P.S. A Little Perspective

Earlier this week, I signed a piece of paper that had no effect on my life whatsoever. Yet, in doing so, I was truly affected. You see, signing that piece of paper had a massive effect on multiple lives. Particularly the life of the man that I, along with my fellow jurors, was sending to jail for the rest of his life. I have spent the past six weeks serving jury duty in a trial where two men were convicted of murder. A cold-blooded killing. And, while I learned a great deal more than I ever thought I could about gang culture, murder, cell phone data, and legal procedure, it was through the last few days of this service that I gained a very valuable lesson on perspective.

I’ve had many experiences in life where my eyes have been opened to the perspectives of others. Living in other countries and exposing one’s self to other cultures is key in understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. I have done a lot of this. And, as has been stated by many great people, there is no better way to gain empathy for others than by reading. See, through books, you are able to explore the world through more perspectives than with any other method. I definitely agree. And, in looking through my vast collection of books, one could assume that I have been exposed to a large amount of perspective. However, I would argue that another great way to gain understanding of another person’s thoughts, the way they see the world, is to be locked in a jury deliberation room with them to decide the fate of another human being.

When we entered deliberation, I truly believed that it was going to be a very quick process. I knew exactly what I believe the verdict should be, and thought it would be the same for everyone else. I soon realized this was not the case. It quickly became quite apparent that a single word in a legal declaration could mean such varying things to different people. Now, I have always been known to be quite strong-willed and opinionated (I would also argue that both nature and nurture fostered these qualities within me). But, it is amazing what can happen to the definitiveness of one’s feelings when a man’s life is literally on the line. Through the thoughts and understandings of my fellow jurors, my perspective shifted (At the same time, my frustration with the law increased, but that’s another story).

Each person comes into the deliberation room (or any life situation for that matter) with a different outlook on the world. They come with their own weights and burdens, each traveling to this particular point on separate paths. They come having noticed different things along the way and being affected by individual events in the proceedings. Each of us unloaded everything we had into that room and, together, we tried to put together the pieces to come up with a decision. It was, by far, the most stressful few days of my life. I didn’t sleep much and the lingering cold that came from this stress still remains. But I know, from it, I am a better person and a better writer. The trial itself opened my mind to the reasons people do what they do. The deliberation helped me better understand why people think what they think and feel what they feel. Being exposed to such different perspectives in such a high-stakes situation has helped me better understand the characters I am writing now and any that I will write in the future. And with that, I enter my next project with new perspective.

TYBC

P.S. Passion and Place

Hello all and welcome to the new year! I am entering 2017 with excitement and focus. I have a very strong feeling this will be a great year, especially when it comes to my writing. I ended 2016 a bit frustrated with my work. I had finished my first manuscript and sent it out to agents and it was now time to start writing the next thing. I had several ideas and each day a new one would pop up. I would get a few pages into each one and then something else would catch my attention. Nothing was really calling to me and I was struggling to find the idea that I could really absorb myself in and maintain enthusiasm about for an entire novel-length project. I began to think back to when I began my first manuscript. How did I do it? What made me pick that story? It didn’t really hit me until my husband and I traveled to Ireland just after Christmas for a friend’s wedding.

I had never been to Ireland before, but had always been intrigued by the country and its culture. My husband had already been several times and spoke of it with great adoration. I was eager to go and was not disappointed at all. Ireland, from day one, exceeded all my expectations. I immediately fell in love with the place. Place. That was it. That was the key ingredient in my first story and that was what had been missing from all my recent attempts to start novel two.

Thinking back, far-off places have always fascinated me. I loved reading stories that had strong settings and when the travel bug bit me it hit me hard. Ever since then, I have been inspired by places. When I thought back on all the things I had written that really had significance to me, they had been centered on place. My undergrad fiction thesis was inspired by my recent trip to Europe. My Master’s project focused on the country I was then living in (Australia). And the manuscript that I just completed was all based on my time living and working in Nepal, focused on a country and a people who I had fallen so deeply in love with. It had all been place. My writing, that passion, is at its best when focused on a place for which I have a passion. I get excited when I can put my characters and story in a setting that fascinates me and when I can show others an incredible location through my words.

