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Monthly Archives: July 2016

Why Is Writing Getting Harder Instead of Easier?

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Why Is Writing Getting Harder Instead of Easier?

A decade ago. I quit my full-time job so I could write a novel. Then, in the span of two months, I wrote one. It was terrible, but it was pretty easy to write. I guess it’s easy to do something badly.

Luckily, I recognized that the novel was bad. So I enrolled in an MFA program, thinking this would teach me to be a better writer. And I suppose it did, in it’s way. I got pretty good at writing literary short stories. Got a bunch of them published in literary journals that no one reads. (See here.)

After graduating with my MFA, I tried to write another novel. This time it was harder. I was much more aware that I didn’t know what I was doing. (Because, truth be told, my MFA taught me NOTHING about writing novels.) As I was writing, I started to hate the novel, but I forced myself to finish.  Then I stuffed it in a drawer, never to be looked at again.

Then I took a hiatus from writing and went back to working full-time as a high school math teacher.

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As a high school math teacher, I had a pie thrown in my face during a school fundraiser.  Ahh, teaching.  Good times!

 

For two years I hid behind a teaching job that sucked away all my time and creative energy. I didn’t tell anyone I was a writer. I wasn’t writing anything anyway. I was afraid of trying again and failing.

But then I turned 30 and told myself to get serious. I quit teaching and made the decision to focus on writing. I started reading books on how to write and plot novels. (In hindsight, I probably should have done this from the get-go and saved myself the thousands of dollars I spent on my MFA. Of course, then I wouldn’t have met a lot of my awesome writer-friends, or gotten to go to Spain and Mexico through my MFA’s study abroad program. There’s good and bad in every decision, yada yada.)

Anyway, I started writing novels again. Now that I knew the basics of plot, I understood better what I needed to do to write a satisfying novel. The first one came without too much of a struggle. (Although I spent the next three years revising it.) The next two were harder to write, and they weren’t very good either.

Still, I thought, I just need to keep trying. The next one will be better.

And I have continued to try. But here’s the problem: the more I learn about how to write a novel, the harder it gets to actually write one. I find myself practically paralyzed with the knowledge of all the things a novel needs to contain. I find myself stopping before I start, and when I do finally start, I find it nearly impossible to keep going.

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Will I EVER get good at writing novels??

 

Oh, how I pine for those days of blissful ignorance when I just sat down at my computer and let the words come flowing out of me, not worrying about character motivation or where the story was going or what the climax might be. Now, I feel like all this knowledge I’ve obtained is blocking me from actually writing anything. I brainstorm and outline. I make charts and plotting diagrams. I sit at my desk and stare out the window.  But I can barely manage to eek out a page of prose without second-guessing what I’ve written and wondering if I should scrap the whole thing.

Back when I didn’t know how to write novels, I could write them with seemingly little effort. Not that I know (in theory) what to do, I find it agonizingly hard. And I’m getting really scared. I’m scared that I’m going to keep failing at this, and that’s making things even harder.

I’m not sure what to do.

Somehow I need to find a balance. I need some of that un-self-conscious, open-to-the-muses whimsy I had ten years ago. I need a part of myself that can stop judging my own writing for a minute and just let the words flow. But, I also need to make sure my novel has a decent plot and the sorts of things agents and publishers look for in a book.  (Because that IS my goal — to get traditionally published.)   So I need the planning and judgment aspect as well.

Perhaps most importantly, I need to stop being afraid because that’s making everything worse. In fact, maybe it’s not the knowledge that has been blocking me all this time. It’s been my fear. The fear that came when I learned how hard writing a good novel really is and started to worry I wasn’t up to the task.

My conciliation for now is this: if writing bad novels was easy for me, maybe writing a good novel will be difficult. Which means it’s okay for me to struggle – the fact that I’m having a hard time doesn’t mean I’m not cut out to be a writer. Maybe all this difficulty I’ve been having means I’m finally getting to the place where I’ll finally be able to write something good.

Eva Langston

I can’t let this professional writer headshot go to waste, now can I??

