Pandemic Slow Writing

By Lisa Alber

Last year around this time, Italy locked itself down during a Covid surge. I remember being startled by the news; the gravity of the situation hit home, but even then I didn’t get it. I was still in the this-is-quite-the-serious-flu stage. Hah, har-dee-har-har. Flu — that’s a good one. The U.S. wasn’t doing much (not that it ever did until now); the previous administration refused to quarantine Americans evacuated from an infected cruise ship. Meanwhile, I’d gotten laid off a few weeks previously, so I was mired in my own thing, barely paying attention. Covid was background static.

A year later, I read this article from The Guardian: Writers blockdown: after a year inside, writers are struggling to write.

“Stultified is the word,” says Orange prize-winning novelist Linda Grant. “The problem with writing is it’s just another screen, and that’s all there is … I can’t connect with my imagination. I can’t connect with any creativity. My whole brain is tied up with processing, processing, processing what’s going on in the world.”

Later in the article Grant says, “It’s just a sort of sea of greyness, of timelessness.”

So true. Introvert that I am, I still need to get out of the house — sit around in coffeehouses and pubs, not to mention actually feel some skin-on-skin hugs from friends and let loose a little now and then. I’d never realized how crucial outside life was to my creativity. Zoom get-togethers are a BandAid, and they help, but they’re not the same.

I’ve been writing, but I’m all over the place. Here’s what I’ve done in the past year:

  • Struggle with revising a novel called “Shadow Maiden.” Completely re-wrote the secondary storyline, then changed it back but with a different voice. Also, switched from first to third person. This went on for months last spring. All I wanted to do was get to the end of the first draft.
  • Decide to write something completely different — a contemporary romance. Why? I needed something lighter and easier. I wanted to have some fun with my writing. Developed an idea, which promptly expanded itself into a trilogy in a genre a friend called “romantic suspense-adventure.” (Oh boy …)
  • Sigh. Huge sighs. Sighs all over the place. Because WTeverlastingF am I doing complicating what was supposed to be a fun, light, and easy-ish experiment of a side project?
  • Summer brought me the first draft of the first romance — almost. My excuse? I needed to complete the first drafts of the second and third romances to know how the first should truly end. But I struggled for a month with this decision, trying to end the draft, getting nowhere.
  • Fallow, then in November into December, draft of second romance completed — almost. Same struggle to end the darned thing and failing.
  • In the new year, I returned to Shadow Maiden to figure out where I was. Brainstorming. Finally had a revelation — which I’ve forgotten now — but I assume I wrote it down in my novel journal … Been switching back and forth between this and the second romance. A whole lotta nowhere.

In the past year I’ve written close to 200,000 words when you include the revision writing. Nothing to sneeze at, yet it all feels half-assed and way too slow. I’m stuck in the dreaded middle of three projects. If I were writing an essay about what I did during my pandemic lockdown, I’d called it “Failure in the Middle,” which is the name of an essay I read just last night, which brings me to the reason for writing this post: I’ve decided to lean into my slowness, since this is where I’m at right now. I recommend a book called The Art of Slow Writing; Reflection on Time, Craft, and Creativity by Louise DeSalvo. What a comfort!

DeSalvo says, “I’ve learned that often the toughest stage comes just before the biggest breakthroughs.” In fact, she calls the feel-like-a-failure middle moment, the “insight stage.” Talk about putting a positive spin on it! But I’ll take it. I’m owed some major breakthroughs when I get my brain back, post-pandemic. Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep touching the fiction most days and accept that I’m slow right now.

Oh, and continue meditating with the Calm app.

Beginners and Experts Check ALL the Boxes, by Eric Witchey

Beginners and Experts Check ALL the Boxes

Eric Witchey

Conference seminars are both wonderful and horrible.

They’re horrible in that the emotionally and cognitively complex thing writers do can’t be taught in 60-90 minutes, if it can be taught at all. I often begin my conference teaching with a line something like, “I can’t teach you to write. I can show you some tips and tricks I have learned, but only you can teach yourself to write.” Another version of this statement is, “Practice!”

