The One With the Muse

Nathan Englander admitted that he often wears earplugs when he writes—even if no one else is home.

A.J. Jacobs writes while walking on a treadmill. (Talk about multi-tasking!)

Truman Capote famously wrote while lying down. “I am a completely horizontal author,” he said.

I’m usually nosey interested in what goes on behind other writers’ closed doors, but I’ve honestly never given much thought to my writing habits. Then friend and fellow writer Julia Monroe Martin posed a few questions about the writing process, and I was shocked to discover I had a process.

What are you working on? 

My writing interests are primarily fiction—novels and short stories. You know, the kind of lucrative career that has me rubbing elbows with Kim-ye and George in Italy.

Right away, I have to reveal one of my writerly superstitions. I don’t often discuss the details my current writing project, at least not before I’ve completed a first draft. I’m not worried that anyone is going to steal my idea. (I’m superstitious, not paranoid.) For me, talking about it too much takes away some of the magic and mystery before it’s a fully formed thing. What I can say is that I’m in the midst of the first draft of a novel which takes place in the 1920s on the barges and canals of the French countryside.Barge

 

How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

There is an oft-repeated maxim that there are only seven plot lines and that all stories are simply a variation. (This is usually attributed to Shakespeare, but I can’t confirm. Anyone know?) If there are no original stories, then what makes us keep writing and reading?

I think it’s because we each bring our own perspective to the page. This is never more evident to me than when I’m teaching creative writing. One of my favorite exercises is to give students the same photo and ask them to develop a character sketch. Who are these people? What do they want? What are their deepest secrets? If there are 15 students in the class, there will be 15 wildly different answers to those questions. You’d probably have no idea that the same photos was used as a jumping-off point.

By the very nature of my personal combination of experiences, my story is like my fingerprint—unique to me. But, you’re thinking, we’ve all read stories that seem so tired and overdone. I’d contend that it isn’t necessarily the plot structure we find troublesome. In fact, we find comfort in the familiarity of the structure. (Read: The Power of Myth) Although it may masquerade as a plot issue, we really take exception with a writer who lacks a point of view or voice.

The Power of Myth

 

Why do you write what you do?

When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that….We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings. That’s why we paint, that’s why we dare to love someone — because we have the impulse to explain who we are. Not just how tall we are, or thin… but who we are internally… perhaps even spiritually. There’s something, which impels us to show our inner-souls. The more courageous we are, the more we succeed in explaining what we know.

~Maya Angelou

I’ve heard people say they don’t read fiction because it’s not real. I’ve never quite understood this reasoning. (I daresay that these may be the same people who love “reality” television.) What could be more real than, as Maya Angelou so eloquently wrote, exploring the impulse that “makes us want to explain ourselves”?

I also wonder what people mean when they say that they read fiction to escape. I read it to engage. I want to engage in the common human experience that ties me to people of different cultures and time periods. I’ve learned the kind of person I want to be (or not be) in the world by reading about Atticus Finch and Edna Pontellier and Hazel Grace. A good book touches my empathy and compassion. It asks me to use my imagination by taking me through a swarm of fire ants in the Belgian Congo and set me floating down the Mississippi River. It can make me laugh at the preposterous situations Bertie Wooster gets himself into and make me wonder “what if.”

I am indebted to these authors who have shared parts of themselves on the page. Writing may seem like a solitary endeavor, but, every time I open my WIP, I’m connected with them. (See also: muse.)

 

 

How does your writing process work?

There are two sides to this question for me. One is the inspiration; the other is the routine. As for the routine, I wake at about 5 a.m. to write before work. Commuting by subway gives me the opportunity to review what I’ve written. I make my notes and edits by hand cuz I’m old school that way. Later that night I transcribe any notes. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. While this process may sound disjointed, it works for me because I like being in touch with my WIP in some way throughout the day.

The most important thing I can tell you about inspiration is a furry muse. The best thing about him is that I never have to wait for him to visit. He’s always there, waiting patiently, sometimes dreaming, sometimes staring, but never demanding.

 

Are you done yet?

It’s exhausting being a muse.

Reggie

It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick. 

_____________________________

Thank you to Julia Monroe Martin for including me in this blogfest.  Next week, please visit the blogs of two wonderful authors: Cynthia Robertson and Sarah Allen. Cynthia and I share a love for historical fiction. Her book reviews are always spot on and insightful. Her review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry made me want to run to the bookstore immediately to pick up a copy. Sarah’s enthusiasm and joy are infectious. Whenever I read one of her posts, I am filled with excitement. I can’t wait to get back to my story. She writes about craft, the writing life and marketing. Check out her A-Z challenge of the writing life.

