Z Is for Zoom

The Greek alphabet goes from alpha to omega. My 2021 A to Z Challenge alphabet goes from Audience to Zoom, and yes, I can see some connections between the two. Thanks to Zoom, I’ve been in the audience for webinars and panel discussions that pre-pandemic would have been held in New York, Washington, or some other place I can’t get to.

Zoom sing with Susan Robbins (2nd row center) of Libana, November 2020. I’m top row, 2nd from left.

I’ve participated in Zoom sings (Zings?) whose leaders were in California, the Boston area, or right here on Martha’s Vineyard. Zoom sings are a little weird because you can only hear the leader — it would be total cacophony if everyone unmuted — but they’re also cool because I try out harmonies and variations that I wouldn’t dare if everyone else could hear me.

Last fall I took a six-week online seminar on the novels of Toni Morrison. I’d been hankering to read or reread all her novels in order, and this got me started with Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. I’m currently doing a nine-week seminar on three William Faulkner novels: The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! The Morrison seminar was run through a local library, the Faulkner through the professor’s home base at Swarthmore College.

When 2020 began, I’d never heard of Zoom. Who had? Now a hot topic in my circles is what we think of Zoom meetings, whether our face-to-face communication skills have atrophied, and how much some of us hate looking at ourselves onscreen.

In yet another case of old dog learning new tricks, I got a Zoom Pro account early on and have become reasonably adept at scheduling and hosting meetings and at explaining Zoom features to less-experienced users.

Writing-wise I’ve got two Zoom stories. One is about my writers’ group. In ordinary times it meets every Sunday night in the cozy parlor of one member. She provides wine, juice, water, and popcorn; the rest of us contribute baked goodies and other treats from time to time. In season there’s a fire crackling in the fireplace. When shelter-in-place orders hit in mid-March we stopped meeting. I suggested Zoom, but the other members are less tech-savvy than I am, and at 69 I’m one of the group’s younger members. It didn’t happen. Without the weekly deadline, I stopped working on my novel-then-in-progress. This may turn out to be a blessing in disguise because the current structure wasn’t working and the weekly deadline, though helpful in some ways, was making it hard to stand back and consider the thing as a whole.

Not to mention — Morrison and Faulkner have shaken up my assumptions about structure and given me some ideas, and meanwhile I’ve launched a project I’d been talking about for years: a blog/memoir based on my T-shirt collection. I’ve got at least two hundred T-shirts, and they come from all the phases of my life back to 1976. It’s now a thing, so if you’re interested, check out The T-Shirt Chronicles.

Once fall arrived in earnest and meeting outside became less pleasant, the group decided to give Zoom a try. Thanks to tech support by friends and relatives, it’s worked out fine. We’re eager to get back to wine, popcorn, and a fire in the fireplace but for now Zoom works pretty well.

My other Zoom story is short. Last May in one of my other blogs, I started a post called “Living in Zoomsville,” about the abrupt shift from in-person meetings to Zoom. I never finished it and probably never will because by midsummer living in Zoomsville had become so, well, normal that I no longer felt the urge to write about it. The moral of that story is Write it while it’s hot. Don’t put it off till you have more time. Just do it. Start now.

N Is for Negative Capability

I was thinking that N might be for Narrative, but then I read the “N Is for Narrative” I posted during the 2017 A to Z Challenge in this blog and thought No way could I surpass that.

I’ve had thoughts like that recently when rereading stuff I wrote 40 years ago. Has it all been downhill from there? I can’t help wondering. At the same time, I see in those long-ago essays and poems strong traces of who and where I was at the time, what I was reading, what my friends and I were talking about, what I thought was so important I was moved to write about it. Moral of story: Write it now. Don’t put it off.

So Narrative was out. The obvious alternatives, to my mind anyway, were Names and Negative. I could say a few things about names, but the thought didn’t inspire me. “Negative” felt, well, too negative. Not that learning to deal with “no” isn’t crucial for writers. The “no” coming from within can shut us down completely. The “no” coming from publishers, publications, and workshops or courses we were dying to get into can be devastating.

