Writing Prompt: I Only Turned Away For A Moment

I only turned away for a moment. Read any women’s magazine promising true life stories and you will know that’s about as long as it usually takes for disaster to strike. The difference was, I was hoping he’d disappear. Not for me the fear of loss, that distraction which draws you in whilst something happens to those you cherish. I had started to seek these opportunities, the wrinkles in time.

When I turned back he was still beside me, one grubby finger poked up a nostril. I muttered something, pushed his hand away and absently plumbed the depths of my handbag for something to wipe his face with. No matter how I tried, his face was always smeared with something, even if we left the house in a pristine state.

We’d rarely eat out. It was too much, too exhausting to make sure he didn’t throw his food around like he did at home. I’d seen the blank horror on the faces of the staff in enough cafes to know that all I could hope for over the next few years was for us to eat in McDonald’s where poor nutrition cultivated poor behaviour, or al fresco in parks. Parks without other people, that is.

And so I’d started to daydream of losing him, of accidentally leaving him behind. But he always found me, was always returned to me in more or less the same state. He was like a homing pigeon, wired to remain within my orbit. Even when I didn’t want him nearby.

Even though I knew it was futile, I persisted with the fantasy. I got so deep into the daydream this time that when I bumped into someone waiting at the traffic lights I ricocheted back, lost my footing and tumbled down, a swift yet slow collapse to the ground. All the shopping bags clattered, a tin of alphabet spaghetti bounced and hit me in the forehead. I closed my eyes as noise and people swirled around me. Someone helped me sit up, a woman’s voice calmly told me everything was all right. I could hear things being gathered, the crackle of plastic bags. I wanted to leave my eyes closed, for someone else to sort and fix everything for a change.

But the woman must have brushed something off my face, the touch was gentle and reassuring. I opened my eyes, expecting to see a kind stranger’s face. But it was Billy, using my handkerchief to wipe away the tears that had started to roll down my cheeks.

Inspired by a writing group prompt.

[Photo: writing journal collection]

Advertisements

In Anticipation of Creative Endeavours

Earlier this week I wrote about anticipating spring, and how this shows itself in a myriad of ways from early blossoms to the proliferation of buds. It reminded me of the importance of having something to look forward to, that intoxicating sense of anticipation.

This has resulted in a quick assessment of where I am at the moment in a creative sense. In my working life I am task oriented and love crossing items off my to-do list. Occasionally I think that if I applied the same approach in my creative life, I’d get a lot more done. This is probably true, but my creative side seems to resist any attempt to contain it in such a structured format. I know I could, but I don’t want to. Somehow it seems too important to have the flexibility to go where my creativity leads, rather than corralling it with constraints.

So what am I looking forward to, creatively speaking? I have a few ideas tucked into the pages of my writing notebooks for future projects, and these will continue to germinate as I go about my daily routines. I have two stories on the go at the moment, one of them triggered by a vivid dream. Both are longer than my usual outings and that in itself creates a sense of delight. Usually with a short story I have a fair idea of what I’m working towards, but both of these stories are taking their own sweet time to reveal the end and that makes the process quite intriguing.

Recently I have started reading a book of ten short stories with accompanying essays by the writers revealing insights into their craft and the genesis of their particular story. I have dipped in and read a couple so far and have been invigorated but have resisted the urge to read them too quickly. Some things are better digested slowly and savoured.

Another source of creative anticipation is something about me but not something that I have created. By chance I came across some interesting drawings on Instagram by an artist called Carly Zandstra. A few weeks back she posted a drawing of her head in a phrenological kind of way. There is a link to the post here which will make more sense. I was so impressed that I made contact and Carly is creating something similar for me, based on things that matter to me. I am really looking forward to what Carly has come up with – another version of my creative self.

So right now there are still stories to write, different worlds to ponder, stories to be read and a head full of ideas to fuel my sense of creative anticipation.

What are you looking forward to, creatively speaking?

[Photo: phrenology head spotted at a market]

Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]

Spinning Yarns: Creative Collaboration

Recently I attended a talk by Marilla North, author of Yarn Spinners. This is the first instalment of a trilogy focusing on the life and times of Australian writer Dymphna Cusack. Creative endeavours between women, and in particular the weaving and creation of stories through collaboration, is illustrated through letters between Cusack and Florence James, as well as correspondence with their contemporaries. The novel written by Cusack and James, Come In Spinner, won a Daily Telegraph manuscript competition. The competition was during the period of the broadsheet circulation wars of the 1940s with a prize of £1,000 on offer.