Up next week: my thoughts on attending Book Expo America. Stay tuned!

If you’re a writer, what is your writing process like? If you’re a reader, why do you read? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

 

The One With the Sheep

I’m lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I can’t sleep because I’m not really tired. I turn on my right side, then my left, then return to my back. I close my eyes and scan my body. My back isn’t aching. My neck is supported. My hips are in alignment. Feels fine, good even, but not great. I want to feel great. Suddenly I sense a presence. Someone is nearby. I flick my eyes open and a small, bald man leans over me.

“How are we doing?”

“Fine,” I sigh.

“You’ve tried out every mattress in the showroom. Twice,” he says, trying to maintain a cheerful disposition. “Are we any closer to a decision?”

“No, we are not. It’s still between the superior elite luxury plush pillow-top dreamrest gel-infused foam mattress and the luxury elite cushion-top foam-wrapped core superior comfort mattress. I just don’t know which to choose.”

“Well, they’re both about the same.” He looks at his watch.

“Then why do you call this one the Serenity model and that one the Tranquility model? Besides you said two hours ago that I’m going to spend a third of my life in this bed. Did you not?”

“I regret saying that.” He walks away, probably to help a customer who can be helped.

I am beginning to have second thoughts about shopping for a new mattress. Maybe I am being too hasty. I decided my current mattress and I needed to part ways after a rather abrupt realization that, if I’d brought my mattress home as a baby, it would be in college now. For some time I’ve been waking in the morning about as refreshed as if someone had been dancing the polka while playing an accordion in my bedroom. Other nights I would lie awake, tired, but unable to fall asleep and no amount of counting sheep would help. A friend suggested that it could be my mattress. Suddenly I noticed the sags and the lumps, the rips and the frays. I flipped the mattress and gave it a clockwise spin, but it didn’t help.

Baa!

Trying to do consumer homework before mattress shopping is futile. First, there are all the meaningless advertising words. Each store has its own set of meaningless advertising words, so that the superior elite luxury plush pillow-top dreamrest gel-infused foam mattress at store A is called the luxury elite cushion-top foam-wrapped core superior comfort mattress at store B, even though they’re the same mattress manufactured by the same company. Second, there’s the high-pressure sales pitch. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to many of you that I’m not a fan of the used car approach to selling. If I could have bought a mattress online, I would have, but of all the things you need to test drive, a mattress seems to be at the top of the list.

So here I am, trying to determine on which mattress I am less likely to wake feeling like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Instead I feel like I’m at the optometrist’s office. Which is better: A or B? Now which is better: B or C? Wait. Can you repeat those?

I prefer to think of myself as thorough rather than indecisive. A mattress is a good chunk of my hard-earned dollars, and a purchase I’ll only make once a generation, apparently. I want to make the right choice. But what is the right choice? That is the paradox, isn’t it? Too many options can made a person feel paralyzed instead of emboldened.

I feel anxiety building. Then I feel anxiety that I have anxiety. I mean, I recognize that this isn’t a life altering decision. It’s a mattress.  Author Sarah Jio writes, “Dragging out a decision for too long leads to more anxiety. And, I find that the quicker I can come to a decision, the better I feel.”

I’ve returned to option A, after a quick check on options C and D. Is the Cool Twist™ gel memory foam something I need? How about the Pillowsoft™ mattress top?  Will I really get a better night’s sleep by spending an extra $100? Right on cue, the sales guy is back.

“Ah, yes, this is a good choice. I’ll write up the sales ticket.” He bounds away quickly before I change my mind.

My decision has sort of been made for me. And, I feel…liberated. It’s amazing how validating it is to have the sales guy fake-agree with you.

I hope he’s around next week. I’ve been thinking that I need new pillows.

 

Do you overthink big purchases? How do you make decisions?

 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

The One With the Brooklyn Bridge

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the places on my bucket list. V over at Lame Adventures commented that her wanderlust budget would only get her over the Brooklyn Bridge. (Inside NYC joke: the bridge is free!) Although it’s not a local secret, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge is one of my favorite things to do with out-of-town guests. It’s got fantastic views (especially at sunset), good exercise, no lines and iconic landmark all in one. And did I mention, it’s free?

Tomorrow marks the 131st anniversary of the bridge’s grand opening. So, I’ve put together photos I’ve taken over the years and some fun bridge facts. (As if there were any other kind of bridge facts!)

 

 

At 1,595 feet (486 meters), it was the world’s longest suspension bridge when it opened in 1883, and remained so until 1903 when the Williamsburg Bridge—just up the river—overtook it by about five feet.

The tall building in the middle of the photo is the new World Trade Center and the glass structure beneath it is Jane's Carousel.

