Sunday, October 31, 2010

Smack Ma Bitch Up


I don’t write non fiction with the same literary flourishes, or cheeky-chappyness, that Ink does so this post is going to be a liiiiidle bit different. 

There's a nice li'l para under the blog name that says The Alchemy of Writing is a home for three friends who’ve never met. I’m one of those three guys. The quiet one, I guess, as I haven't posted for a while. 

Mabe a year.

Or so.


Okay, so I’d like to broach the subject of breaks in writing. Not the ‘oops, didn’t find time today’ variety, but proper ‘omg, this is driving me nuts!’ writing breakdowns. 

The highs and lows of this 'hobby' are so extreme that it can be more like a turbulent love affair: there's amazing nights of little sleep complete with eyes-lidded goofy smiles as the sun comes up, there’s fond caresses (at the keyboard!), real ‘in the zone’ moments, great celebrations of ‘Boo-yakka!’ proportions, and wistful dreamy thoughts while going about everyday life. 

Love always comes first, huh? I bet everyone who reads this would rather have a beautiful novel in print than win the lottery. Yes? But this burning passion can have a dark side: insecurity, jealousy, self doubt, petulance, mind games, and exasperation can be regular features of a love like this. 

What about when it gets too much?

Do lovers really need a holiday?

When is it okay, if ever, to storm away from writing, slam the door, prize your pen from trembling fingers, hurl it across the room, and drown out the soft clinks of it skimming across the floor with screams of, “I’m leaving you!”

And does writing ever come back, cap-in-hand, and make grovelling apologies for whatever misdemeanour got it into your bad books (f-nak!) in the first place?

I remember reading a forum post by a guy who felt trapped. He’d undergone a lot of authorial improvement, seen the quality of his prose improve, seen his talent getting nice ‘n’ honed. But he felt pressured to keep writing in the belief that any break would cause his ability to immediately start dissolving. So he was running ahead of this dissolving talent thing like a Pamplona runner ahead of bulls. And he’d worked up a feverish sweat! He was such a good writer, pouring his emotion onto the (virtual) page, that his emotional state was unmistakeable: just a few sharp breaths away from screaming!

Most of the responses to his post included variations of this phrase: ‘When the fun goes out of writing, take a break.’

Is that sound advice?

Counter to ‘when the fun goes out, stop doing it’ there’s another phrase: ‘The true test of any vocation is love of the drudgery involved.’

In one of my ‘how to write’ books the author said there were days when he felt fully eager to write, while on other occasions he’d rather drink bleach. He advised keep going, even when it feels awful, just keep writing. He also said that he noticed no difference in the quality of his work between enthusiastic days, and lousy days.  

And this is the thing: writing does include drudgery, and some of the psychological obstacles aren’t exactly small. The highs are fantastic, but some of the chores... crikey.

So... keep at it when it’s challenging Vs. when the fun stops, walk away.

Where do we draw the line? And if we step over that line, what awaits on the other side?

I think there are two main fears when it comes to taking a break: 1) that ability will deteriorate, and 2) that not-writing will become a permanent habit.

I’ve just taken a year off, and I don’t think either of those fears has a sound basis. Well, they have as much basis as any other fear I suppose, but I don’t think walking away from writing will produce either of those results. Unless... unless... uless you’re really not a writer.

While I rate practice and keeping your ‘eye in’ and such, I don’t think writing ability can ever deteriorate to inept levels, no matter how long a writer leaves the hard drive festering. 

And I think it’s purely the case that a writer will always return. As long as there’s a draw, a passion, even if the passions go dark and wild, if they turn to outright resistance or any other thing that can lead to tantrums and sulking, I think it’s fine to act on those passions. 

The intimacy of true love is only attained through supreme self honesty, and I think that’s the nub here - if the original love is inside someone, indeed if the very resistance is borne of the passion to write, then the desire to walk away is the voice of emotional reason.

Crikey, after all that I think I’m saying, ‘Listen to your heart.’ 

Probably with a little, 'Things'll work themselves out' added in. 

And a dash of 'If it's meant, it'll happen.'

Good grief. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

One of the reasons I started this blog was because I love to talk about writing. Indeed, that's why I first embraced the online world - I missed having a writig community.

I have a couple degress in Creative Writing, and one of the great things about those experiences was the fact that I wasn't alone. Writing is such a solitary endeavor at times, and yet there's a part of me that wants very much to share the process. Not the immediate act, but the sense of the experience itself. It's nice to commune with like minds, with people who understand what you're going through, who've shared the same (or at least similar) experiences.