 

All of this reminds me of something Mary Kole says in her book Writing Irresistible Kid Lit:

“ …people trying to master something move through four stages, from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence,” to “conscious competence,” to “unconscious competence.”

I guess I’m trying to move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.  It’s not easy!  (You can read more about this idea here and here.)

Scuba Diving & Exploring the Dimensions of a Story

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Scuba Diving & Exploring the Dimensions of a Story

Over the weekend, my husband and I went to Lake Phoenix, a “scuba park” in Virginia about an hour’s drive south of Richmond. The lake bed is an old quarry filled with crystal-clear, algae-free water, and there are interesting things submerged at the bottom for divers to explore, such as a school bus and a helicopter.

Not that I scuba dive. As a person who has had two lung surgeries and who harbors a healthy fear of deep water and the things that dwell within it, scuba diving is not for me.   But Paul loves it.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have anyone to dive with, and scuba diving is one of those activities where you kinda need a buddy. The plan was that he, me, and my mom would drive down to Lake Phoenix on Sunday morning. Hopefully, Paul would find a buddy once we got there, and if not he’d just swim with me and my mom.

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Lake Phoenix in Rawlings, VA.  Photo by Margie Langston.

 

As we drove down the pothole-ridden road towards the lake, an anxious feeling began to blossom in my stomach just thinking about how terrifying scuba diving must be.  If I were the one about to go diving, I’d be sick with fear by this point.

“Are you nervous?” I asked Paul.

“I’m excited about diving,” he said. “I’m nervous I might not find someone to go with.”

Luckily for him, when we pulled up, the dive shop was crowded, and right away Paul found a guy named Trevor who said, “yeah, sure, you can come with us. We’re going right now.”

Right now.

Then began a frantic thirty minutes of Paul trying to buy his tank and assemble his gear as fast as he could. I watched him securing his tank to his scuba pack and felt the butterflies in my stomach multiply. By the time we had lugged all his equipment down to the lake’s edge, Trevor and crew were already in the water, ready to go.

“I’m coming!” Paul shouted to them, struggling into his wet suit. It was about a million degrees in the direct sun as I helped Paul into his hood and boots and watched his face turn the color of a ripe tomato. I was worried. I was worried they were going to leave without him, but even worse, I was worried that in his haste, he would forget something important that would compromise his safety underwater.

Paul pulled the zipper to his boot and the zipper popped off. “Oops,” he said. “Oh well.” He strapped on his air tanks, and I handed him his weights which he stuffed into pockets on his scuba pack. The sun was beating down on us, and my heart was racing. I felt slightly dizzy. Suddenly, I was seeing white spots, and my mom said the color drained from my lips. I knew if I didn’t get out of the sun and lay down immediately, I was going to faint right there on the shore of Lake Phoenix.

“I gotta go,” I mumbled, shoving Paul’s flippers at him. I hobbled up the hill towards a shaded wooden bench and lay down. I didn’t even see my husband’s decent into the deep.

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Paul and some other scuba divers.  Photo by Margie Langston

 

So, obviously, I’m not cut out for scuba diving. But after I recovered from my swoon, my mom and I went swimming in the clear, cool water, and that was really nice. An hour later, Paul came back to the surface, and as we ate lunch he told us about his adventures at fifty feet below.

One of the things Paul says he loves about scuba diving is that, underwater, you can move in all three dimensions. Instead of on land where we can only move on the axis of forward-and-back and the axis of left-and-right, underwater you can also move on the axis of up-and-down. It might not sound like a big deal, but Paul says adding this new dimension to your choice of directions can be both mind-blowing and exciting.

After lunch, Paul went for a second dive. My mom and I read in the shade and then took another swim. When Paul came back up, we all swam together then headed back to Richmond for dinner.  Despite my near-faint, it was a lovely day.

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My mom and me.