The tall building in the middle of the photo is the new World Trade Center and the glass structure beneath it (on the Brooklyn side) is Jane’s Carousel. This is the East River.

 

 

On opening day, more than 150,000 people crossed what was then the only bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. There were fireworks, the obligatory politicians (including President Chester Arthur and future president, then Governor Grover Cleveland) and marching bands to mark the occasion.

Brooklyn Bridge B-W

These web trusses are made of tightly wound steel coils which stabilize the roadway below — highly advanced engineering for the time period. They are one of the signature features of the bridge.

 

Today the bridge is open only to pedestrians and car traffic, though elevated trains and street cars ran over the bridge until 1944 and 1950 respectively.

 In this photo you can see the pedestrian path. The cars are on the lower level.

In this photo you can see the pedestrian path. The cars are on the lower level.

 

The bridge took 14 years and $15 million to complete.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

No fear of heights here!  It’s believed that between 20-30 men died while building the bridge.  Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

The behind-the-scenes story of how the bridge was built reads every bit like a page-turning novel.  German immigrant John Roebling was the original engineer on the project.  When he died from a tetanus infection early on, his son, Washington Roebling, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, stepped in. A few years into the construction, the younger Roebling developed cassion disease, also known as the bends, after making a dive in the river to inspect the pylons. He was debilitated and had to oversee the rest of the construction from the window of his apartment a few blocks away. Each day he would give his wife, Emily, instructions on what needed to be done and she would go down to the bridge to relay the message. She had to learn engineering principles and terminology to handle the day-to-day chief engineer’s duties. Imagine a woman in 1870s telling a bunch of burly construction workers what to do.

A new film about the making of the Brooklyn Bridge is in pre-production starring Daniel Radcliffe as Washington Roebling.

Washington Roebling

Washington Roebling

Bridge under construction.

Bridge under construction, circa 1879. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

 

Between 17 and 20 pairs of peregrine falcons live in the NYC area, some of which make the Brooklyn Bridge towers their regular nesting site. These amazing birds of prey can cruise at 40 miles per hour and dive bomb up to 200 miles per hour. People walking small dogs across the bridge, take note!

See the falcon hanging out in the cut-out from the limestone blocks? These endangered birds are tagged and monitored by the wildlife commission.

See the falcon hanging out in the cut-out of the limestone blocks? These endangered birds are tagged and monitored by the wildlife commission.

 

This is looking from the Manhattan side into Brooklyn.

This is looking from the Manhattan side into Brooklyn.

 

What’s your favorite thing to do when you have guests in town? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Advice

I’m not sure that I would have listened to me, but if I could take a Wayne’s World time warp to impart some *wisdom* on my twenty-something self, these are a few of the things I would say.

 

1. Being creative is largely about protecting precious time. Be vigilant. Guard it like a mama bear defending her cub. Don’t allow anyone or anything (this includes yourself) to encroach on this time.

2. “I declare this world is so beautiful I can hardly believe it exists…” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this in his journal in 1840. And, boy, was he right. Look around.

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson: I would have definitely listened to your advice.

3. Put down your camera. You don’t need 200 blurry, half-lit photos taken in a bar on a rainy night. Come out from behind the camera and enjoy the evening. (You won’t remember most of their names anyway.)

4. Your parents aren’t necessarily the best advisers when it comes to your career. They’re from a different generation and the workplace has changed drastically. There are more ways to carve your own niche than ever before.

5. Don’t assume change is a bad thing. In fact, it can be very good.

6. Everything. everything, begins and ends with compassion.

Reggie_Roof deck

7. Those jeans you love? They don’t fit.

7a. That guy you love? He doesn’t fit either.

8. When you feel overwhelmed, take three DEEP breaths. It really does help.

9. The world needs introverts.

10. Follow your interests, even if they don’t seem practical. Remember how you really wanted to learn more about art history and astronomy? But you didn’t want to waste college scholarship money so you decided to take “useful” classes like marketing and management. Drudgery. You never enjoyed them much (okay, at all) and you were never engaged. Talk about a waste.

Botticelli's Venus

You could have studied things like this.

11. It’s not personal. Really. That eye-rolling cashier? Your spiteful roommate? These reactions have nothing to do with you at all. Even if it may seem that they are purposely being mean. it’s not about you.

12. The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. I think Hemingway said this. There’s a lot of truth in that statement. How can you expect someone to trust you if you don’t first offer the same in kind?

 

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

 

The One with the Wanderlust

 

You’re off to great places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So get on your way!