After I finished my Masters degree, though, that community split up and scattered across the world. I found myself missing that sense of a shared journey. I turned to the online world and found a new community, and I've been grateful ever since. I've met so many wonderful writers and people who are on the same journey. A load shared is a load lightened.

And yet it's so hard to keep up with that community the way I want to. Yes, I'm particularly busy right now, but I'm certainly not the only busy person out there. Many are busier.

There are so many interesting writers and interesting blogs, and yet I struggle to visit many of them as often as I'd like. So what do you do? How do you keep tied into this wonderful community? How do you find time to take it all in?

I mean, my friend Tahereh must have friends lining up around the block, her email account bending and bowing down in the middle under the weight of all those friendly messages and communiques from fellow travellers.

So how do you do it? How does a hermitish fellow keep the conversation alive? How do you make time for everyone?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Vindicated - The World in Miniature

by Joyce Chua


There had never been any question about it. It was her fault. And for that, she was bound to him forever. Or at least, until she could assuage the guilt or until he forgave her, set her free. But the bonds were too tight; she could barely hope that they would ever snap.

“It’s your fault, Audrey.” He never let her forget that. “If only you hadn’t been there…”

He was drunk again. She remembered the last time he let his brain get addled with alcohol, and shuddered.

“Have you ever thought of getting a job, Ryan?” She had to approach gently. He was too volatile these days.

“A job?” He barked a laugh. “What can a cripple like me work as?”

“You aren’t crippled. You just can’t play anymore.”

He turned to her, his eyes flashing dangerously. “And whose fault is it that I had to give up the piano? And now you’re finding me a nuisance? Am I in your way, Audrey? Am I robbing you of a life?”

“No.” She took his hands. “I didn’t mean that. You know I didn’t –”

“I was meant to do great things, be world-famous.” A hazy glimmer settled in his faraway gaze.

When she noticed the hardening of his jaw, it was too late. He had grabbed hold of her. She braced herself for the incoming tide. But instead of hitting her, he took her face and pressed his lips against hers. The smell of alcohol made her gag, but she tried not to struggle.

It’ll be over soon. It’ll be over soon.

But his hands were running all over her now. He gripped her more tightly when she writhed. Her breathing was labored now, as the panic that spread from within her became a blanket of goosebumps. Her skin crawled wherever his hands and lips roamed.

“It’s your fault, Audrey.”

“Please stop. Please.”

“But don’t you see? It’s your fault.” His voice was muffled against her skin.

She imagined herself engulfed by the toxic cloud of guilt, the one that numbed her senses so that she was unable to bring herself to leave him. She choked on it, reveled in it.

Later, she would tell herself it was that cloud of guilt that made her grab his hair and swing his head against the edge of the coffee table. It was that cloud of guilt that made her deaf to the crack of his skull, blind to the crimson river that poured out of him, stained his face.

Right then, she stared down at him, her bloody angel, whom she once loved. She could think of nothing apart from the music he played, a hushed melody that she feared to forget.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Life of a Traveling Carnie

Yup, I'm on the road today, with a guest post over at Nathan Bransford's sometime today. Internet popcorn to anyone who checks it out. Three tosses at the ring and you get a prize!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The World in Miniature: The Forgotten Songs of Children

by Bryan Russell

The Forgotten Songs of Children

Mark stepped in through the door, feeling the silence of the house. Another beer? His foot hurt from the game, and it was another damn loss. He should’ve had a goal, too, if the damn ref had been paying attention.

He scrounged a beer from the fridge and walked into the living room. His wife was asleep on the couch. She had a vaguely unpleasant expression on her face.

Better that she was asleep, as he hadn’t told her he was going out after the game with the guys. He could do without her nagging, the damn look she’d give him because the kids were already in bed and he’d missed them again.

He grabbed the tv remote. Something would be on. But when he hit the button nothing happened. Mark mashed it down a few times. “Shit. A blind ref and now this.” He stood. He walked angrily to the tv and tried to turn it on by hand, but there was only a dull blackness on the screen.

Mark hit the button again and again. Fucking thing. He smacked the button, hoping the tv would turn on or break.

He blinked as the voices came through. He looked at the screen. Blank. No sign of life. But he’d heard voices.

And there again, distantly. Children. Children’s voices, speaking in a tone and rhythm that hinted of music.

The tv was blank. The kids, he thought. The kids are awake. What the hell were they doing up? If they were fooling around he’d give ‘em heck.

Mark listened, straining at the voices. He couldn’t make out words. Just the child-like trilling, the fluting sound of distant voices, their sound untouched by age, innocent and free…

Yet there was something mocking in the notes. Something almost callous, almost cruel. As if they were laughing at him.

Goddamn kids, trying to get away with it.