As we traveled across Ireland, and I began to fall more and more in love with the place, the story came. It was one that I had imagined before, even jotted down some notes on, but which had been set aside in my “ideas folder” on my computer. Something that I thought might work but which I would pull out later. As I saw all the different parts of the country, the story came back to life for me. And so, I returned to the computer, pulled out that file, and began to write. I can see my characters now and, more importantly, I can see where they are. I’ve been there. I know how it looks, how it smells, how the air feels at different times of the day. It is real in my mind and now I must make it real on the paper. I have to. That drive and purpose is there and the desire must be fulfilled.

So, that’s it. Place. Most writers have key things that inspire them or which make up their writing. This is mine. I have come to realize that the things I like to write, the stories that excite me, are ones centered around place. It really shouldn’t be all that shocking to me as places themselves have always excited me. And, as for the future, if I have to travel to new, far-flung places to find my next inspiration, well then that is just a burden I will have to bear 🙂

TYBC

P.S. Boxes of Books

Last night, I started reading Stephanie Danler’s book Sweetbitter. (I’m nearly halfway through and I highly recommend it. All the rave reviews are absolutely true.) From the very first page, I was pulled in. She has such a strong writing voice and I identified with the main character, Tess, immediately (a young woman who, after graduating with a degree in English, moves to a faraway city where she doesn’t know anyone…there are certainly some similarities there). Also, this character has an affinity for books. Definitely a woman after my own heart. And then, right there in chapter one, Danler writes something that totally grabbed me. Tess is talking to a possible employer and she is telling him about leaving home. She says “I packed a few boxes of books. But then I really started looking at them. These books were…I don’t know…totems of who I was…I…I left them behind.” (Danler, 13) This woman was trying to leave her past and create a new life. These boxes of books, everything she had read, defined who she was at that point in her life. And, in order to escape that life, she had to leave those things behind.

Just like Tess, I too have boxes of books (arguably, more than any one person needs). And when I look through them, I can definitely see my past. Everything I have read has contributed, either slightly or largely, to who I am. Unlike Tess, however, these boxes have always traveled with me. When I left for college three boxes of books accompanied my clothing and recently purchased dorm supplies. As college went on, these boxes multiplied to take up much of the storage space that I shared with my roommates. After college, when I moved to Australia, I shipped over two suitcases and five boxes of books. These were the absolutely necessary ones. Several other boxes remained stored in my parents’ garage.

I have traveled so much, and have lived in so many places, that often times, home is a hard concept for me to describe. Where do I feel like I most belong? Is there a location that truly defines me? Those boxes of books ground me. They are a constant reminder of who I was, who I am, where I come from, and, many times, where I’m going. Each book in those boxes reminds me of a moment in my past and transfers those memories to the present. And, when I move to a new place, and unpack those boxes onto a living room bookshelf or into a pile in the corner of a minuscule studio apartment, I instantly feel at home.

Are they heavy and cumbersome? Yes. Have I paid more money to have them shipped to places than it would probably have cost to just buy those books again in the new location? Most likely. Have I seen the looks of hate in the eyes of friends and family helping me move who get stuck carrying said boxes? Absolutely. But it is all worth it. My boxes of books give me a center. They are the things I return to when, all alone in a new place, I feel lonely or lost. They remind me of everything that I have been, good or bad, and help guide me towards everything I want to be.

So while Tess left her boxes of books behind as they represented her past self, I carry mine with me for the exact same reason. And there is always room for one more.

