The Muse Will Show

The muse will come when you stop messing around on Facebook or goofing off on Twitter. Reading other people’s stuff sometimes inspires the muse, but the muse can be prickly, even jealous. Ignore your own creativity? The muse runs away. The muse doesn’t like when you spend too long working for other people and not long enough on your own. If you don’t care about your creativity, the muse won’t either.

This is where I am writing, — in a room with a window seat, looking out on Lake Champlain. The muse likes a room with a view.

The muse will show up when you let go of perfectionism. When you stop comparing yourself to all of the successful, rich people you get bombarded with every single day. Those beautiful people get to your muse. Those people are like vampires, making you run into your house and lock your front door.

The muse doesn’t like when you choose safety over the midnight walk in the woods. The muse loves to roam too and wants you to live on the edge of a cliff, not in the cocoon.

The muse will show up when you put fingers on the keyboard and wipe away the blank screen.

The muse will show up when you stop cleaning the kitchen.

When the muse shows up, it’s not work. It’s play. You just have to get out of your own way. Something, some brilliance — seriously! – will flow through you. You will sit back when you are done and go, “Wow! I did that!” But no, you didn’t do that. Not alone any way. You were the conduit. The creative spirit, the muse, flew through you and is now flying away because your ego — such a barking dog — chased it away.

And tried to take all the credit. But that’s okay; that’s the ego’s job.

The muse will be back tomorrow. Or later. But won’t/can’t stay forever, because you have to eat and go to the bathroom and chat with your kids and make dinner and throw a load of laundry in the washer and gossip about the neighbors and, don’t forget, you’ve got to pay the bills.

I know, as an artist and writer, I can visit the muse when I jot my ideas and images in a little notebook, even when I am away from my keyboard or canvas. I use Field Notes, a product. But I get no money (or respect) from Coudal Partners for this endorsement. Although occasionally, I swipe pack of Field Notes when I am at the Coudal household.

As Field Notes saying goes, “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.”

I want to write more about my prickly, beautiful, sensitive, strong muse. But I have to go for a walk. I have to stretch my body. I have to take my time. I have to let my muse fly.

This post was inspired by the Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, a book that made me to take my muse seriously.

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Revising

pages from my art journal

I love the creative process. I love the brilliant idea as bright as a candle flame. The revision process? Not so sexy.

I wish I could fall in love with rewriting. These tips for writers as they revise at Necessary Fiction really got me thinking. Here are a few useful ideas from the post:

  • write the plot on sticky notes then organize in columns
  • retype the whole thing
  • change fonts
  • make sure what your character wants is an impediment to what others want
  • raise the stakes
  • get rid of introductory clauses

I am in love with the short form. I love blogging. I sit down. Write for 20 minutes. Add a photo or two. Hit publish. Done! Go about life.

For me revising is endless. There’s no Done!

Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I now have two half-baked novels written during the months of November (2011 and 2009). Due to their unwieldy length, slightly more than 50,000 words, I can’t bear to open the first chapter. Just maybe if I set out the plot on colorful sticky notes or cut up my scenes with scissors, the story could emerge more like a work of art, a collage, than a mess of incomplete plot points.

collage – perhaps upside-down?

I have been crazy making collages lately. I get into a Zen mode and throw paint and color and images down on paper or on discarded library books.

Done! I love the haphazard process and the chaotic result. Maybe I could see the process of revising my writing as a visual art project.

As the blogger Matthew Salesses says, “a lot of these thoughts are about seeing. Remember: re-vision.”

I, too, can repurpose, rewrite, rethink, rewind, rework, and revise. Re-vision.

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What I’m Reading

For mother-daughter book club, we are reading The River Between Us by Richard Peck. It is the story of the Civil War told from a girl’s point of view. I love the Civil War as a metaphor for families in conflict.

For my friends’ book club, we are reading Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (we had previously read March. Loved it!) For workplace book club, we’re reading What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn. All three of these have astute girl narrators, nice!

**

I wrote this a few weeks ago and never posted. So now I must update. In my workplace book club, we are reading Hanhunt: The 12 Day-Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson. And for friends’ group, we are reading The Hunger Games (though I’ve seen the movie!) by Suzanne Collins.

I am not very far in either of these books. But I know that they are quests. I love novels about a hero’s journey, especially when the hero is a spunky heroine!

Why I Write

We do not write to be understood. We write to understand. – C.S. Lewis

This was one of the quotes from Writing for the Soul, a workshop led by Rev. Lynne Hinton in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the United Methodist Association of Communicators. She has written 14 novels. Yes, 14! Oh, to be so prolific.

Tomorrow, Nanowrimo starts so I’m hoping to write one more novel this month!

