When the Show Can’t Go On

by Christina Lay

© Daniil Peshkov | Dreamstime.com

Our regularly scheduled blog post has been interrupted to bring you this public service announcement: Keep Calm and Support Your Local Artists.

Yesterday, with one fell swoop, the seasons of two local performing arts companies ended prematurely and many others were disrupted when the governor of Oregon announced a ban on all events with audiences of 250 or more people, and our local performing arts center cancelled all performances for the next thirty days.

The Eugene Opera was set to perform Puccini’s great opera, Tosca, today and Sunday.  This was the big event of the season, the opera’s Reason d’etre. The cancellation is potentially devastating to the small company. Tens of thousands of dollars have already been spent and the loss of ticket revenue is a crushing blow.

For this blog, though, I’m thinking about the cost to the artistic soul and the soul of the community. Countless hours of planning, preparation, practice and rehearsal led up to this point. The opera had gathered not only several fantastic principal singers to perform, but a twenty-two member chorus, a children’s chorus of fifteen, an orchestra of fifty-eight, a technical crew of about twenty, and dozens of peripheral people who contribute to the production in some way.  Thursday night was the final dress rehearsal (I’ll kick myself forever for missing it). The music, the songs, the concentrated effort of artists challenging themselves to the utmost, all pulled together to a pitch-perfect level, all the confluences of design, staging, costuming, directing, conducting, all arranged, organized, ready, to culminate in…silence. An empty stage. An empty theatre.

Ironically, the blog I’d been working on before this took over my attention concerned my grim determination to complete a novel that is a year past deadline and about a thousand hours of mental anguish over budget.  I wrote briefly about how I considered abandoning the project, walking away from all that work: 86,000 words and two years’ worth of practicing my craft.  I couldn’t do it of course, couldn’t stop striving for that final “performance” that is publication.

I’ve always believed that the main driving force behind art of any sort is communication, the burning need to express the inexpressible, to span the vast gap between one distinct person and another, to escape the shell of our body and let our souls fly free. To not publish, to not perform, to not share, to slip the novel into the drawer and quietly turn your back on all that you’ve created, is an especially exquisite sort of despair. This, alas, is what the opera, the grandest of art forms, is experiencing, only they don’t have the choice to forge ahead. Toscawill remain unsung; in this instance, in this remote corner of the globe, the show will not go on.

I’m certainly not blaming the governor or anyone else for this outcome, but that doesn’t mean I can’t mourn the loss and in my own small way, make a plea.

Eugene Opera isn’t the only arts organization being affected. The State of Washington has taken similar measures, and oh my god, Broadway Theatres are closed.  Italy, Puccini’s home, is shut. As we circle the wagons and go into crisis mode, I’d urge you, if you’re a ticket holder to a cancelled event, to donate that amount to the organization or artist in question. Even if you’re not, consider a donation to any group that’s hard hit. Beyond that, buy a book, a piece of art, a song.  Do not abandon the arts in these dark times.  This is when we need our artists the most, to give us hope and remind us of our common humanity, especially in times when isolation is recommended and communication is breaking down across all spectrums of society.

Yes, Toscawill be sung and sung again, but not our Tosca. And not today.

 

 

Getting Started Guide for a Lost Writer

By Lisa Alber

Two weeks ago I got laid off from my day job as a technical writer. After the initial shock and anger and slumpiness, I’m now in the process of adjusting …

So, now I’m in this scary position of creating a new life. Is there a perfect permanent position for me out there? Or, could I re-fashion myself as a contractor with enough time to write fiction? It’s a scary proposition, this thing called the “gig economy” — and paying for my own health benefits too?

As a technical writer, I sometimes write getting-started guides. In fact, I recently wrote one related to creating data strategies for analytics efforts. (I’m here to confirm that it’s all about data, folks. No joke. All the companies are doing it now.) What’s my getting-started guide for myself right now?

Please join me in a thought experiment.

1. Context and Vision

Why do I need a strategy — what will be my return? — and what’s my high-level aspirational vision?

I need a strategy because I’m a lost puppy right now. My return will be that I will have a higher quality life working from home with a flexible work schedule, and, most importantly, have time for my passion: fiction. I envision myself completing works of fiction and feeling immersed in a creative lifestyle while earning a flexible day-job living at the same time. (Notice that my vision doesn’t include things I can’t control, like landing that ultimate publishing contract.)

2. Core Information Model and Principles

A core information model in the world of data analytics is a definition of how a company will treat its data. Principles are like the guiding practices for doing so. For my purposes, this model is how I will treat my time and principles around that.

In my model, time is a raw material. Time is useful to the extent that you actually use it well, transforming those minutes and hours into productive output. What are my principles around this?

  1. When I’m working, I’m really working. When I’m not, I’m really not.
  2. Not all time has to be used productively; quality of life is a factor too.
  3. For fiction, the time allotted each day will be sacrosanct, and this schedule will be fairly rigid and for those hours, fiction trumps the day job.
  4. The day-job hours will be worked flexibly and for as long as needed to get tasks done.
  5. Use a consistent Monday through Friday routine. Allow weekends to feel like weekends; even if I’m still getting work in, do so in a looser manner.
  6. Social media is not time well-spent. I will need to establish clear limits.

