effect like hands clapping slowly and softly.

Being here has helped me take risks with my work. For example, with the fiction, which was mainly revisions and reconstructions, I wrote forward until I was 3/4 of the way through the book, then started writing backward from the end. My first and only novel, Kiss the Sky, has what I consider a weaker ending than I would have liked. I was exhausted from the process of putting the puzzle together and wanted it done. With this one, I want the end to be as strong as if not stronger than the beginning. With my nonfiction work, I’ve been focusing on new ways to structure dense material to make it reader friendly — material on work, the economy, and global shifts that affect concepts of security, family, and achievement.

I’m grateful to have had this time, and a more conventional work-path wouldn’t have given me the chance to experience this. To reclaim a sense of being as well as doing is a powerful gift.

3Qs for writer Kiini Ibura Salaam

3Q is an occasional series of interviews with artists and innovators. We kick things off with speculative fiction writer Kiini Ibura Salaam, who has just released a new book, Ancient, Ancient. She also runs an email list for writers and creatives of all stripes.

1) You run an email list with creative wisdom, the KISlist. What are you putting out in the world with this list, and why?

For me, freedom is an essential human right and a necessity for the progress of society. We need all kinds of freedom: economic freedom, social freedom, emotional and mental freedom. I believe that all people have a creative spirit, and for those of us who are tapping into our creativity, we struggle to create. When you stand outside of the creative process it can look like magic. When you watch others succeed it can seem unattainable. I write the KIS.list to demystify the process, to share the obstacles and challenges, and to relentlessly call to everyone with a pulse to create.

I just found this Kurt Vonnegut quote: “To practice any art, no matter how badly, is a way to make your soul grow.” I think we beat ourselves up so badly about so many things, that we aren’t giving our souls and our artistry a chance to grow. Growing souls are a sign of a healthy community. I thrive from the self expressions around me and anything I can do to encourage the growth of other souls, I’m all over it. I started the KIS.list over a decade ago, and it turned out to be a huge growing process for me. It’s seen me through many challenging stages of my artistic live, and I recorded all my difficulties as well as my coping mechanisms in the KIS.list and shared them to everyone who was interested in reading about the unseen processes of making art.

I had no how the list would grow and how it would endure. I’ve wanted to quit it many times, and could never bring myself around to doing it. Last year was the tenth anniversary, and I officially pulled the plug on it. But within weeks I was back at it–sharing some interesting new perspective on continuing to create. To celebrate how far I’ve come, I’ve been collecting the KIS.list into ebook volumes organized by theme and the first one–On the Psychology of Writing–was just released on the Kindle. It seems that the KIS.list will be a part of my life for years to come.

2) What influence has your family had on your craft and your life?

Oh, everything. I just wrote an essay for a literary magazine in which I talked about growing up in an artistic environment. The biggest thing it did, I think, was normalize and centralize artmaking. I had a father who was a poet, a mother who was a singer and made all her teaching materials from scratch, an uncle who was a painter, and another who was a musician. My parents’ friends were all artists of some stripe: printmakers, novelists, playwrights, actors, dancers. They weren’t people I saw from a distance, they were the adults who symbolized what I could grow up to be. In my nuclear family, my parents raised us with a high regard for self, coupled with profound personal responsibility. Anything we wanted, we had to go get. Self-determination was huge in my family. We were responsible for validating and nurturing ourselves. I think it has caused me to approach writing with a confidence that what I’m doing is valuable, at the same time, it has provided me with a grounding that says–figure it out, whatever it takes, you have to make it happen.

3) What has your daughter taught you about being an artist, and what have you taught her?

I became a full-fledged adult when I became a parent. I had already began to separate a bit from the constant seeking of post-college adulthood. But parenting introduced me to real toughness, a space in which much is required and you don’t have a lot of space to negotiate. The gift in the unyielding difficulties of constant caregiving is that I learned how to make it happen–whatever it is, I understood that it would not be given to me. Just because I had a child–no one softened my responsibilities or changed the level of output I had to contribute at work. The rent was still due and, whether I was sick, crampy, headachy or depressed, the baby needed to be cared for. Translate that to today where I am literally grabbing the 30 minutes of my subway commute to write, then typing up my notes at work or when I get home–I understand that no one is going to give me my dream.

If I intend to be the writer I envision myself to be, I have to get up and go get it–sick, tired, headachy, or depressed–it doesn’t matter, it’s on me, all on me, and I must be the one to get it done. As for what I have taught her, the truth is you never know what is actually sticking with your kids. You throw all the good at them that you can and hope they are absorbing it, but there are two things that I’m working to teach her: entitlement and self-regard. Entitlement has a negative connotation, but I see it as a principle or an understanding that allows people to expect the best for themselves. I don’t ever want her to be ashamed of something she wants or the vision she has for her life. So I am constantly validating her choices and her decision-making process and when I am not interested or unwilling to provide her with what she wants, I help her strategize to get what she wants. Because, while I do want her to be entitled–in the sense that she believes she deserves to get what she wants, I don’t want her to be spoiled–so that I am never setting her up to believe that I or anybody else is bound to give her what she wants.

The flip side of my version of entitlement is whatever it is you want, you can find a way to obtain it through creativity, persistence, and problem-solving (as opposed to the classic entitlement in which you get what you want at the expense of others). I see her using those tools when she has some grand plan and I don’t go along with it–she gets frustrated, and then I see her wheels turning, next thing you know she’s on the phone trying to figure out how to make it work. And I guess the self-regard goes hand-in-hand with the entitlement, but I never saw it that way until now. I’m trying to nurture in her a deep self respect/self regard, and I suppose you need that to believe that you deserve to have what you want in life.

KIINI IBURA SALAAM is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her work is rooted in eroticism, speculative events, women’s perspectives, and artistic freedom. Her book Ancient, Ancient collects sensual tales of the fantastic, the dark, and the magical.

Why I’m Giving Up Twitter for Lent

Watching the photos of carnival in Brazil, I’m a bit jealous. What a riotous array of costumes, diversions, and pleasures!

From http://www.coolpicturegallery.net/2009/02/brazil-carnival-2009.html

Things work differently in most of the US, where “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras is generally a drinking holiday and not much more. It’s very post-industrial indulgent to want Fat Tuesday without Lent; carnival without the cleanup and return to daily life. I’m a big fan of parties and celebrations, but also of periods of self-reflection.

One of my friends who often observes Lent as a period of self-reflection says, “Discipline is a muscle.” And indeed, you can Google up a bunch of studies that show, much like weight training, you can train yourself psychologically and emotionally to do things you find hard. One of the things I find hard is to cut the electronic umbilical cord, and be offline. I have just passed the point where I have spent more than half of my life online… sending data for work; participating in online community; making “real-world” friends that I first met by using a keyboard. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I need a more solitary and tactile existence. Continue reading »

“How Do I Write A Novel?”

People ask me this question all the time, as if there were only one way to write. Writing — not just the product but the process — is as individual as our fingerprints.

That said, I can give you my own experience writing my novel Kiss the Sky, and we can go from there.

Where is “from there?” Well, that’s up to you. I get so many questions these days about writing, selling, publishing, and promoting books that instead of just saying whatever randomly comes to my mind, I’d like to know what’s on yours.

I’d like to do one or more of these each week…. Let’s set that as a goal, not a rule.

So: if you have a question about writing on your mind, just email me through this website.
Continue reading »