But the Cusack/James novel was much larger than the newspaper expected: the intention was to print the winning entry in two weekly instalments – an incentive to further drive circulation numbers. Attempts to reduce the novel size, initially submitted at 120,000 words, were not agreed to by the authors, and it ended up being printed through a London publisher when the manuscript was released by the Daily Telegraph three years later. The size of the manuscript wasn’t the only issue: its portrayal of abortion, war-profiteering, prostitution, black marketeering and the role of women during wartime was regarded as extremely controversial at the time.

Cusack and James lived in the Blue Mountains for a spell, moving towards the end of the Second World War to a cottage in Hazelbrook. North gave an overview of the household of two women and a clutch of children with regular visitors from the city and further afield. This included Miles Franklin bringing up bantam chickens for their mountain garden. Cusack had collaborated with Franklin previously to write Pioneers on Parade. The hallway in the house was used to assist with managing the book structure: newspaper articles from the week in which the novel was set were pasted to the butcher’s paper lined along the hallway, the real events forming a backdrop for the  novel.

This was the second project that Cusack and James had worked together on: the first had been a children’s book called Four Winds and a Family. James later recalled that they each contributed chapters, ‘did some editing patchwork’ and realised that their writing matched well enough. The same approach was used for the novel. Cusack, who suffered from health issues (neuralgia, later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis) would dictate as James typed, and James would edit and write when Cusack rested. The arrival of a dictaphone for Cusack speeded up the project.

There is a link to the website for Yarn Spinners here, and The Australian Collection: Australia’s Greatest Books by Geoffrey Dutton also provided interesting background on the creative collaboration between Cusack and James. There is an excellent post by Michael Burge providing further insight into the time James and Cusack spent in the mountains here.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project?

Writing Prompt: Pessimist and Optimist

I love a good writing prompt. They have a way of taking you somewhere entirely unexpected, or viewing something familiar with a different perspective. At a recent writing group session, one of the prompts evoked insight into the creative tension that I feel all too often. It is set out as pessimist and optimist.

Prompt: I reached for a glass (or cup) and let my inner pessimist and optimist fight it out.

Pessimist:  There’s no point in trying. You might as well give up while you’re ahead.

Optimist:  But what if this is the start of something great, something that we’ve been striving towards all these years? I know we can do it. It only needs a bit of effort.

Pessimist:  Effort? That seems like hard work to me. Is this just going to be yet another of those fanciful notions that you have which requires time that we don’t have or skills that we lack and don’t have the capacity to develop?

Optimist:  I don’t know why I even ask for your input. You are such a glass half-empty kind of thinker. 

Pessimist:  And talking of glasses, how about you pour a bit more alcohol into this one? It might change my viewpoint.

Optimist:  That’s the way. Here you go, you drink up while I remind you of some of the excellent things we’ve managed to achieve when we pull together, rather than apart.

Pessimist:  Steady on. Don’t get too carried away. It’s going to take more than a glass or two to forget all the failed attempts you’ve got us started on.

Optimist:  But there wasn’t anything like this opportunity. And I can think of loads of times when my ideas and energy have resulted in great changes. 

Pessimist:  All I can think of is the littering mess of failures and half-baked schemes. And who’s got the energy to try anyway? All this talking is making me sleepy. (Snores).

Optimist:  (Quietly) So that’s a yes, then? No reply means yes. That’s my rule. Looks like we’re going to learn to crochet after all.

The above is alarmingly close to my decision-making process on a regular basis, with enthusiasm trying to outlast practical limitations. And whilst I can knit, crocheting remains beyond my powers of coordination.

What is your internal monologue like with new creative challenges? Optimistic, or otherwise?

[Photo: one of the bars at the Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath]

 

Ekphrasis: a writing technique

This Greek word relates to writing that is effectively triggered in response to art or music. I came across the word by chance in a Writer’s Digest article and discovered that it is an ancient concept with many adaptations and interpretations.

As a tourist in Edinburgh years ago I came across a book of poems and stories inspired by works in the National Galleries of Scotland. The book contained beautiful replicas of various artworks along with pieces that had been inspired by art. It was a glorious mix, providing a variety of viewpoints into what can be interpreted or instigated by taking the time to look at art and engage your imagination. The book is one of a number of works published following a competition originally devised to raise awareness of the various collections “to encourage writers to find imaginative links, from the personal to the universal, between art and the written word”. You can find out more about the competition here.

Years ago I used to regularly visit the Art Gallery of NSW. How I loved entering the grand building after walking through the lush green lawns of the Domain, taking shade from the gracious old trees. The tiled entrance to the gallery, skirting past the information desk and heading into the permanent collection, looking for old favourites before discovering new installations. There were many that I loved, and can still imagine them clearly years later. These included Cymon and Iphigenia by Lord Frederic Leighton, Across the Blacksoil Plains by George W Lambert and The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon by Sir Edward John Poynter. I also enjoyed the Australian gallery, becoming increasingly familiar with the styles of John Brack, Margaret Preston, Brett Whiteley and others.