The seminars are wonderful in that writers can glean bits and pieces of craft while hobnobbing with other writers in a joyful, high-energy environment that reinforces the value of an activity that is too often painful and solitary. At a conference, enough joy and knowledge can be had to keep us going for a while.

This morning, I was preparing the little catalog blurbs that describe seminars I’ll be teaching at a couple conferences this year. The online form I had to fill out asked the question, “What level of writer will benefit from this seminar?” The check-box choices in the drop-down were:

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced
  • Professional

I tried to check them all, but the system won’t let me check them all. You can only check one.

Silly conference.

I’ve been teaching conference seminars since 1995, so I fancy I know a little bit about the dynamics of the environment. This exercise in preparation reminded me of a couple things I think are very important for all writers to keep in mind. Certainly, they are important for conference coordinators to keep in mind.

  1. To sell out a seminar, put “marketing” in the title.
    1. Corollary One: Hardly any writers at the conference are anywhere near ready for marketing seminars.
    1. Corollary Two: To kill the attendance of a craft seminar, put it in the room next to a marketing seminar.
  2. Every writer in the room knows something the other writers do not know, including the teacher.
  3. If you label a seminar as for professional writers, mostly amateurs will attend it.
  4. If you label a seminar as for advanced writers, mostly beginners will attend it.
  5. If you label a seminar as for intermediate writers, mostly beginners will attend it.
  6. If you label a seminar as for beginning writers, a few terrified first-time conference writers and several professionals will attend it.

I have a musician friend who describes this phenomenon as follows.

“Beginners who want to play professionally skip practicing scales. Professionals who want to learn to play better, practice scales.”

Another friend, an advanced Aikido practitioner, recently told me this.

“Beginners want to practice intermediate throws. Intermediates want to practice advanced throws. Masters want to learn to walk.”

So it is with writers, and there’s absolutely no reason it should be otherwise.

Yes, the immediate response to this odd practitioner’s paradigm is that everybody knows how important it is to focus on the basics. That leads to an odd fallacy of thought. I know I’ve caught myself thinking this way. Have you? The fallacy, thought or spoken in tones of confident pride or righteousness, goes like this, “They should focus on the basics first to grow faster.”

Except, they clearly do not.

Conjugate with me:

We do not.

He, she, it does not.

I do not.

Objective consideration suggests I should suspect that even after 25 years of conference teaching I still do not.

Instead, we reach endlessly for the skills that are beyond our grasp, and we do it from the wobbly foundation of haphazard skills we’ve cobbled together. Why should they focus on basics and build a solid foundation on which to add layer after solid layer of skill until they are masters of their craft?

Uh… Oh, God. I have to go back to college and start over. I’ve wasted decades of my life. Pardon me while I go cry.

Okay, I’m better now.

Recently, I had a chat with a new and inexperienced (from my frame of reference) seminar teacher. She said she’d been taught to require students to “prove me wrong.” I decided she needed a few more years of experience before we’d have a meaningful exchange of pedagogical ideas.

Here’s the real take-away. In my humble opinion, the responsibility for providing a step forward to conference seminar students is entirely the teacher’s. The burden of proof falls completely on the teacher. Additionally, if everybody in the room knows something the teacher does not know, then a really good teacher behaves more like a guide than a teacher. If the concept the guide is presenting is actually a core, dramatic principle that can be recognized and executed in text, the guide’s job is to lead the seminar in a way that allows the participants to discover the concept for themselves. If that discovery has already happened for the participant, or happens in the seminar, the guide’s job is to open new vistas of exploration.

In short, the guide’s job is to make sure that no matter what level of development a writer has, or thinks they have, the combination of the concept with the participation of the group will lead anyone who attends into new discoveries. If the guide does this well, the “advanced” and “professional” writers might even discover concepts, tricks, and techniques the seminar leader has never considered.

That’s why I want to check all the boxes. It’s also why, in spite of 25 years of seminar teaching, I go to beginner-level seminars, intermediate seminars, advanced seminars, and professional seminars. Everybody in the room knows something I don’t know.