Mark took a step, banging his sore foot on the coffee table. He grabbed his foot for a second, hopping, and then limped to the hallway.

The voices came, closer and brighter and sharper, and yet still the sound they made was somehow wordless, or beyond words. Laughter set to music, sharp lines crossing and re-crossing. Voices twining and haunting each other, picking at the seams of the world. Many voices. The voices of many children: five or six or ten or twenty.

Mark stopped. He felt cold, his skin pebbling. A cold breath on his neck. The voices were high, floating, moving somehow, as if orbiting him, circling him and wrapping him in sharp wire.

A wind fell through his head and chest and out through his limbs, rushing out from toes and fingers. The sudden presence of fear, of panic.

Mark flung himself up the stairs, toward Kate and Edie’s room. He pushed in the door, the light from the hall slanting across the sleeping faces.

He breathed. They were okay. Peaceful. Mark blinked. No, not peaceful, exactly. They were asleep, their faces pale but not quite reposed. They moved a little, as if dreaming, as if speaking, their lips forming silent imitations of words.

It was nothing, though, the voices. Just the wind. The kids were fine.

The voices struck, the laughter high and drifting, and Mark knew his children were in danger. His lungs felt like balloons ready to burst. He stumbled from the room. Something was here.

The voices whirled, fluting through the air, the harsh laughter of children.

Outside, they were outside. He took the stairs two at a time, trying to find his breath, fighting the sudden pain in his foot, the dread made manifest.

He limped to the door, swung it open. Stepping out into the night the wind was cold on his skin and he shivered. Silence in the dark.

The red glow bloomed in the night, here in one spot and here in another, the light limning butterflies – huge, vast butterflies, starlight peering through their red wings. They glowed, fluttering in the blackness, moving and bobbing and spinning in the air. The wordless voices returned. Loud, now, and deafening, a wordless song filled with cold and tinkling laughter.

The red light spread. It was the red light of his own blood, he’d seen it as a child, in the dark, when he held a flashlight behind his hand and the beam poured through his skin and bled out red on the other side, the bloodlight thick and strange, both liquid and insubstantial.

Peals of laughter, the children laughing, the music of words he would never understand, in a language he had already failed to learn, the wind on his skin and in his hair and the song in his cold ears.

The red light blinked out and there was only blackness and he could see nothing, nothing, nothing.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Time for Thanks

Hey folks, up here in Canada it's Thanksgiving (who wants to wait until November?), so I just wanted to wish a happy holidays to all. Along with gorging myself on myriads of delectables and stumbling to the couch while muttering "Oh my God how did I eat all that?" I plan on thinking a bit about all the people I've been thankful for on my writing journey. Writing is a solitary pursuit, in many ways, and yet, looking back, you realize the trip has been impacted by so many people.

So my thanks are going out today. And what about you? Any people on your writing journey you're particularly thankful for?

Should be back tomorrow with a regular post. If not, it's because I'm in some sort of roast-duck induced catatonic state.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The World in Miniature - The Dancer

by Susan Quinn
Ink Spells

The Dancer

His foot taps to the music, and he can’t help the wiggle that follows. He’s a Jedi and a Ninja and a bird all wrapped up in a whirl of arms and legs. When his mom walks in the room, he stumbles to a stop and almost lands on the cat. “Keep going,” she says, but he goes to find something that boys do, like training Pokemon to fight.

At the piano, he knows just where the fingers go to make that song, the one his brother plays with his long fingers and three years of lessons. One day he’ll be big enough to visit Mrs. Lyle and her giant black piano that shares a room with her harp and lace covered shelves.

He marches up the steps, because his mom is making him. Pictures of girls in pink tutus hang on the wall. He covers his eyes in protest and trips. His mom catches him before he falls.

The dance class has a mirror and is filled with girls, just like he said. Then a boy comes in, with short black hair that sticks out from his big brown head. The boy stands next to him, and he knows the boy will be his new best friend.

The teacher lets them go free style and the boy kicks and punches the air. He copies the boy, who smiles and punches the air again. His fists fly in the mirror.

Later on the TV, there’s a bunch of people dancing. In front are the boys, with feet that twist and turn while their bodies slant like lizards. They sway together, then hop apart like frogs. The music makes his toes tap.

“Can we watch it again?” he asks. His mom smiles.

When he goes back to dance class, he doesn’t cover his eyes, and an amazing thing happens. Two more boys come to class. They stick like glue to him, and he shows them how to twist their feet like sneaky snakes. They trip over his feet and he laughs.

Next time he’ll show them the Ninja move.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Crunches and Munches

Do you read your work aloud?