What I am going to do now, though, is take the time to look through my collection of books from the works of galleries that I have visited and use them as the basis for writing prompts. Some of these may grow legs and expand into short stories or something even larger. They offer a window into another time and place, an alternative reality.

Have you ever used a piece of art as the source of creative inspiration?

[Photo: spent jacaranda blossoms on stairs at Old Buttery, Bellingen]

Ready, edit, go?

Back in July I finished the first draft of my novel. I can still recall the sense of puzzled joy at typing ‘The End’. It seemed so final, but there was a part of me that knew it was just the beginning. After printing a copy, I tucked the manuscript aside, happy to let it rest. I told myself that I needed perspective, and there had been a few short story ideas buzzing about my head that I wanted to explore. Oh, the heady delight of short stories which can be written relatively quickly, edited and tweaked, and feel finished. How I’d missed them.

But now the time has come when I need to get serious again and start phase two of the novel. I had managed to complete about half the novel during NaNoWriMo last year, and as November approached I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to participate this year. Instead of creating another tract of words that could form part of a novel, I was going to focus my energy on finishing what I started. I am usually a finisher, and the incomplete novel kept tugging at my elbow.

But where to begin? An online search on editing a novel brings up a veritable avalanche of responses. These vary from vague outlines to incredibly detailed steps which if faithfully carried out over 31 days will result in a novel that is fit to make its way into the world. The best approach for me will fall between the two extremes.

My plan is to read my novel. This sounds obvious, but what I want to do is read it in its entirety, avoiding my usual impulse to edit as I go. I want to revisit the themes and broad arcs of the story. A couple of weeks after finishing the first draft I was walking my dog when it occurred to me that the person that was the main character in my mind hadn’t developed or changed quite as much as another character. What if I had the wrong main character? These are the thoughts that come to mind when I think of cracking open the manuscript, and they could be just the tip of the iceberg. Or it could be better than I think.

What I want is clear in my mind. I want to get the novel to a point where it is ‘finished’ enough to pass on to a beta reader for feedback. I want to get it to the point where I feel that I have done all that I can to make it as good as it can be. I know that this process will not be easy, and that it will take time that is increasingly difficult to find, but I also know that this is something that took months to create and it deserves the application of time and energy in order to complete it. In essence, I need to do the work.

I know that I’ll get there. Now I have moved on from being overwhelmed by the scope of it, it feels less daunting than before. I’m finally ready.

How do you approach big creative tasks?

[Photo: waratah spotted at Blackheath – they are glorious beacons this time of year]

A Creative Check-In

Last week I posted a creative checklist which encouraged building a sustainable writing practice that I had come across in the Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers by Judy Reeves. This week, I’m going to check-in and see how I’m travelling.

  1. Identify yourself as a writer. This is something that I’m getting better at, and blogging has helped more than I would have thought in regards to my writing identity. I now include ‘writer’ as part of my persona, rather than keeping it tucked away as something private. 
  2. Give yourself affirmations claiming yourself as a writerOn the filing cabinet next to my desk there is an affirmation picked out in magnets: You Are A Writer. I could do a bit more of this to keep it front of mind.
  3. I have a writing space, a sacred place. This one is a big tick. I have a small study with an old wooden desk where I do my best creative work. I can, and do, write where I can, and at home I’ll often write at the kitchen table or somewhere in the sunshine, but turning up at my desk means I’m writing seriously.
  4. I have the tools, materials and support to write. Another tick. I have a stash of stationery as well as technology at hand. I subscribe to literary journals and belong to the writers’ centre in my state. I also listen to podcasts about writing when I’m on the move.
  5. I have writing friends to write and talk with. This is also true. And they write across different genres and formats which makes for some interesting conversations and approaches to writing.
  6. I do writerly things. Yes, I do. I belong to a writing group, I go to readings and workshops when I can. I like reading writers who write about writing.
  7. I write to writers whose work has impacted me and thank them. Not so much. But I like the idea of it and social media has made it easier to do this than ever before. I’ll add it to my to-do list.
  8. I make time for my writing on a regular basis. Yes, I do.
  9. When I can’t keep my writing date, I acknowledge why and reschedule. Usually, yes.
  10. When I’m consistently breaking writing appointments, I review why and make necessary changes. This usually falls into the category of life getting in the way. I tend to pause to prioritise what I do have time for, and ensure that there is a bit of writing time carved out. I am happier when I write, so why wouldn’t I?
  11. I put my writing time high up on my priorities list. See above. I’m much nicer when I’m happy.
  12. I set aside enough time to build consistency. I think so. Part of me thinks I could put more time aside but I have to be realistic as thinking that I can spend X hours every day isn’t realistic at this point of my life.
  13. I also create special times for writing. I have been trying this out with larger pockets of time for bigger writing projects and it definitely helps.
  14. I write. This one seems kind of obvious but a big learning in the past year in particular has been around getting something down as you can edit, tweak and improve what you’ve written, but if you don’t actually write there is nothing to work with.
  15. When I’m stuck, I find out what’s holding me back. This is another work in progress. It can take me a while to realise I’m circling a problem but I’m getting better at picking up on procrastination and addressing the cause so it doesn’t become an insurmountable obstacle.