In Rev. Hinton’s workshop, we began with free writing à la Julia Cameron’s admonition in The Artist’s Way to write three morning pages — which I have been practicing for about 15 years. Every morning, I hand write three pages of brain drain. But give me free rein later in the day to tap into my unconscious and I’m, oh so happy.

Lynne gave us an exercise where we chose random words, picked like wild flowers from our unconscious, to add to word prompts, like these (but not these, exactly!):

Diamond _____

Shelter _____

Instant _____

Prayer _____

Barcelona _____

Boo _____

Avoid _____

Teacup _____

Angel _____

School _____

Write _____

Create _____

Ocean _____

Sun _____

Venice _____

June ____

Moon _____

You get the idea. We wrote our own couple of dozen words down the page on the blank lines. From our written words or the provided prompts, we made sentences on bits of paper. Then we shuffled our sentences and wrote them down in a poem format.

How fun! Our internal censor didn’t even know we were writing a poem, we were just playing around! Writing is play!

It’s impossible — at least, for me — to attend a writing workshop and not make new friends. I find the adage so true —  A stranger (or a fellow writer) is just a friend I haven’t met yet.

Often in writing workshops, my friends and I drop into such a deep level of sharing that we cry when we hear each other’s work. I felt this way hearing the poems of my fellow writers, Jessica Connor, Beth Buchanan, Kerry Wood and Isaac Broune. I was blown away as they unearthed playful and meaningful poetry from their unconscious.

I am so grateful for the wisdom of fellow writers, writing teachers and my own ability to tap into my unconscious on a regular basis. Going a little crazy in my writing keeps me sane!

My Salon

I never asked what all these commenters thought. I never really asked what anyone thought except for the writers in Joanna’s and Charles’s classes, where I had workshopped the story.

And yes, I wanted to know what an editor thought.

I’d sent the story to the Salon editor late Wednesday, thanks to the query challenge from Robert Lillegard. (See the comments at: https://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/the-westport-workshops/)

SH replied on Thursday over my lunch hour. I got her email while sitting in the hairdresser’s chair. She said my story “had potential.”

Nice! A new hair cut and a potential piece at the best literary and intellectual site online.

SH asked if I’d intended to publish under a pseudonym. No. She’d begun a line edit. She had legitimate questions about chronology and adding a “message moment.” That is, a moment to give the experience a meaning, an Aha! She was right.

I worked on the story; she worked on it. In a few hours, we were done. But commenters don’t take hours, months, years to write their comments. They dash them off.

I was surprised by the comments. At seven am, on Friday, I read the first seven. Then I stopped reading. I have very little experience with negative comments. The people who’ve commented on my blogs may spin out their own thoughts, but they don’t rip me.

I asked a couple of people what the comments said. My aunt (Ellen Wade Beals) emailed me; she said some of the comments were funny, some complimentary, and some snarky. One friend told me a lot of the commenters are commenting on each other’s comments. I didn’t need to go there. (And my sister emailed me with one direct message: don’t comment back!)

My only experience with negative comments was long ago on my article in the New York Times City section in the form of a letter to the editor. It was from an ASPCA representative quibbling with the way I’d represented their agency in my funny essay about the squirrel trapped in my airshaft. Fair enough.

At that time I took pride in the ASPCA’s letter to the editor. Aha! A letter to the editor meant my NYTimes story hit a nerve or was controversial. And now, I’m trying to take pride in the comments (that I’m not reading) on my Salon.com story. It’s a badge of courage to be criticized, commented on, and then survive (to blog about it.)

My cousin Susan Elster Jones sent me an amazing email last night. She said, One of my best professors once told me that the work isn’t really finished until you share it. And the more uncomfortable that feels-probably means the work is really strong. Thank you for sharing!

So, go ahead, comment away. Sure, I’m feeling defensive, sensitive, uncomfortable, but also proud, strong, happy. Uncomfortable.

I Search Myself

I google my name. And I find myself. Here’s what else I find:

Sites I have quoted quote me. Like the Poverty Initiative: http://www.povertyinitiative.org/news The internet is an echo chamber.

I am the only me. I love having a unique name. I don’t know if I’m one word or two — Mary Beth, MaryBeth or MB. I think I should go with MB because look where it got JK, better than had she been Kathleen.

I have no secrets. When I tweeted from the emergency room, yup that tweet remains google-able. While the internet remembers, I want to forget.

I have secrets. I actually have a secret garden — It is one of my 7 Rules: http://mbcoudal.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/214/

Google refines its searches of me in two other ways:
1. “gbgm Mary Beth Coudal” makes sense since I’ve published hundreds of articles at gbgm-umc.org. But the other search prompt is a bit of a surprise.

2. “mental illness mary beth coudal” Yes, I’m matched with the vast category of mental illness. Is the internet trying to tell me something?