~ Dr. Seuss

One of my favorite things about our community of bloggers is getting to know people all around the world. I’m always curious about far-flung (to me) places. Because of you all, there are many new places on my “bucket list,” and the list is always in flux. Right now if you told me I had unlimited funds and vacation time (or when this blog finally hits it big), these are a few of the destinations I’d go with no questions asked.

 

Istanbul, Turkey. I first met Anastasia Ashman when she contributed to The Subway Chronicles anthology. She’d already relocated to Istanbul and was working on an anthology of her own called Tales from the Expat Harem, a collection of essays from foreign women in modern Turkey. Reading the essays in her book I was intrigued by the paradoxes of Istanbul: East meets West, ancient meets modern, pop culture meets the call to prayer. Then Anastasia and her co-editor Jennifer Gokmen appeared on a segment of the Today show with Matt Lauer. Watching them in front of the 1500-year-old Hagia Sophia (once a church, then a mosque, now a museum) discuss the adventure of living and working in this vibrant city sealed the deal. Well, that and seeing James Bond flitting around Istanbul on a motorcycle in the film Skyfall.

Hagia Sophia

Completed in A.D. 537 as a Christian church, Hagia Sophia is an impressive example of Byzantine architecture. Image via Wikipedia Commons

 

Positano, Italy. There are plenty of charming seaside resort towns around the globe. What is it that keeps this one on my bucket list? Is it the way the buildings seem to be perched precariously on the hills? The limoncello? The sun-drenched peach and pink colors? Is it that John Steinbeck wrote this beautiful essay about it? Years ago, I received a postcard for a writers conference held annually in Positano. The town burrowed its way into my heart and has never left. Cue clip of me strolling along a path, gelato in hand, staring dreamily at the Mediterranean.

“It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” ~John Steinbeck

 

Yellowstone. Nearly 3500 acres of untouched wilderness? Yes, please. This is America’s first national park, located mostly in the upper northwest corner of Wyoming. The major appeal of Yellowstone is the vast space with relatively few people. For someone who lives in a crowded steel and glass canyon, I’m always looking for ways to visit  nature-made canyons. But this park (though the word park seems like an understatement) has far more than canyons—geysers, waterfalls and prairies. Let’s not forget the bears, elk and bison, to name a few of the animals that call Yellowstone home.  More than anything, I want to see the gray wolves in their natural habitat. This has been a dream of mine for years, since wolves were reintroduced to the park. Scott, over at Scott’s Eye Photos, took a trip to Yellowstone a few years ago and reignited my desire to go. The links above are to his amazing photos.

Here is an inside peek at one of Yellowstone’s impressive natural features: Mammoth Hot Springs, a network of 50 geothermal springs creating colorful terraced limestone.

 

Hokkaido, Japan. I imagine I’m staying in the Korakukan Jigokudani ryokan in the Japanese alps. I’ve just slipped into the onsen, the hot spring. The water is soothing every last care away. I slink down into the pool, just a bobbing head because it’s cold out there. It’s February after all. The macaques, a.k.a. snow monkeys, are watching. Even though their thick fur keeps them warm, bits of ice have built up around their faces. They decide to take a dip in the hot springs, so we’re all doing the same thing, except they have the added benefit of a neighbor picking mites off of their fur. I’m settling for a seaweed wrap and massage.

Yeah, buddy, I know what you mean.

Yeah, buddy, I know what you mean.

 

Once my fingers are sufficiently shriveled into prunes, I’ll head over to the annual Sapporo Snow Festival in Ōdōri kōen where enormous blocks of ice are carved into life-sized statues and replicas. 

 

These people aren't messing around.  Image via Wikipedia Commons.

These people aren’t messing around. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

 

Galapagos Islands. This is probably the place I’m most looking forward to going, the place that captures my imagination more than any other at the moment. This remote archipelago is where Charles Darwin first began developing his theory of natural selection. Writing for the Telegraph Mark Carwardine says, “Within minutes—sometimes seconds—of landing on this dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you can be face-to-face with more strangely fearless and curious animals than anywhere else on earth.” He goes on to say, “One day you could be watching time-worn giant tortoises in the misty highlands, and the next you could be snorkeling with playful sea lions in crystal-clear water. You could be sunbathing on black lava rocks next to prehistoric-looking marine iguanas, or sitting with waved albatrosses as they perform their bill-circling, swaggering courtship displays.” 

Darwin's Finch

The rather unassuming bird that started it all: Darwin’s finch.Photo credit: Michael Perry via Flickr. 

 

I would be in my glory to be so close to these unique animals in one of the most pristine ecosystems on earth. As if that isn’t reason enough to go, the Galapagos Islands are about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador. Which means I’d be right in the neighborhood of these lovely people.

 

Where would your wanderlust take you if you could go anywhere in the world? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!