This is one of those bits of writing advice I stumble across everywhere (yes, everywhere), and yet I've never done it. I feel like I have a good "ear" for writing, for dialogue, for the sound and flow of a sentence. So odd, that term, since my ear is exactly what I don't use. And yet maybe I'm missing something by skipping this technique?

What's making me rethink this audio absence is that I read a lot to my kids. Now, reading picture books was fun, but I wasn't exactly analyzing the prose (okay, only sometimes). But my daughter is five now, and though she's only learning to read and write herself, she absolutely loves listening to stories - and, when a story is involved, her attention span is incredible. She can make sense of complete novels, so we've been reading her long books. Anne of Green Gables, Old Yeller, The Secret of Nimh, The Hobbit, etc. I just started reading Lloyd Alexander's wonderful series The Prydain Chronicles, starting with The Book of Three.

And what was striking me as I read was not just the simple elegance of his prose, but how my voice played off it. What are the words on the page... and do I want to read them that way? Sometimes word choice and rhythm and flow made me unconsciously deduct or add words. I'd say it, and realize a moment later what I'd done.

There's an interesting sort of engagement with the words when reading aloud. Trying to have the voice inflect the words properly, to not just repeat them correctly but catch and reflect the proper meaning. I note word choices, sounds, the feel of how a character talks.

I'm coming up to the appearance of Gurgi in the novel, a little furball of a character with an odd speech pattern I've always adored. "Crunches and munches for poor Gurgi!" He's a memorable character, I'm sure, for anyone who's read the book, and I'm trying to figure out how to capture him in my own voice. To give a hint of Gurgi...

And of course this got me thinking about my own writing, my own stories, and how I've never read them to myself out loud. It's an interesting way to walk around in the words, hearing them from your own lips. It's like an echo effect: you read and interpret the words silently, the brain processing meaning, and then you hear them again an instant later, your voice echoing the thoughts, spitting them back out.

Yet sometimes the echo is not perfect. There is a slight dissonance, that sense of transformation as words pass from page to brain to lips. The complex process of interpretation and dramatic shading, the recreation of rhythm... there are little jarrings, small false notes in the performance. As I read, part of my brain tumbles over each of these, thinking and analyzing the prose, the interior versus the exterior soundings.

So am I missing something? Do any of you read your work aloud? Why do you do it, and what do you think it does for you? And, of course, is it embarassing to be caught spouting your prose at an empty room? I have a feeling I'd end up doing goofy pantomime that would find its way onto Youtube.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The World in Miniature: Muscle Memory

by Bryan Russell
For Matt Rush (ask and you shall receive...)

Muscle Memory

The young man blinked tiredly, his hands sorting carrots. He no longer heard the bang and crash of machinery, and when he fell it was like a glide in a dream, weightless and against the grain of reality.

The cutters went schnick schnick and everybody screamed. There was a lot of blood, and one arm was flung back up to the sorting tables.

People rushed about.

“Damn, damn, damn!” said the plant manager. “Production is really going to be slowed down.”

The foreman grunted. “Shit. Now we’re down a man. Can we hire someone for tomorrow?”

One of the graders pointed shakily at the arm. It was moving.

Everyone watched. The arm moved slowly at first, but it picked up speed quickly. Muscle memory, it appeared, was a wonderful thing.

“Look at that,” the foreman said.

The body was carted away in the background. A sanitation chap lazily mopped around on the floor beneath the catwalks.

“It’s going pretty good,” the plant manager said. He looked at the other graders. “See that? It’s going faster than all of you. You can learn something here.”

“Um,” one of the pale graders said. “There’s a lot of blood on it…”

“Well, that’s what the plastic gloves are for, right?” the plant manager said. “Slide some on there.”

“Back to work, everyone, back to work!” the foreman said, waving his hand in a little circular motion.

The severed arm whizzed over the carrots, plucking and tossing. It was very quick.

The management team gathered. They were all very happy with the arm.

Look at it go! they said. Everyone was very pleased.

“Maybe we should give it a raise,” someone said.

“It hasn’t asked for a raise,” the plant manager said, and the others nodded sagely.

“It’s working right through break.”

“What does it need a break for?” the foreman said. “Doesn’t need lunch, either. No stomach, see.”

“Excellent,” the plant manager said.

“We’ll have to pay it for working through lunch, at least. Right?” the administration assistant said.

“We’re already paying for eight hours,” the plant manager said. “If this is how it wants to spend its lunch period, well, that’s its choice. That’s a worker’s right.”

“Yessiree,” the foreman said.

They all watched the arm as it glided over the grading table, selecting and casting aside carrots. No bad carrots would get through. None of the other graders got too close to the arm. They tried to recall, vaguely, the young man’s name. His face was already a shadow.

“An example to us all,” the plant manager said.