I didn’t want to write about that either. Not now, anyway.

Mulling over “negative,” “negativity,” and “negation” on my walk this morning, I recalled a workshop leader, a poet, talking about “negative capability.” The phrase came from John Keats, but I didn’t remember what it meant. So I looked it up.

The Poetry Foundation includes “negative capability” in its “Glossary of Poetic Terms,” calling it “a theory first articulated by John Keats about the artist’s access to truth without the pressure and framework of logic or science.” The entry goes on: “Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, in one of his famous letters to relatives Keats supposed that a great thinker is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’”

The Wikipedia entry is more enlightening. First it gives the phrase in fuller context: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Then it notes, one, that this was the only time Keats used the phrase, and two, that the letter in which it appeared didn’t circulate widely until after Keats’s death (in 1821, of TB, in Rome, at the age of 25).

Aha, think I. All we really have is Keats’s definition: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” All the rest is commentary, some by Keats in his short lifetime and even more in the ensuing three centuries by subsequent scholars, critics, poets, and the like. It must be OK to push all the talk about “beauty is truth and truth, beauty” (from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), about art vs. science and intuition vs. reason, to one side and just focus on what Keats wrote in that letter:

“. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Turn that “man” into “poet” or “writer” or “artist,” or “scientist” or “philosopher,” for that matter, and you’ve got it. It’s about being open to what flows into your mind, or what flows through your fingers when you’re freewriting. It may not be fact or reason you’re tempted to reach out after — more likely it’ll be undone dishes or unmade phone calls or the terror of the blank page. The blank page is where it starts.

Negative capability. Openness. Being ready for anything.

H Is for Habits

Habit: “A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition” or “customary manner or practice.”

When you’re not sure where to start, head for the dictionary. 😉 Those come from the American Heritage Dictionary. There are other “habits,” but I’m not thinking of nun’s habits or riding habits or habits involving narcotics.

Habits are the patterns and practices that can help you create the space that makes your writing possible. Needless to say, they can also create spaces in which writing is difficult if not impossible, so if you’re having a hard time getting down to work, day after day after day, it’s worth taking a hard look at what habits may be getting in the way.

I once wrote a whole poem of ways to avoid writing. I can’t remember any of it, but I’m pretty sure that doing the dishes and vacuuming were in it. The ways to avoid writing are myriad. I can even use writing to avoid writing.

My #1 habit in the sense of “customary manner or practice” is write every day. This started when I was working on my novel. I’d never completed anything longer than 40 pages before. I was desperately afraid I was going to choke. You know where the cartoon character runs straight off a cliff and for a moment is suspended in midair above a chasm, feet still running? That was me.

I made a New Year’s resolution, one of the few New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made. The resolution was that I would write every day until I had a complete draft. I didn’t specify how many words I would write, or how many hours — only that I would write every day.

I have a candle burning while I write.

Some days, I swear, it would be five minutes to midnight when I sat down at the computer and opened the Word file. That was enough. I’d tweak the last paragraph I’d written and then write another paragraph or two. Just opening the file was enough to reassure me that it hadn’t turned to crap the moment my back was turned. What I’d already written would tell me what to do next.

Ordinarily mornings are my best writing time, especially for first-drafting. In the morning I’m fresh and optimistic. As the day goes on, my mind fills up with distractions, interruptions, and reasons not to write. Editing I can do at other times.

My worst habit, of the “recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition” type, is Spider solitaire. Decades ago I played it with real cards, then some fiend decided to bundle it with Windows and I was doomed. If the writing stalls, suddenly Spider is open on my screen and I’m playing another game without knowing how I got there. I am almost certainly powerless over Spider solitaire. I don’t think my life has become unmanageable — yet — but I may be fooling myself.

F Is for Freewriting

Freewriting is like brainstorming for one, though you can do it in the company of others. A writers’ group I once belonged to started each meeting with freewriting. We took turns picking a prompt, usually a word, phrase, or the beginning of a sentence, and a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. One person set the timer and off we went.

