A brief update and miscellany

Hello, lovely people.

It has been a while, hasn’t it? I can tell you the last few months have been spectacularly busy at best, and tumultuous at… less than best. Between day job issues, exciting ongoing writing projects, personal health issues, and of course the juggernaut that is National Novel Writing Month, my blog has been (accidentally) abandoned to the dark corner of the internet where neglected blogs are tossed to collect dust.

Forgive me?

And because things show no signs of slowing down in the near future, I just wanted to reach out and answer a few questions.

  • 1. Yes, I’m alive and relatively healthy, the people I love are healthy, and things are more or less okay.
  • B. My major book-publishing projects are moving forward, behind the scenes, even though they’ve been out of the limelight for a little while… both my travel memoir and my YA novel Stormriders are in their respective editing phases (to clarify, Stormriders is in the Gonna-Pull-My-Hair-Out-This-Is-Horrid part of the editing phase).
  • And thirdly, I have some exciting updates to share with you!

Updates:

I started a new project last month, for this year’s National Novel Writing Month, and on this side of November I have a 45,000-word draft for a story I’m sorta in love with. Think high fantasy meets stranger-in-a-strange-land, throwing in a few dragons and featuring a version of the feisty heroine who always finds her way into my stories somehow, and here we go again! Stay tuned.

The local writers group in Waconia is producing an anthology of our work, hopefully in early 2019! I’ve signed on as primary editor and formatting/layout designer, and the book will feature a wide range of beautiful work from our group members. More information can be found at waconiawriters.wordpress.com.

My 4-part blog series is still in progress! I began writing the third entry in The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen series a few months ago, and hope to finish the darn thing and post it live within the next few days.

Anything else?

Yes.

A note on overcoming adversity, and finding success in your writing, even when you (temporarily) physically cannot write.

Over the past week, I’ve been sidelined from all of my writing projects, due to a pinched nerve in my neck. Sidelined, meaning I’ve been forced to intermittently lie flat on my back on the floor, with an electric heating pad between my shoulder blades. For awhile, merely sitting upright was painful. Working on my laptop was excruciating. 

This has been my primary view for the past seven days straight. (Yes, that is A Christmas Prince, the finest Netflix Xmas movie ever made. Fight me.)

But in spite of my inability to use my computer, I’ve still been writing. How, you might ask? I used the time staring at my ceiling. I used every single one of those horizontal minutes to brainstorm, to think through some plot problems, and I even solved some plot holes that were previously and up to that point driving me bonkers.

My injury forced me to stop, to avoid the tempting social media distractions that are present every time I open my Chromebook, and think. I spent the better part of the past two months constantly on the go. Not saying a nerve injury is a boon, but it did present an opportunity. I had to press pause on most of my hectic daily life. Alone with my thoughts and the strange patterns on my popcorn ceiling, I had nothing to do but untangle and sift through those thoughts, prioritize the ideas I wanted to, and focus.

After a few days, I was pretty good at think-writing. I could visualize pieces of my story that I struggled to see through the blue glow of the computer screen. Fleeting ideas and concepts became tangible plot points. Characters developed true human flaws and traits; I got to spend some time with them and get to know them better. Even though I didn’t physically hold a pen or crack open my laptop, I was writing. I was creating. And those exercises were really the only things keeping me from going out of my mind.

Moral of the story: you can create, you can make progress and move forward in unconventional ways, even when life (and nerve pain) tries to blow up your process.

Fin.

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Spark

This is the first in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).


Writing a novel is an intricate, complex machine of moving parts and pieces, tasks and goals. Of the entire complex machine, to my mind there are three tasks that stand out as extraordinarily important… the foundations, the tenets, of the entire process: Setting, Characters, and Plot. These three tenets appear deceptively simple on paper. First, you must build a world. Second, you must meet the people who exist in it. And last but certainly not least… you must learn how to tell their stories.

A larger tenet looms yet higher, almost obscured from view because of its all-encompassing enormity, seldom in the limelight, often taken for granted, rarely recognized for just how vital it is. I call it Spark. (NOT the Allspark, fellow geeks… although… now that I’ve said it…)

Before we can delve into any one of Big Three, it is important to think about what sparks the movement within the machine in the first place. Think of the setting/characters/plot combo as the How of your novel… the (All)Spark is the Why.