TYBC

P.S. The Search Begins

This has been a pretty big week…and it’s only Wednesday! On Monday, I finished the manuscript for my first novel. After five years of trying to figure out how to tell this story, it’s finally complete. There were times where I had put the project aside completely and not worked on it for months. But that little voice was always in the back of my head. It was her, my main character, telling me her story and encouraging me to write. And so I did. I wrote and wrote, edited and rewrote. About a month ago I gave drafts of the story to a few readers. I was a bit nervous. It had been just me and my story for so long, the thought of letting others in to read, pick apart, and judge my work was tough. But, thankfully, they all came back with some great critiques and very positive feedback. And so I ventured forward on a final draft. Then, Monday afternoon, I typed in that last word and was done. It was wonderful and terrifying all at the same time. All that time and work and it was now finished. I told my husband that part of me had the same feeling finishing that last page as I did getting into the car after our wedding. “Is that it? It’s over?” Well, it is. The writing bit that is. Another part of me is so excited to have finished, to have this fully formed piece of literature that I created. And a third part of me is anxious. Now comes the terrifying bit…sending it to agents and hoping that one believes my little book is worthy of representation. I have spent the past few weeks researching agents and whittled down a list of people and agencies that I think would be a great fit for me and my work. This morning, after days of writing and rewriting query letters and making sure each sentence was perfect, I sent out my first wave of queries. I honestly feel like I’m a senior in high school again, applying to colleges. I have my top choice, my dream agent, the one agent that I would love to get and feel would be the perfect fit. But really, all of them are amazing. And, let’s be honest, I will be ecstatic to get offers from any of them. Now it’s just a waiting game. You know what? I take back the comment about being a high schooler. This is so much more angst inducing! So, here we go. The next big step. My first ventures into the business of writing, rather than just the craft. I hope it will be a long and brilliant journey.

TYBC

P.S. Waiting for Rejection (or Validation?)

Earlier this week, I finished my manuscript. Draft number 247. It’s complete and I felt the story was finally finished. Well, at least finished enough. I’m sure if I had read it again I would have found plenty to add or tweak, as I had with the last 246 drafts. But enough was enough. And so, taking the next steps in the book writing process, I sent the manuscript out to a few beta readers. Hooray, I’m done! Everybody come and see what I’ve created! And that is when panic set in.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. My story was out there, all alone. Other people were looking at it without me to protect it, explain it, validate it. But it’s a great story, I told myself. These people will love it. You’re a great writer, how could they not? Half the night was spent outlining the next book, as this one will be such a success that there will be demand for a sequel. But what if they don’t like it at all? What if they discover it to be the pure rubbish that it may well be? The other half of the night was spent wrapped in agony over the idea of other people looking at my work. Judging my work. Hating my work.

I have gone through plenty of rejection so far as a writer. Short stories and small pieces have been sent out to several journals and magazines, most of which have come back with the lovely “…unfortunately it’s not right for us…” letter or the “…after long consideration we have decided not to publish it…” letter. And that’s fine. I can accept those. (I print them off as a matter of fact. I save them. They are all pinned up in my office “a la” Stephen King.) But those were all just tiny rejections. And I could easily accept them because those little writings were not the “big goal”. Yes, it would be nice, but not my main focus. Now, a novel, there’s the goal. This piece of writing is much more important and much more personal. (And I know in all those writing workshops they tell you that you must separate yourself from the work, not take rejection of it personally. Well, to those folks I say, quite kindly, bugger off!) This work is from my very core and now it’s out there being judged by others. But it’s good writing, I tell myself. Bring on the critiques and criticisms. This is a time for reflection and improvement. The good will become great. And, with that, the miserable cycle of thought continues.

So for now, I wait. Nervously, anxiously, self-doubtingly/ego-strokingly wait; one half of me anticipating the minor edits and praise that is sure to ensue and the other half frantically writing an email begging those few readers to delete the file and pretend we never spoke of this crazy novel-writing idea.

TYBC

P.S. Making Reality Real in Fiction

Today I reached the 60,000-word mark on my novel. And while I know that there is still a lot of writing and editing left to do, I decided to pause for a moment to enjoy this accomplishment. I’m finally starting to see this story truly come to life, fully fleshed out. However, I know that there are still some big aspects of the piece that need quite a bit of work. One of the things I have found to be the most difficult in writing this story is the reality of it all. Yes, I am writing a work of fiction, a made up person and a made up story, but the setting, the time and place of the story are all very real. I’ve been there and saw it with my own two eyes. And so I struggle to write it. Seems odd. If I saw it, shouldn’t I be able to very easily describe what I saw? Well, I write a paragraph about the village or the city where my character is and in my head I can see it all. I can hear it and I can smell it. I even taste the food she is tasting. But is that on the page? It’s hard for me to separate in my mind what I have written from what I assume I have written. In other pieces of writing I have done in the past, this has never really been an issue. Either the setting wasn’t all that vastly important to the story, or I just made it up. This is different. The setting is very important to this book and I have a very real, emotional connection to the place. So I am determined to get it right, to make sure that the reader sees exactly what I see as they move through the story. But when I go back and read it, I worry it’s not really there. The picture on the page is not as fully developed as the one in my mind. And so, I continue to write. But, I’m pretty sure the next draft edit will be filled with nothing but notes for scene description. 70,000 words, here I come!