-End-

Goodbye 2020

By Cheryl Owen Wilson

At the end of each year I write an annual newsletter always beginning with a poem.   In the poem I attempt to encapsulate brief historical incidents of the closing year.  Then there are the paragraphs detailing the yearly events of each of our children, and grandchildren (14 and counting).  Thus, it has become more of a newspaper than a newsletter.  Our kids smirk and comment that it’s the best fiction I write, because I always attempt to make it positive with a few smiles and laughs thrown in.  I’m certain it’ll come as no surprise how difficult it was to pen the year of 2020.  

I’ve also included one of the paintings I completed last year.  There are many analogies you can draw from the dark tunnel and fleeting glow both escaping and held within by the trees.  For myself I thought it appropriate for this blog and the poem because I found myself following any flicker of light/positivity throughout the year, much like the firefly’s I chased as a child.  What were the firefly’s you chased, or caught in the past year?  Will those brief flashes of light last through the new year?  What are their patterns and how have they changed you?

Belated Holiday Cheers to One and All

Twinkling lights were hung in abundance while Santa’s appeared everywhere,

as the Spirit of Christmas stirred us out of our COVID infused despair.

We unwrapped gifts by computer screens filled with the faces of loved one’s near and far. 

We adapted from usual routines, but it was not the same.  It was actually, quite bizarre.

Yes, we finally reached the season of rebirth, and good cheer

As the end of 2020 came to roaring end, and WOW! WHAT A YEAR!

From the contentious avalanche of politics, to a global pandemic,

It will go down in civilization’s history as a year most prophetic.

One with hurricanes and fires, too close to home, as Mother nature asked us to take heed,

But when we had to STOP, didn’t we all marvel at her beauty as she could finally–breathe.

Yes, we zoomed and we rationed and we even hoarded toilet paper.

Who knew when buying it I’d feel like I was in the scene of black-market caper?

Yet despite it all, “Some Good News” became the norm.

Thank you John Krasinski, for your show, our heart’s it did warm.

Small packages, of gifts, or food magically appeared outside front doors, and it was understood,

a simple symbol of love, kindness, and solidarity in our small neighborhood.

In May we tracked Space X Endeavor traveling along its steady course.

When it returned safely, we marveled at its technology, and its force.

In July we Oregonians watched the Neowise comet streak across the sky.

It’ll be another 6,800 years before she comes by again, to say “Hi”.

Then as the year drew to an end, scientists once again, came to the rescue of humanity.

With a vaccine in hopes of allowing us to reclaim our masked, social-distanced, sanity.

But before we close the door on the year, let’s send off those no longer among us.

With a bit of fanfare, grandiosity, and justly deserved fuss.

To  the man with the perfect English accent, Mr. Sean Connery,

for me agent 007, you will forever, and always be.

To Kobe and Gianna Bryant who left us way too soon.

I hope you’re shooting baskets together over a glorious, sparkling moon.

And Ms. Helen Reddy, you sang “I am Woman hear Me Roar”.

But it was “Angie Baby” that kept me swaying on the dance floor.

“Oh Golly Miss Molly”  Little Richard did keep us rockin’.

Now he’s showing heavenly beings how to “Keep a Knockin’”.

Chadwick Boseman elevated the ground breaking Black Panther to new heights.

Now he’s starring under the marquees of heaven’s bright, starry lights.

Finally a thank you beyond measure to Ms. Ruth Bader Ginsberg-RBG.

Without you’re intelligence, tenacity, and strength where would women’s rights be?

Now as I close my annual discourse I want to leave you with some cleansing thoughts,

no matter what this past year has wrought, not matter its costs,

when we got up each morning the sun still shone, and the stars still came out each night.

Summer still followed Spring, and after darkness always came the light.

Friends still called to see how we were doing,

and children learned much from their school lessons on zooming.

So let us go into this new year with a renewed attitude,

By embracing an overwhelming sense of the simple nature of, gratitude.

An original Painting by Cheryl Owen-Wilson “Firefly’s Dance”