Making time to daydream (or, Aliens are more exciting than anxiety.)

I need some daydream time, or what Julia Cameron calls in The Artist’s Way an artist date, or what educators now call free play.

Whatever you call it, I need to get back into the mental state I used to occupy as a kid, back when my head was filled with aliens, pirates and pegasi, and I need to get back there pronto.

There aren’t enough unicorns in my life.

I’m writing the first draft of something, and I’m writing it on a deadline. The first 25 pages wrote themselves, but then  – like Wile E. Coyote, stepping off a cliff and looking down – I started thinking.

I started worrying about my deadline. I started fretting about the plot. I started mapping out the intricacies of each character’s individual problems and backstories. I created a complex timeline.

In Hindu mythology, nothing would be created if Vishnu didn’t spend all his time dreaming. (“Shiva Dreaming,” shared courtesy of Alice Popkorn on Flickr.)

That’s when the writing began to be a problem.

Not only did the joy go out of the work, but the plot snarled up. The characters ceased to have direction. I couldn’t get into their heads. In desperation I showed what I had done to people and they asked me what happened to the good work I’d started in the first 25 pages.  I didn’t have an answer for them at first.

But then I started thinking… I haven’t given myself the space to play. I haven’t allowed myself to sit back and daydream, and that’s the space in which I develop my best work.

Aliens are more interesting than triple-digit subtraction.

I think a lot of writers will sympathize with the following statement: I was at my most prolific when I was young.

As a kid I was an incorrigible daydreamer. I enraged my second grade teacher by staring out the window* during every math lesson. I didn’t sleep at night.** I tuned out for the tedium of school bus rides or disappointing recesses.***

At some point, someone gave me a Walkman, and then,from  the time I was a pre-teen right into the first years of college, I spent a lot of time listening to mixtapes, making movies in my head, just imagining characters and adventures.

I wrote them down as an afterthought at first, but by the time I was 16, I had six novels, one screenplay, one collaborative piece and a sheaf of poetry in progress.

When I was in my early 20s, I didn’t have a car, so  I spent a lot of time walking places or sitting on buses or trains or whatever, listening to a CD player, and imagining stories. And then I wrote them down. And that’s how Beware the Hawk started.

Pirates & spaceships are more interesting than that guy you hope will call you,
but in your 20s, you don’t always remember that.

Then I grew up. I got a car, I got a job that required a lot of time and mental energy, and I started dating. My imagination was directed at my love life.† My mental energy was directed at problem-solving. Anxiety took the place of daydreams.

It’s time to bring the daydreams back. I need them if I’m going to be able to work, and honestly, I prefer them to anxiety.

Show me the unicorns!

This is tough. Today I feel like I’m always with people who need me to have my ears open to them at all times, and with the Internet and smartphones, it’s hard not to be available to the world. And honestly, I feel a little guilty putting on a pair of headphones and tuning people out, like a teenager.

But some of my best work has come out of music, so I’ve put together a playlist for the piece I’m working on, written a page about why I chose the songs on the playlist, and told my husband that I’m going to need an hour each day to listen to it. I spend that hour doing yard work, because I thought, well, at least if I don’t get anything out of my daydream time, the lawn will look decent.

Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, because for it to work, I need to enjoy the process, and I’m often keenly aware that what I’m doing is playtime on a deadline.

That can be counter-productive, like trying to fall asleep when you know you have to be up early in the morning: if you worry too much about falling asleep, you can’t fall asleep because you’re not relaxed.

But for the most part, the playlist is working wonders.

For the first time in a while, some of my plot issues are being resolved, and new scenes – scenes of which I’m proud – are being written. I feel like the characters, allowed to roam freely through my head, are growing again. The story is much more sound than it was before.

I’m convinced that when I present this story to my editor, it will be a better story than the one I would have written without this daydream time.

There have been some unintended side benefits of daydreaming as well: I’m calmer and happier, and the yard looks great. Also, although I’m not writing about them, sometimes my head is filled with aliens, pirates and pegasi. It’s nice to know that they’re still in there.