In other words… where do the ideas come from?

After that lead-in and build-up, I’m afraid right now I have a somewhat disappointing answer to this question. During a lunchtime conversation the other day, a colleague asked me (innocently) how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. Turns out, I had an obnoxiously difficult time answering. The experience was obnoxious for him, I’m sure. Emotionally harrowing for me, indeed. After a few rambling half-hearted expository vocal blerps from out of my brain-mouth connection, ultimately my coworker walked away from the conversation with… nothing resembling a true answer.

Since then, I’ve been wondering about my process, trying to pinpoint where they come from, those elusive little sparks that ignite ideas. Some are inspired from life experiences, sure. Some, less so (I’ve never been a post-apocalyptic pirate revolutionary, nor have I ever manipulated magnetic and kinetic forces via my hands, as two recent examples). As a fantasy/speculative fiction writer, I spend most of my extra time exercising my imagination. I’m drawn to the challenge of taking fantastical and impossible concepts and turning them into relatable, probable occurrences within the scope of their universes. In order to do so, context is everything. (More on this in Part 2.)  

The best I can come up with, to explain what happens in my head, is that once in awhile I see or hear something that clicks (connects, fires a neuron, sings a siren song… pick your preferred analogy). When it clicks, I am drawn to a weird little fuzzy place in my brain where I witness the idea materialize from the ether, and watch as it sort of crosses some sort of imagination bridge, growing more substantive along the way, and becomes a story.

Look it’s a magical idea bridge!

More questions remain: How do I coax those ideas forward? How do I pick and choose which idea to coax forward? Why do some cross over into Novel Land, where others stay in the gray and abstract Land of the Unrealized? (This analogy is getting weird.)

But along those lines, I can’t be sure I even know how I recognize them, when they’re little fledglings, forlorn half-formed storylings. I’ve spent So. Much. Time. trying to hash this out. With only a few paragraphs left in this post, you may yet be completely confused. I am, too. But as difficult as all of this has been to articulate, I’m hopeful the answers might emerge from this miniseries of blog posts, answers that could hopefully address how the Spark manifests itself in my process, within the context of the stories I’m writing right now. I’ll draw examples from those stories when relevant.

And so, this is an experiment of sorts, dear readers. A real-time study of one writer figuring out The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen, According to Herself. But what I’d love is to foster conversation (and further introspection) about what our own processes entail, what the Spark demands of each of us. So please, please, PLEASE sound off in the comments if you have anything to add!

Now, on to the Big Three: Setting, Characters, and Plot.


Part 2: A Universe in My Head (or: The Intricacies of World-Building)

Coming soon:

Part 3: Writing Them to Life (or: The Complexity of Character)

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)

(Links will be added to the titles above as they are published)


Tasks (or, Un Résumé de la Vie)

My first task on this planet was to take a breath, and then another. And then, to fill my lungs with life and shout into the void my purpose for existing. I have not stopped since.

My second task on this planet was to obey. Mightily, I struggled with this task; heavy chains rattling a song of resistance as I fought tooth and nail against the oppressive directives of “Don’t Touch That” and “Eat Your Vegetables.” Mightily, I rebelled against the later executive orders of “Clean Your Room” and “Don’t Talk Back To Me” and “Be Back In This House One Minute Before Your Curfew.” And then, much later, from the distance of new adulthood and the separation of three hundred cell phone towers, “Be Safe And Make Good Choices.” This task has a limited shelf life, diminishing in value as the years pass, and attached is the critical conditional clause: “Unless When Confronted With Oppression Or Injustice.”

My third task on this planet was to be kind. To lift up the fallen and heal the wounded with words of strength and actions of support. The third task is the most difficult of all the tasks at times, when you are the one licking your own wounds, when you must pick yourself up after a tumble. But this task eventually takes a form much like the first. When you hold the hand of a bullied schoolmate, or sit next to the woman wearing a headscarf on the bus to shield her from verbal shrapnel, to perform this task carries the weight of indrawn oxygen.

My fourth task on this planet is to see. To open my eyes and keep them wide open. To witness the life experiences of others through a lens that does not belong to me. To stare at the bright glare of the truth, no matter how it burns through the safe protective shield of my own life experience. No matter how it hurts.

