Writing in Community

I keep telling one of my coworkers how antisocial I am, but he doesn’t believe me. That’s because I interact with him mostly through online chat and the very occasional in-person meeting. When I do meet with him and the rest of my team, it’s a welcome respite from the relative isolation of my day-to-day work. We chat and laugh, and I talk really fast and all of that gives the impression I’m a friendly people-person.

Our last meeting really energized me. Lots of ideas were hatched, and my mind raced the whole rest of the day. I felt super passionate about my work, which makes me one of the lucky 30 percent who doesn’t hate my job.

But because I’m antisocial — or to use the personality type, an introvert — I seek out isolation to recover from the high of interacting with other humans.

I noticed this at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, which was a wonderful experience all around. Toward the end of each evening though, I was eager to curl up in my bunk with a book, while many of my fellow writers were hitting the bar. Nothing against the bar, mind you, I loved the time I spent there with my writer buddies before dinner. But at the end of a long day of learning and talking about writing, I wanted to be alone.

sleeping lady

Lucky for me, the Chuckanut Writers Conference last weekend was in my neck of the woods. I could fill up on writerly knowledge, then go right home to Rob and the dogs. But the sense of community I feel at these events is as important as the time I spend reflecting on what I’ve learned.

Writing often is a solitary pursuit, so I welcome the reminder that I’m not alone. I hunger for the buzzy sensation I felt in my fingertips as Wendy Call finished her presentation examining the ways we “transmute life into art.” I was confused at first by her slides of man’s first expression of the written word. Then she asked us to write down our first memory of experiencing something as beautiful. Our first experience with the written word.

My pen froze above the index card. I couldn’t conjure a single genuine memory, just stories I have heard about myself as a child. I closed my eyes and pictured that weird lined gray paper with the dotted line between two solid lines. Was that recycled paper? Is that why it was gray? Or was it newspaper paper?

I remembered a spinning ballerina doll with a bun on her head. The commercial showed girls putting their finger on top of her head while she spun, but when I imitated that, her hair tangled around my finger, cutting off the circulation. I wouldn’t say that ballerina was my first memory of something beautiful, but that’s one of my earliest memories.

Call’s next two questions were the ones that revved my writing engine. What would you change about the world? It can be anything. First thing you think of.

Racism.

Not sure if that’s even true, but it’s the first thing that came to my mind.

Next, what is the burning question you are trying to answer with your latest project? And if you have a firm grasp on this, congratulations, you’re way ahead of most people.

How is dogfighting different than mixed martial arts cage matches?

Now of course, I know the two are completely different, but I need to find a way to answer that question in my novel.

Here’s the kicker: In closing, Call told us to consider the relationship between the answers to those last two questions.

When she asked us what we would change about the world, she didn’t say it had anything to do with our writing projects, and yet, racism is related to my story of fighting dogs. Prejudice against pit bulls is a form of racism.

Who knows what any of that means, or what I’ll do with it, but moments like that, learning from other authors, sparking ideas — those experiences keep me going and remind me what my passions are.

A thousand words at a time

I completed the first draft of my memoir in September and spent the succeeding months revising it. Honestly, I could revise the thing forever, so a few months ago I decided to set it aside while seeking an agent and editor to guide me on the next stage of revision. Nothing to report on that front, but I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I mean to get back to my neglected novel. I’ve been meaning to do that for several weeks now. As soon as I sit down to write, I thought, it’ll be like riding a bicycle.

The first time I sat down to write, I looked back at the 47,000 or so words already written. Imperfect, yes, but I wasn’t ready to revise those, I needed to get to the end first. I did notice, however, that half of my chapters are in the present tense and half were in the past tense. Had to make a call. Present tense it will be, so I spent some time bringing the past tense chapters into the present.

Sometime during the past week when I wasn’t behind a keyboard, I had the inspiration for the next two scenes of my story. Fantastic. Just gotta sit down and write those.

Picture this dog on the cover of a book with a pink boxing glove in its mouth. You'd totally read that book, right?

Picture this dog on the cover of a book with a pink boxing glove in his mouth. You’d totally read that book, right?

Let me interject to say that since I set aside my memoir, I’ve felt a little out of sorts. Not full-fledged depressed, just disconnected. I was happiest in the throes of writing that story, and I recognized that I needed to throw myself into another writing project to recapture the confident, content side of myself that I’ve discovered these past couple of years.

Saturday, after the Red Wheelbarrow Happy Hour, I sat down at one of my favorite public writing spots to craft one of these new scenes.

Not really. I intended to put that off further by editing a scene in my memoir, but I forgot the jump drive containing that manuscript. My little laptop would not connect to the wireless. I was forced by circumstance to craft a new scene.

I stared at the blank screen and thought, “You know, maybe I don’t want to be a fiction writer after all.”

I considered packing it in and going home. If I’d been able to connect to the Internet, I surely would have spent the next twenty minutes on Facebook. Possibly I would have put it to good use researching the scenes I meant to write.

Somehow, I found a place to enter the scene and I started to write. When I had about 700 words, I remembered a goal I set back when I was generating new material for my memoir. A thousand words. Write a thousand words a day. Doesn’t matter if it’s for the memoir. I let myself count for-the-day-job writing and blog posts. Just aim to write a thousand words a day.

I finished the memoir that way.

So I wrote another 302 words and closed my laptop for the day.

Spawning thoughts

I’ve decided to do Nanowrimo again.  Apparently this is an odd-year thing, like pink salmon runs. I did it in 2005 and 2007, writing a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. I had pretty good ideas both years, and yet, each time struggled just a little to make my word count. The first year, I took excerpts from news stories I’d written. It’s not cheating if I wrote it, right? I mean, I wrote more than 50,000 words that month, it’s just that most of it was for my job. It’s not cheating if the stories actually fit into the plot of the novel, right?

The trouble with the novels of 2005 and 2007, along with my first novel, the only one that’s “complete,” is that they’re far too derivative from my actual life and I get scared about having anyone read them. Defeats the purpose a little.

I’m determined to get my writing juices moving again. So do I write something that is again so personal I don’t want anyone to read it, just to get the words flowing, or do I really make an effort to write fiction this time?

Because so far, what I’m thinking is a story about a woman building an enormous shop in her backyard.

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Speaking of pink salmon, I watched some spawn yesterday in a creek that is the focal point of a restoration project. While taking pictures of the site, I glanced at the stream to see if there were fish, assuming there wouldn’t be because someone would have mentioned it if there were. I heard a splash or two and didn’t see them at first, but sure enough, the creek was loaded with pinks. Steelhead too, I think. It’s tough to get good pics of spawning fish and I trudged through the sludge back to the car to get my polarized filter. I shot about 100 photos of fish. (and slightly fewer than that of the construction work I was supposed to be shooting.)

It was wonderful. No rush to be anywhere. I had a chance to enjoy the view without self-consciousness. I love this part of my job: “reporting,” getting out there and observing something, seeing something that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Appreciating something. Documenting it. Attempting to create art out of it. And I did wind up with a few photos I like.

I hadn’t seen pinks spawn before. Chinook and coho yes. I liked that I was able to identify them definitively by the humps on their back. I watched them nuzzle up against each other and whiz around and I tried desperately to get a shot of one with its head out of the water.

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I succeeded but didn’t know it until I got back to the office to view the files.

I could have stayed all day if I’d had more photo cards on me and if I hadn’t gotten really hungry for lunch.