*and imagining that aliens were about to invade the school. Only I could save us!
** because I was telling myself stories about the wall next to my bed opening up so that I could enter a world in which I rode a unicorn through outer space.
***by imagining that spies were hiding in the nearby shrubbery.
Should have stuck with aliens.

Writer Wednesday: Loving Flannery.

The genius at home.

I love Flannery O’Connor, and that makes me a member of a very big club. Most writers I know list her as one of their inspirations.

I liked O’Connor before I even read her work, for one very superficial reason: Our names are similar. If I look at her book from across the room and squint, it almost looks like my name is on a very big book of collected stories.

Then I picked up the book and I learned to love her even more.

There are a lot of things to love. The spiritual nature of her work, her gentle but unflinching treatment of racial inequality in the South, and O’Connor’s dark sense of humor appeal to me. But the thing I love most about O’Connor is the way she creates her characters through dialogue. She believably creates the voices of bratty children, racist old men, gossipy women, pretentious intellectuals and crooks.

That’s no mean feat. Below the break is the craft essay I wrote for my MFA program about the genius of Flannery O’Connor’s dialogue.

Be warned – O’Connor wrote her stories in the early 20th century and dealt with issues of race, so there are some racial slurs in the essay below.

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Writer Wednesday: Joan Didion

For me, books can be like hard candy. You get a bag of Jolly Ranchers,  you rip it open and maybe you immediately eat one of your favorite flavors first, as a sort of opening-the-bag celebration.  But, then if you’re like me, you start eating all your least favorite flavors, so that what’s left in the bag – eventually – is a big pile of watermelon and sour apple. Heaven.

There are probably more moody black and white portraits of Joan Didion than of any other writer. If you print them all out and staple them together in a flip book, you can actually watch her age.

That’s how I’ve been treating the work of Joan Didion. I’ve loved Didion since a newspaper editor gave me The White Album as part of a newsroom Secret Santa gift exchange. I was 23, loved my job, and Didion’s essays sang to me. I’d never read prose like that before. I spent months on that book. I pored over each essay, reading each word twice, but I was stingy with myself, squirreling the essays away like sour apple Jolly Ranchers, and savoring that wonderful first-read feeling.

I have not read Slouching Toward Bethlehem yet. I know I will love it, so I am saving it for later.

Joan D.  is a two-edged sword, however. On the one hand, her work is heartbreakingly beautiful. On the other hand, it’s also just heartbreaking. I read Play it As it Lays this past spring and emerged from the novel feeling like I’d gotten drunk and then had a three-hour phone conversation with a friend who makes bad choices.

Below the page break is the craft essay I wrote about point of view in that novel.

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Writer Wednesday: Richard Russo

Richard Russo thinks of himself as a comic writer.

I had the advantage of being able to interview Richard Russo for my newspaper’s entertainment section just as I was writing a craft essay about him for my MFA program.

Russo was coming to town this past June to discuss That Old Cape Magic. I had just finished reading Empire Falls, and I was very excited to speak with him.

During the interview, Russo surprised me by referring to himself as a comic writer. In fact, he compared himself to Mark Twain, with whom he appeared in Granta magazine this summer. That ran counter to my observations as a reader. Sure, there were moments of humor – pure slapstick humor, actually – within the 483 pages of Empire Falls. But the book was more of an American epic, not the work of a humorist.

I didn’t get it until Russo told me that he considers people to be funny.  Just watching people being people, he said, can be enormously funny. That made sense, because Empire Falls is a lot like sitting in your hometown, having coffee at the diner and watching everyone you know as they walk by, living their lives.

And he’s right – people are funny. We’re funny in the same way that our cousins in the monkey house at the zoo are funny. We have basically the same motivations, and our attempts to get what we’re after can be just as clumsy and brash. And that can be hilarious, or it can be horrible.

“I do gravitate toward folly,” said Russo. “Sometimes there are tragic consequences to human folly.”

For the full story, click this link. For the craft essay I wrote about Russo’s graceful management of multiple viewpoint characters, read on.