My fifth task on this planet is to listen. If you listen hard enough, you can hear music in the strangest of places. If you listen hard enough, you can hear the whispers of your childhood dreams in dark corners, revealing themselves to you again and again. If you listen hard enough, you can hear what people mean to say, even when they don’t speak out. Or even when they shout.

My sixth task on this planet is to be present. To pay attention to what is happening now, even while remembering what happened a long time ago, while imagining the happenings to come. To stand in one place, unafraid and undaunted, and be here, and belong.

My seventh task on this planet is to create. To fill the void with something other than my shouted purpose. To take beautiful things and ugly things and painful things, and forge the spark that lodges and burns recognition into someone else’s soul. To pull stories from the ether and scorch them into words onto the kindling of my notebooks. To obey the Muse. To lift up the voices, the stories, of the oppressed. To tell the truth. To hear the dreams of my own childhood whispering to me in echoes.   

This résumé will not land me a job; not in the traditional, societal sense. This particular curriculum vitae will not earn me tenure in the career field called Life; none of us live forever. But I have to wonder… in this cosmic karma machine of birth and death, work and play, waiting and doing, creating and destroying, seeking and finding, living and dying… I have to wonder if I’m hired.

 

Author’s Note: This piece originated from a writing prompt “My First Job” for the Waconia Writer’s Group, 2/12/17. (You can see how well I adhere to the concept of literalism.)

 

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Poetry without judgement.

Of course, writers are their own worst critics.  To this effect, and perhaps as our own way to fight the inner critique, a few years ago (actually… quite a few years ago, now), the lovely Jennifer Rose, the witty Alex Maki and I decided to embark on a little experiment.

We thought,

“What if we could create a space where people, especially people who perhaps don’t normally write poetry, could try their hand at it?  Without feeling intimidated or judged?  Where all submissions would be welcome, and feedback/critique offered only if invited?  But let’s up the ante, and create this space in an online forum, to connect with others, strangers, who might be looking for the same thing.”

poetryThanks to Blogger, we were able to create this space.  We named it “Terrible Poetry from Terrible People” (and no, the implications of the name are not lost on us; we figured we might as well start at the bottom and work our way up to greatness).

Here’s the thing: ironically, the vast majority of the poems on this site are the opposite of what you’d expect.  They are incredibly GOOD.  Many of them are gorgeous feats of literary art, in all honesty to the point where people should be giving our contributing poets money to read the beautiful words they’ve written.

I went back to the site the other day and browsed through past contributions, and was simply in awe of how well that project worked for awhile.  It has been some time since we’ve had regular postings on it (sadly, we had events and obstacles in our lives that interfered, slowly weaning us away from it), but with all of my recent epiphanies about writing in general – and renewed resolve to hit some benchmarks with my own writing – I realized I’d love to see this blog shine again.

So click here and take a look.  Wander around the site awhile.  See if anything strikes a chord.  Let me know if you’d like to post something of your own.  As I said… write poetry without judgement.  And see what great things can happen.

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“Arrival”

(otherwise known as the much-delayed excerpt from ‘The Red Earth Sings Beneath Our Feet’)As promised, and then promised again.

When I went to Tanzania in 2010, I knew, ahead of time and on some basic level, I would come away from the experience changed. I didn’t realize the extent of that change until 6 months after I returned. This is an excerpt from the journal I faithfully wrote in every day while in-country, which remains the heart of the story I wanted to tell.

Sunday, July 18.

This morning I woke up under my mosquito netting and remembered I am in Africa.

Please pinch me.

The neighbor’s rooster was making a racket a half-hour before my alarm went off. All the other roosters from within a half-mile radius—and from the sound of it, there are a swarm of them—joined in. It was raining lightly, and I could almost taste the damp soil essence wafting up to my window. All of it—the sounds, colors, the feel of the air on my skin—is very different. I don’t yet have the words to explain or describe it. I hope I will eventually.