We all wrote in longhand, on yellow pads or in whatever notebook we’d brought with us. The only rule was Keep writing. Put pen or pencil to paper and keep your hand moving till the bell rings.

You didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but all of us almost invariably did. Our stuff was amazing — funny, profound, startling, poignant — but what amazed me most was what I’d managed to put on paper in 10 or 15 minutes. Sitting at the computer it might take me an hour or more to write a paragraph I was satisfied with. Most of that hour would be spent staring at the screen with my hands nowhere near the keyboard.

That writers’ group experience and the “morning pages” I did while following Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way sold me on writing in longhand.

Maybe it’s because I was an editor as well as a writer, but I could look at a rough draft — my own or someone else’s — and my mind would be full of ideas of things to try: swap those two paragraphs, delete that sentence, expand this a bit, try this word instead of that one. A blank page, however, would provoke unease that could quickly escalate to procrastination, paralysis, and writer’s block.

Something similar often happened when I got stuck in the middle of something. It was like coming to the brink of a very high cliff. Seeing no way to proceed, I’d turn back and give up. Small wonder, then, that I wasn’t able to break the 40-page barrier: anything under that I could do, and pretty well, but I hadn’t been able to complete a novel, because novels are a lot longer than 40 pages. Some writers are able to jump into a novel or other book-length work and keep going till they finish. Not me. I’d get stuck, and because I didn’t have a deadline — no one was waiting for it — I’d give up.

Freewriting got me unstuck. I’d take pen and paper, leave my desk, and go somewhere else. When I was living close enough, I could walk into town, buy coffee and a muffin, grab an empty seat, and write. Often I’d give myself a prompt: “I can’t write this scene because . . .” or “[Character A] walks into the kitchen and sees . . .” The words would pour out. It might take a few minutes before the nugget would appear, the clue to my way forward, but it always would appear. Gradually I developed a deep faith in freewriting, and in writing in longhand.

Some writers freewrite their whole first drafts: no outline, no roadmap, no notes. If writers really can be divided into planners and (seat-of-the-)pantsers, they’re the pantsers. Most of us are probably a bit of both, depending on the project. Whichever, freewriting is a handy tool no matter how you use it: to warm up, to play, to get unstuck, or to write whole drafts.

Theme Reveal: #atozchallenge

I really want to wake this blog up, and I figure a surefire way to do it is to take part in the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. I did it with Write Through It in 2017 and in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories in 2018.

The idea is to blog every day for the month of April, starting with A on April 1, B on April 2, and so on. You get Sundays off because April has more days than there are letters in the alphabet.

My theme for the month: Getting the Words Out

That includes both getting them out of your head and getting them out into the world so they can get into other people’s heads.

Come along for the ride!

Decluttering

Any writer worth her salt has dozens of creative procrastination techniques in her repertoire. My favorites include dusting, vacuuming, and washing whatever dishes there are in the sink. Playing Spider solitaire is also right up there.

Procrastinator’s toolkit

Most writers worth their salt have at least some idea what they’re up to when, say, the blue-gray carpet suddenly seems so white with dog fur that it has to be vacuumed right now. The dog fur didn’t get there overnight, after all.

So when the towering pile of paper next to my work chair suddenly seemed too out of control to be borne, I was suspicious. I was closing in on the end of Wolfie, draft 3. I’d just completed a scene that had been giving me trouble, and I had no idea what happens next: exactly the sort of scenario that makes procrastination such a compelling option.

However . . .

I’d several times brushed past The Pile and knocked a cascade of papers to the floor. Papers that then had to be picked up and re-piled. Picking up papers delayed my getting back to work — perhaps this was a form of procrastination?

Aside: Writers know how sneaky Procrastination can be. Some of us have been known to use writing to avoid writing.

Aha! Down at the bottom of the pile I spied three yellow pads with plenty of blank sheets on them. When I don’t know what happens next in a work in progress, the surefire way to find out is to write in longhand, and to write in longhand blank paper is needed. Excavating The Pile wasn’t procrastination — surely it was a necessary step in the process?