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Writer Wednesday: James Baldwin

I quoted him for years, but I never knew who Baldwin was until last fall.

It came as a complete surprise to me that James Baldwin wrote fiction. I had it in my mind that he was an educator, an essayist and an activist. It just hadn’t occurred to me that did all that and wrote fiction.

I first became aware of Baldwin when I was working as an education reporter for the Stamford Times. As part of my duties I had to cover several graduations every spring, three of them in Stamford. The superintendent there was fond of quoting Baldwin’s paradox of education from the writer’s 1963 A Talk to Teachers. The super included the exact same quote from Baldwin at each of the graduations every single year. I must have heard it 15 times.

I got hip to the super’s graduation speech tricks by the second year. Rather than look up the paradox of education again and again and again, and rather than try to take down the whole, lengthy quote during the graduation speech, I simply printed out the quote and kept it in my desk at work:

The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.

I grew pretty familiar with the paradox of education as I tried to gracefully work it into three separate graduation stories every June. So last year, when a professor, Kim McLarin, mentioned Baldwin during the first workshop for my MFA program, I snapped to attention. James Baldwin? A-talk-to-teachers Baldwin? Paradox-of-education Baldwin?  We couldn’t be talking about the same Baldwin, could we?

Now, after having read Another Country and read more about Baldwin, I’m impressed by all the things Baldwin did. He was an activist for civil rights, he wrote fervently about racial and sexual issues and he was a prolific and eloquent author.

Below the break is the craft essay I wrote for Kim about plot in Another Country.

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Writer Wednesday: On T.C. Boyle and Disney. (Kind of.)

There are lots of reasons to like T.C. Boyle. He’s a prolific writer. He produces novels and short stories and succeeds at both. His prose is crisp. His worldview is unapologetic. His humor is dark. His observations on human behavior are visceral. He uses his initials instead of his first name. He looks like a lost member of the Pogues. All redeeming qualities, I know.

The missing Pogue?

But I like T.C. Boyle for a very basic reason; I recognize his world.

Boyle writes about people I know, or have known. He writes about a time period in which I have lived. He writes about places I know, about Connecticut’s Georgetown area, and about Peekskill, New York and the sorts of people who live there.

In the past year I’ve read many books. Most were written before I was born. Some were set in Connecticut. Most were set elsewhere. Some explored different racial groups, different geographies, other times and other countries.

Boyle writes about the ’90s, my country, and the people I see every day. And he writes beautifully. To be honest, until this year, I never thought my own ethnic/economic group was interesting enough to merit such polished prose. I’m a white, middle-class, third-generation Irish American living in Connecticut at the turn of this century. What is duller than me? Maybe a box of rocks. No, maybe concrete. But Boyle takes that, and elevates it a little, so that I feel that I’m looking at a museum exhibit of myself and the people I know. Below the jump is the essay I wrote last semester about his collection Tooth and Claw.

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Ann Beattie, and a word on a decade I don’t remember.

Ann Beattie’s writing evokes an idea of the ’70s for me.

Ann Beattie in 1980, recovering from the '70s.

I say that because I don’t remember much of the decade itself, but there’s an idea I get about the ’70s; a sort of feeling that makes me think of straight hair parted in the center, fondue pots, and kitchen appliances painted pea-green, orange and chocolate brown.

I don’t know why, but when I think of the ’70s, I also think of depression. Maybe  it’s the color schemes I’ve seen in pictures, or the disillusionment

following Watergate, or maybe I somehow think that ’70s represent a post-Summer of Love hangover. But I get a sense of depression from the ’70s in the same way I think of cheesy euphoria when I think of the ’80s. When I look at photos from the ’70s its always hard for me to believe that only 10 years earlier many of these same folks were wearing flannel suits and day dresses. It’s almost like everybody stopped trying.

Now, I know this is not fair or true,

but Beattie’s writing reinforces these ideas for me. I’ve read two of her books this semester, Distortions and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Her writing is bleak and spare. She doesn’t give us more than we need, and, in fact she doesn’t even tell us what people look like. Which is what my essay, below, is about.

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