 

In other news, I’ve started working on a new book. Right now I’m writing to get to know the characters and explore the story possibilities. The stuff I’m writing now might not even make it into the final draft, and furthermore, the story might morph to something totally different from what I think it is right now. I’m still brainstorming, basically. I’m trying to figure out in which direction to go.

Normally this stage frustrates me because I feel like I’m not making progress. I want to start writing the actual chapters and feel like I’m getting somewhere, but I’m learning to embrace the exploration stage where, instead of moving forward in a straight line towards a finish, I’m fanning out in different directions from the starting idea, testing to see what works best.

This stage is really important, because often our first idea is not our best or most original idea.  (In fact, often our first idea is something we’ve actually seen or read somewhere else.)  Instead of just going with the first thing that pops into my head and running with it, I want to explore all the different directions I might go and then pick the best one.

As much as scuba diving terrifies me, I think there might be a link here. As I write, aren’t I diving down into my subconscious? Looking for submerged treasures?

And I wonder, is there some other direction I could take this story that I haven’t even considered? An up-down dimension, perhaps — something nearly impossible normally but possible in the realm of a fictional story?  It’s interesting to think about.  I doubt I’ll ever scuba dive in real life, but as I explore the possibilities for my story, I want to move in all three dimensions.  I want to be unafraid to go deep and see what I can find.

 

Paul

Paul found a skeleton at the bottom!  Photo by Trevor Mireles.

 

I Have No Words About the Violence in Our Country

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I Have No Words About the Violence in Our Country

I have no words. And words are the one thing I usually have.

I look around and see my writer friends blogging and tweeting their outrage about the most recent shooting (take your pick which one), and meanwhile I’m posting on my blog about the Weezer concert or my summertime tan. And I think, my god, the stuff I’m writing about is meaningless. Who cares about my struggles getting a middle-grade novel published when people are getting killed for no good reason?

But I don’t know what to say.

I really don’t know what to say about all of this. Horrible isn’t a strong enough word. There is, in fact, no word that can express how awful I feel every time I hear about innocent people dying, whether it’s at the hands of the police, or a sniper, or terrorists, or because somebody’s two-year-old accidentally picked up a loaded gun. It’s awful. It’s ALL SO AWFUL. And I don’t even know what to say.

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There’s a lot of this and that to beware of these days.  😦

 

I’m writing this post on Friday, the day after five Dallas police officers were killed by an angry sniper in response to the deaths of Philando Castile of Minneapolis and Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge –black men who were shot and killed by white police officers only a few days earlier.

I usually only post on my blog once a week, on Wednesdays, and for a moment I wondered if it made sense to wait until then to post this. By Wednesday, I thought, there will probably have been another shooting or attack to be heartbroken about. It’s a horrible thing to think. And even more horrible because there’s a good chance it’s true.

The violence and hate going on in our country right now… Again, I have no words. I try to tell myself that history is always violent, and that every generation believes they have it the worst. But I don’t quite believe myself. It really seems like things are getting worse. Besides, we should know better by now, people! These things that are happening, especially these hate crimes in which Americans are killing other Americans, they should not be happening. There is absolutely no excuse for any of it, and it makes me ashamed of my country.

And I just… I just… I just don’t know what else to say.

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In a way I feel guilty that I spend my energy writing fiction and silly blog posts. Shouldn’t I be using my writing skills to somehow combat this needless violence?

But I don’t have the words to write about it. Luckily, other people do, and they can say it far better than I ever could.  For example, this, or this.

And the thing is, at some point you have to take a break from reading about the violence. My husband watches cat videos to cheer himself up after reading the news. I read the news in the morning, but then I read novels at night — so I don’t get nightmares. Of course you should be informed about the terrible things going on in the world, but at some point, I think, you have to take a break from the sadness and fill your mind with something more pleasant and positive. Give yourself a reminder that, despite everything, there is still good in the world.

So that’s my job, I suppose. I don’t have the words to write about the bad stuff, so I’ll write the stuff you read when it’s time to give your heart a break; when you want to remind yourself that there’s more to this world than violence.