How often do you check in with yourself, creatively speaking?

[Photo: Cowra Japanese Gardens]

A Creative Checklist

Recently I came across a section called ‘How to Build a Sustainable Writing Practice’ in the Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers by Judy Reeves (pp 147-150). A Writer’s Book of Days, also by Reeves, is one of my favourite writing books, and below is a summarised version of a checklist on building a writing practice, but it could be applied to any creative endeavour.

  1. I identify myself as a writer. When someone asks me what I do, I answer, ‘I’m a writer’. Or at least I always include it.
  2. I give myself affirmations, claiming myself as a writer: notes in my notebook or journal, in my writing space or by saying them out loud.
  3. I have a writing space. Even if I actually write all over the place, I maintain a sacred space for my writing.
  4. I have the tools and materials and support I need for my writing. I buy or borrow books about writing and subscribe to literary journals and writing publications.
  5. I have writing friends with whom I write or talk about writing or do writing things with.
  6. I do writerly things: I’m a member of a writing group, I go to readings. I read interviews with writers and listen to what they say about the craft and life of being a writer.
  7. I write to writers whose work has impacted me, and thank them. In these letters I claim myself as a writer and tell the writer what their work meant to me, writer to writer.
  8. I make time for my writing on a regular basis.
  9. When I can’t keep my writing date, I acknowledge why and reschedule.
  10. When I see that I’m consistently breaking my appointments, I review what might be the cause – chosen time isn’t right, life is too busy right now, goals too high, ___ – and make changes where necessary.
  11. I put my writing time high up on my priorities list. Not some vague ‘when I can’ or ‘if I have time today’.
  12. I set aside enough time to build consistency; if not daily, at least five times a week.
  13. I also create special times for writing – a long weekend or a retreat (with other writers or by myself) or to participate in a conference or seminar where I’ll actually write.
  14. I write. When I go to my writing space, when I set aside the time, I don’t just think about writing or talk about writing. I write.
  15. When I’m stuck, I find out what’s holding me back. When I procrastinate, I acknowledge that’s what I’m doing. When I’m afraid, I face my fear and write through it. And when all is said and done, I write.

How are you travelling with your creative checklist?

[Photo: Cowra Japanese Gardens]

Creativity On Hold

Lately I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to, and it’s been bothering me. There have been external factors which have pushed their way into the time I usually have to daydream and scribble and think up new stories or ideas. There are times when I need to be a responsible adult, which is fine, but there is a feeling of restlessness and irritation at this incursion. As if I’m existing rather than living.

So what to do? I’m sure that normal transmission will resume sometime soon, but there will be other times where what makes me feel most alive – the daydreaming, creative side of me – will be jostled aside. I don’t want to feel like I’m going through the motions so I need to have a strategy for when this creative time is only available in small sips, rather than big gulps.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had on how to make the most of the available time.

Snatch Time. The little bursts of minutes when you’re waiting for someone or something, leave the mobile alone for a moment and look around. Take in what is going on, or spot something that you wouldn’t normally see and look, really look. There might be the trigger for a character or short story idea, or you might overhear the perfect phrasing for some dialogue.

Be Spontaneous. More challenging for a methodical mind such as mine. One of my highlights in the past week involved just stopping my usual point A to point B routine to take a photo for the #MyISpy game that I have been writing blog posts about. It was less than a handful of minutes in my day but there was the exhilaration of doing something out of the ordinary, and it still makes me smile days later.

Turn Up. I’ve been tired and grumpy and yawny and generally not in the mood to do anything creative at my usual time. But I know that if I get up and write the morning pages I can shoehorn at least a bit of creativity into my day, even if it is a jumble of thoughts that I can unwind at a later date when I have a bit more time.

Accept Limitations. Things happen. Great plans become unstuck. Guilting myself won’t help but understanding that I have to focus my attention elsewhere for a while makes it easier to endure, and I know that if I jot down bits and pieces when I can, there will be something that I can work with when my time is more my own.

What do you do when life gets in the way of your creative output?

[Photo: old postal and telephone switchboard equipment at the Wyalong Museum]