(I think it is because one of my most reposted articles was on how church people could/should/might treat mental illness the same as they treat other illnesses — that is, with help, dinner deliveries, prayers, empathy, love…)

Those are a few of the things I learn when I google myself. What do you learn when you google your name?

Reversals

In Poetics, Aristotle said — yes, I’m smart like that, quoting Aristotle — we move from ignorance to knowledge, from enmity to friendship, from neutrality to commitment.

Lynne Barrett taught this juicy class on plot at the International Women’s Writing Guild this week at Yale.

In stories, she said, everyone has to have a piece of the puzzle. No one character can hold the whole story.

Lynne gave us the timeline from the movie, Casablanca (which I’ve never seen) in which Bogart’s character moves from nonchalance to commitment.

The flashbacks in the story move the story forward. People don’t just ruminate on their past for no reason. The lover’s past (in Paris!) sparks an understanding that propels them to take action.

In all narratives, a reversal is necessary. Cinderella goes from low status to high status. I always taught this in my drama classes, that this is what makes for comedy — a high-status character becomes low-status — or visa versa.

This is why Lynne said the story of Spitzer is a better plot than the story of Schwarzenegger. He fell from the top, not when he’d left office.

But the reversal is not just “who’s up and who’s down.” A secret become public. A single person becomes married.

This class nudged me to reconsider the lame plot in my young adult novel from last year’s NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month).

When I mentioned to Lynne, I had a novel, written in one month, she said, “Yes, Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, wrote the book. No Plot, No Problem. No plot? Big problem!”

Incidentally, Barrett taught with my friend Dan Wakefield at Florida International University.

Book Proposal Questions

Melissa Rosati ended her workshop with these questions:

  • Is a book really the right first product for me? I love books. I have already blogged. So, yes.
  • What do I want the book to do for me? Make me a ton of money, earn me some street cred, get my distinct voice out there in the marketplace of ideas.
  • What is the relationship you want with your target audience? To empower people to share their ideas through writing. To inspire writing that leads to personal transformation. But, hmmmm, in terms of relationship, that’s a tough one. I don’t know. How committed does an author have to be to her readers? I’ll answer their emails, comment on their updates, teach workshops, attend readings, read their writing. But, let’s face it, all relationships take time. Do I have the time for another relationship?
  • If you do not have business experience, who are your trusted advisers? This is also a tough one for me. I do not like asking for help. I like being the helper. I’m not sure my peeps are business peeps.
  • What’s your budget? How much are you willing to risk? Ummm, $150 maybe?

These questions come from the workshop The New Rules of Book Proposals which I stumbled into late because the parking garage was literally a mile from the International Women’s Writing Guild classrooms on the Yale University campus. (And having a book published wouldn’t make the parking lot any closer.)

I wish I caught the beginning of the class because I have a lot to learn about book publishing.

Writing the Details

Here’s one of the sparkling gems from Southern writer Pat Carr’s Memoir and Fiction Writing class.

Set the scene with three or four details. Here are ten ideas of what Pat means by sensory details and then an example from me on my story set on a playground.

  1. Odor – wet sand
  2. A time of day or season – end of summer
  3. Temperature – warm and humid
  4. Sound – children laughing
  5. Important object – small charm bracelet
  6. Dominant color – beige
  7. Dominant shape — circles
  8. Something that can be touched – curly hair
  9. Taste – rain in the air
  10. Certain slant of light – late afternoon sun

I love number 10. Pat was inspired by Emily Dickinson. Love Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

Light is so important, I think, as I write from a sun-soaked bench cloistered in a square at Yale University attending the International Women’s Writing Guild conference.

Pat Carr’s writing exercises, like this one, can be found in her book Writing Fiction with Pat Carr. Her new memoir is One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life.

Keep It Brief

For greatest impact, when writing a blog post:

  1. Say it simply. “Hello.”
  2. Then get out. “I must be going.”
  3. Use short sentences. “Just do it.”
  4. Keep the words to one syllable. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” – Ronald Reagan
  5. Use short, punchy sentences. “In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason.” – Ernest Hemingway

Maybe this is why Twitter is so fun. I have to be lean in my writing. I have to convey a lot with just a little — 140 characters.

I love Twitter. I love its brevity. I love getting to know a person just from their short status updates. The man who says good morning from Japan, the woman who lists what everyone’s reading, the writer who posts opening lines for short stories.

I like to skate on the surface and sometimes click on the link and go deeper.

But sometimes — like right now, there’s not enough time to go deep.

This photo has nothing to do with the post. I took it at Bossey Ecumenical center in Switzerland.

There’s profundity in simplicity. So keep it brief.

Hello. I must be going.