TYBC

P.S. Plagiarizing the Truth

Plagiarism has recently been thrown back into the spotlight. With Melania Trump’s speech last week apparently using words taken directly from a prior speech of Michelle Obama, the news has suddenly shifted its focus back to this age-old crime. Who stole whose words and who used what words first? We’ve seen it over and over again in politics, science, and literature. This is nothing new.

As a teacher, I had to be hyper-vigilant of plagiarism. My students, however, often made this hunt quite easy. Multiple sentences of grammatically jarring assaults on the English language would lead into a beautifully written paragraph, alive with elevated imagery, often times spelling words like “colour” and “theatre”. And, I would frequently read this same exact paragraph multiple times in a stack of submitted essays. I would constantly tell them that this was a form of academic dishonesty and have to deal with multiple complaints and “yeah but”s when I returned papers marked with an ‘F’. “Copying, zero points”. I went to schools, I would tell them, where plagiarism could get you kicked out of college. It is not something to be taken lightly. It is not something that is allowed in life. It is stealing and it is wrong.

But, as with many things we try to teach our children these days, we turn around and there is a celebrity telling, or showing, them otherwise. And with plagiarism, now we have someone, on one of the biggest stages in the world, stand up and do that wrong thing, and there are apparently no consequences. It’s laughed off, becoming a temporary subject of internet meme entertainment, and we move on. As a grown adult, I look down on Mrs. Trump. She didn’t fact check, she didn’t do her research. She was so ill-informed in the area in which she is trying to become a leader, that she had no understanding of the wrong she was committing. Or at least I hope she didn’t. If she did know what she was doing, then that’s a whole different type of wrong and what little respect I had for her already would diminish greatly. As a writer, I look down on her speechwriter. You, ma’am, are a member of an artistic community, whether you like it or not (anyone who wants to argue that speechwriting is not an art can look at the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and then we’ll talk). It is a community in which stealing another person’s product is one of the highest forms of disrespect. Come up with your own words.

I do understand, though. It’s hard. Even as a fiction writer, I find this difficult. One would think that in fiction, making up the words would be so much easier. But often, the complete openness sometimes makes one panic and return to the examples of those who did it best. We must press on uniquely, however, to honor the art and all the artists that came before us. The times where there are no new words for what you are seeing and feeling, such as with all the current events in our world, are the moments when it is the most crucial for writers to find their words. Their own words. Ones that deliver their own truth and theirs alone. And now, putting speech writing aside, I venture into the world of literature. A place where I, and many many before me, have frequently found it difficult to find our own words. Even Shakespeare is said to have stolen a line or two (or an entire play) here and there. (But that could turn into a completely new argument (one that has already lasted hundreds of years), and I digress.)

There is a saying that goes “non-fiction tells the facts, fiction tells the truth.” In today’s world we are inundated with facts. Much of the time, and even more so recently, these are quite frightening facts. But amongst all this mess, I have to believe there are still some truths in this world. Original, personal truths. Truths of goodness and of hope. As modern writers, we are tasked with the significant challenge of finding these truths. And I don’t mean what you see on the nightly news or any message pop-up that flashes on your phone when a new tragedy happens. Those are facts. And, depending on your source, those facts can get twisted into a million different conclusions. But the truth, that is what we as writers struggle for. A truth that is so strong, so personally real, that it becomes part of a universal truth. One that touches any reader, regardless of time or place, at their very core and cements itself in the depths of their understanding. These are the truths that have made our favorite works of literature our favorites. These are the truths that have opened our eyes to worlds far beyond our own as well as the realities of the one we live in. And we can’t do that with copied words. Words that have already been used come off as disingenuous and fake when we try to push them into our own story.

We are creating nothing new and contributing nothing to society when we repeat the words of others and claim them as our own. And this is difficult in a society that has singular, unrealistic expectations for every aspect of life that all individuals are supposed to attain and even mimic. But we as writers must rise above this. We must contribute our truths and ours alone. Learn from the greats before us, but respect them enough to speak your own mind and write your own words. That means you too, speechwriters.

TYBC