Arriving in Kilimanjaro was rather anticlimactic. I saw nothing but a smattering of lights that [my German row-mate on the plane] Papa Pavel said was Arusha, Tanzania’s third-largest city and an hour’s drive from Moshi. We deboarded the plane in the balmy night. I have never walked out of the maw of a monster of a 747 into open air, breathing in the newness from the open door; never descended the open staircase onto the tarmac, still warm from the afternoon sun.

A young man with a Cross-Cultural Solutions sign met me and Rachel, another CCS-Karanga volunteer, at the arrivals gate. Daniel was entertaining and welcoming, and kept making us laugh (“Jenifa, welcome, hellooooo…”) which was good because it was distracting our attention from the crazy drivers. Apparently it is common practice to drive with your brights on at night, and flash them at oncoming cars in greeting (Daniel: “It’s like how we say ‘Jambo’ with our cars”). Apparently it is also practice to drive on whatever part of the road you feel like, although Tanzanians usually drive on the British side of the road. In any case, it was too dark to see much, and I was exhausted. Almost too exhausted to feel much of the washboard dirt road we turned onto to drive through Karanga village.

We were met at the door by Mary the housekeeper, Mama Lillian and Baba Fulgence. Mama Lillian is the Karanga program director, and is—as she puts it—”a new mother to you all.” Baba Fulgence is like your favorite grandfather. You know, the one who magically pulled coins from behind your ear and sang songs with you when you were a kid. After a glass of mango juice and an animated discussion about John Cena (WWE was on the TV when we arrived), Rachel and I were sent off to our beds, feeling extremely grateful and welcomed. And absolutely exhausted.

This morning, I stood on the second-floor veranda and noticed avocados swinging from branches not five feet from my face. We have an avocado tree! And the avocados are as large as my open hand.

It is much too overcast to see Mt. Kilimanjaro. Apparently we can catch glimpses of the largest peak, Uhuru, on very clear days, through my bedroom window in the early morning.

After breakfast, our new group met for orientation and paperwork. During which we discussed in great detail the CCS policy banning sexual fraternization. I’ve known Mama Lillian for all of 12 hours, and I’ve already gotten the Sex Talk from her. Such a mother!

Besides me, there are five others just starting out, all women. We’re very diverse in our life and work experiences, but have bonded already, merely from embarking on this adventure at the same time. We received more information today about our placements, and I received something of a surprise: my placement has changed. I will now be volunteering at Kiwodea, a women’s empowerment center and nursery school that is within walking distance of Karanga. This is incredibly exciting, as I will get to work with women in the community on economic sustainability issues and business creation. And will get to play with kids. I will find out much more tomorrow, when our site supervisors come to the Karanga house to share lunch.

After orientation, we went on a driving tour of Moshi Town. It was very fast and thus hard to see much of it, but we drove through the main market street where women in brightly patterned kangas (wrap skirts) were selling fruit and vegetables and shoes and belt buckles and anything else you could imagine. Most of it was a blur, and I am looking forward to going back to explore on foot, with my camera.

Home base is beautiful. Karanga, in all its simplicity, is beautiful. To get to and from home, we journey about a half mile over a dirt-packed washboard road that is determined to eat the axles off the van. It is a brain- and- backside-numbing experience, that half mile. Greeting us by our gate is Brenda, the three-year-old neighbor who fearlessly plants herself in the dirt in front of us, usually with a stick or an item she stole from another kid.

There are numerous quirks, living in a house in an African village, which I think are entirely unique to this experience. At night, you can hear bush babies jabbering and whispering to each other in the trees—they sound like small children laughing. During the day, right around lunchtime, the neighbor’s goat starts yelling; he sounds like an old man with a hernia and a bad case of indigestion. When the wind is particularly strong, it pulls the coconuts from the clutches of the palm trees and drops them directly onto the tin roof of the dining area, scaring the living daylights out of all of us. The laundry room is our backyard, and my “washing machine” is a hose, a bucket and my two hands. There are birds and bugs and other flying things I have no hope of ever identifying. And there is a fine red dust that clings to everything—leaves, tree trunks, walls, feet, goats… everything.

It is all still wavy around the edges, as though I’m walking through a dream I had a few years ago about how this experience might feel. I am having some difficulty connecting to the realities of this place, and that I am really here.

Yet, at the same time, it feels like I always have been here. Or was supposed to be. Odd.

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