And meanwhile, kudos to all the writers who tackle these difficult subjects with intelligence and passion. May your pens be mightier than the guns and may your words help inspire others so we can have some much-needed peace and understanding in this country of ours.

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I wore this patriotic outfit the other day, but I must say, I’m not altogether proud of being an American right now.

Review of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment

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Review of Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment

Since 1990, more and more Americans have been leaving their churches and synagogues, and today nearly one-fourth of Americans claim to have no religious affiliation at all. In the thirty and under crowd, it’s a full one-third who categorizes themselves as nonreligious. In her new book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, Katherine Ozment examines this cultural shift away from organized religion and investigates alternatives for finding community and spirituality in the secular world.

I was really excited to read Grace Without God because, like Ozment herself, I consider myself spiritual but not religious. Ozment says that before she and her husband had children, she thought they’d “raise them in a colorful blend of religious pluralism – a little Zen Buddhism here, a visit to a Quaker meeting there, a smattering of secularized Christian and Jewish holidays throughout the year from which they would learn the basics of their heritage.”

That’s pretty much what my husband and I have been saying for the past few years, too. We figure we’ll have “spiritual time” with our kids each Sunday in which we’ll read a Bible story or a Greek myth or some other spiritually-minded text, talk about how to be a good person, then do a little meditation.

 

But, as Ozment explains, “vague plans are hard to enact.” When their kids were born, she and her husband forgot about their ambitious plans: “We held no bris or baptisms. We neglected to sign up for Hebrew school or seek a friendly nondenominational parish. We skipped most religious rituals all together.”

And then, five years ago, her eight-year-old son was watching as the parishioners of the Greek Orthodox Church across the street performed a Good Friday ritual, and he asked, “what are we?”

“We’re nothing,” she said. This answer sent Ozment into something of a crisis. In that moment she “felt at a loss to describe who we were, what we believed, and where we fit.” She decided to go on an exhaustive search to figure out the answer.

Ozement’s book is both a diligently-researched and highly-personal account of how she went about trying to make sense of religion, spirituality, and belief – both for herself and for her children.

Grace Without God cover

 

The first half of the book examines why people are leaving religion and the voids this can leave. Religion gives people a community and a sense of belonging. Religion gives people a value system and an opportunity to volunteer their time or receive support in times of need. People who have left religion often report missing the rituals and traditions that made them feel part of something larger than themselves. And lack of religion may be affecting the values of young people. According to Ozment’s research “two-thirds of children today think it’s more important to pursue their own personal happiness than to be good people.”

And when we try to create secular communities, rituals, and value systems, it can be difficult to do without the history and tradition that the major religions are rooted in. “Without religious belief,” Ozment writes, “we have to redefine what is sacred and then commit ourselves to nurturing and maintaining it.”   I felt the book got redundant about this point. Over and over again Ozment emphasized how religion provides us important things, and how it can be really hard to develop a sense of community and spirituality without it.

That’s why I was happy to get into the second half of the book in which Ozment stops agonizing over the problem and begins offering solutions. She describes alternatives to mainstream religion such as secular humanism, atheist groups, and secular rituals. I enjoyed learning about a Buddhist coming-of-age ceremony, the gift circle at the Ethical Culture Society, and nonreligious funerals. It was interesting to read about all the options out there for people who are looking for something to replace religion.

Reading Grace Without God made me re-think the vague plans my husband and I had made about “spiritual time” with our children. Maybe, before we have kids, we need to get clearer in our beliefs and values and figure out the best ways to provide our children with community, ritual, and opportunities for spiritual growth.

Perhaps that’s why my favorite two parts of the book came at the end. There is a large section of resources at the back of the book with questions to ponder, books to read, and websites to peruse.

And I loved the Epilogue, which is Ozment’s letter to her children. In it she sums up what she has learned in her years of research, and her advice to them is both poignant and practical. “Grace,” she says, “comes from knowing that to be alive and conscious in this world is a rare gift. If we are open to it, we can see that there is grace all around us, with or without God.”

tlc tour host

I received this book for free from TLC!