Carefully I removed The Pile from table to floor, sat down next to it, and started sorting it into three piles: Keep, Put Somewhere Else, and Toss.

I didn’t keep an inventory of what I found there — that would be serious procrastination — but I did uncover folders, notebooks, and random papers related to three major projects, two ongoing and one completed last March, including the marked-up printout of Wolfie, draft 2, which I hadn’t referred to in months. Luckily there were no unpaid bills, jury summonses, or anything that had to be dealt with ASAP last June.

The Pile is now one third its former height. It does not cascade to the floor when I brush carelessly past it. Virtually everything in it is related to Wolfie. (The marked-up copy of draft 2 is now in the recycle pile.) Now I can get back to work . . .

. . . as soon as I blog about taming The Pile.

The Pile, reduced to a third of its former self. It used to tower over the books at left. See? There really are usable yellow pads at the bottom.

 

Should You Quit Writing?

Maybe it’s because I’m closing in on the end of draft 3 of the novel in progress and my mind is already working on draft 4, or because I never stop wondering if writing is worth all the time I spend on it, but this blog post from Brevity has an awful lot of wisdom and encouragement packed into not very many words. Like this: “It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

I feel GOOD about my work!

A writer asked me:

Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.

I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.

I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.

All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?

Nobody I know wants to…

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On Not Writing

Can anyone out there not relate to this? Here’s a bracing dose of “how to keep going.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Happy children! Loud happy children!

This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?

This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.

This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.

This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.

This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.

This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.

This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.

This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.

This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.

This…

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Skip It, Move On, Come Back Later

I’m forever saying, chanting, and otherwise reminding myself that “the way out is through.” This is true, but often it’s distilled down to “Just do it!,” which can be useful but sometimes isn’t.

Sometimes the way through is circuitous. Sometimes it’s so circuitous that it looks like procrastination, like when you give up in frustration, go for a walk, and come back with an insight that eluded you while you were staring at the screen, or when you take an entire week’s break from the work in progress to do something else, maybe writing-related or maybe not.

So one of my characters — Felicia, the mother of one of my viewpoint characters, Glory — just made a momentous and unexpected discovery. With each draft, Felicia is becoming more crucial to the plot, but she started off as a bit player and I still didn’t know her very well. My hunch was that she’d call Shannon, the other viewpoint character, but I didn’t know what she’d say. So I left a note to myself at that point in the file and went on.

Plenty of writers do this regularly: When a scene isn’t jelling or they need to do more research, they skip over that part and come back to it later. This is far better than getting stalled at the troublesome spot, but I’m not all that good at it. When I leave gaps behind, I feel like I’m balancing on a rickety ladder. Nevertheless, I kept climbing, looking uneasily down at the ground from time to time.

A little while later Shannon was about to fill her friend Jay in on a totally different story and what came out of her mouth was a sketch of a post-midnight call from Felicia. It turns out Felicia was furious, she and Shannon reached a détente, but at the end of the conversation her trust in Shannon was still shaken.

The actual phone conversation remains to be written, but now I know Felicia better than I did before. One reason that the first two drafts of this novel didn’t reach a climax is that much depends on what Felicia does when a major secret is revealed and I didn’t know Felicia well enough to hazard a guess. But now that I know what went on in that phone conversation, the end is getting closer.

Sometimes you can move characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Other times they want a say in the matter. In those cases the way through may be to let them have it, even if you have to wait a bit before you hear what they’re saying.

The Value of Getting Sh*t Done

One reason I’m not blogging much here is that I’m getting (other) sh*t done. Also blog posts like this say it better than I can. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any editorial or writerly questions or comments, please use the Got a Question? tab above to send ’em in.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Gosh, is this race even worth finishing? thought no sprinter ever.

First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.

You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.

Thinking time counts.

Reading counts.

Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.

But there’s still value in completion.

Process is great. We all need process…

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