3. Current State Assessment

This is a scored assessment of various dimensions that make sense for you. Score 1 (worst) through 5 (best–wish list level).

Organization: 3
Fiction output: 1
My health: 3
WIP status: 2 (solid start on first draft, but needs a re-think)
Contracting status: 2 (have some stuff lined up)
Infrastructure: 3 (I don’t own a proper desk!)
Technology: 4

4. End State Characterization

Same dimensions, but what they need to be to say that I’m achieving my vision. For example, my infrastructure will never be a five, because my house isn’t optimal. My office is small and kind of dark, rather than large and airy and bright.

Organization: 4
Fiction output: 4
My health: 4
WIP status: 5
Contracting status: 5
Infrastructure: 4
Technology: 5

You may ask, why not set the end state to all fives? Well, you’ve got to be realistic and think about what the original goal is: completing works of fiction, feeling immersed in a creative lifestyle while earning a flexible day-job living at the same time. I don’t need to be all fives to achieve this.

5. Architecture

For my purposes, the architecture is the architecture of my life such that I can close the score gap and move to my desired end state.

Organization: 3 to 4. I’m pretty organized, but I could improve. This means actually using my planner — create goals for the week and write things down. I don’t need to be 5 because I don’t need to be a project management guru about it.

Fiction output: 1 to 4. Heavy lift here. This is bum glue, and getting back into the habit. No five here because in my world a five output can only occur if I didn’t have to have a day job. Not that this couldn’t be a goal, but I’m where I am now. That goal can come with some future, updated strategy.

My health: 2 to 4. I’m still getting over the medical stuff, so I’m aiming for a solid four. That seems realistic right now. Lots to do with this one: lose weight, get good sleep, gain strength, do PT exercises, etc.

WIP status: 2 to 5. Five is the completed state. If I use my time wisely and consistently I can get to five.

Contracting status: 2 to 5. This is getting enough contracting clients so that my income is consistent and livable. At a five, I’m even earning enough to save a little back. So this is a long-term goal, for sure.

Infrastructure: 3 to 4. Get a new desk and optimize my office given its restrictions, and I’ll be good.

Technology: 4 to 5. This is the easy one. I’ve already got all the equipment: big screen monitor, good all-in-one printer, laptops (yes, a Mac AND a PC). I just need to think about ergonomics–ergo keypad, wireless mouse, etc. No big.

6. Roadmap

The sequence of tasks to perform over time. This is fairly high level. The timeline isn’t some set thing. Some aspects may take longer (like feeling like I’m a healthy four) than we’d expect. For me, this is a chunking exercise. I’m going to set the roadmap for 2020. Break down the above things into various tasks. Some things are short term and easy: buy a danged desk. That’s a next-week task.

Some things will require further breakdown. Like what do I mean by “livable”? So then there needs to be a budgeting exercise too, which will include trimming the fat.

The WIP status is another thing altogether. Since I’m not trying to kill myself, I’ve decided that I’ll aim for WIP being completed by the end of the year. But, what do I mean by “completed”? Let’s imagine completed is first draft, revisions until I’m ready for beta readers, beta readers, then more revision, and then my final detailed self-editing process. You can imagine — working backwards, come up with a schedule.

7. Execution Plan

The nitty gritty. This is the kind of thing were you break down the roadmap into even more granular chunks, maybe on a monthly or weekly schedule. So for WIP status, let’s say March’s tasks will be: print out manuscript, read what I have so far, brainstorm the plot line that I already know is a problem, re-write that plot line up to where I am in the first draft overall, get an early trusted reader to give me story development feedback.

This is where I’m at. Writing up this blog post as a thought experiment has proven quite inspirational! Wish me luck!

 

Be Writing

iStock_000051779652_Large

Don’t Be a Writer. Be Writing.

With thanks to WordCrafters in Eugene, where I teach Fiction Fluency.

by Eric Witchey

A little late. A lot busy. The life of a writer who has the privilege of working.

Freelance for thirty years in October has allowed me certain perspectives. I’ve seen creative clusters rise, spawn careers, and fall to petty differences and self-righteous ideological splits. I’ve seen creative clusters rise, spawn careers, and… Spawn careers. That was the important bit. The rest was just human beings being monkeys who think they have to hurt other monkeys to have enough bananas. It’s the bit before they start fighting over the tiny, useless, insignificant bananas that’s important—the part where they are banding together and writing.

I’ve seen poor writers rise out of poverty and return to it again. I’ve ridden that ride myself, though things are pretty good right now. I may be on the rise. I may be on the fall. Who can say?

A few people who have called me friend have decided I’m a lesser human because they achieved their vision of success. A few people who have called me enemy began to call me friend when I achieved their vision of success. I have looked down on other writers for not being whatever it was that I thought they should be that day, and I have railed against people who looked down on me for not being whatever they thought I should be that day.

Writers and readers have ridiculed my work because it is “only genre” and, equally, because it is “literary and not imaginative enough.” Just this morning, I received a rejection letter in which the editor said, “I loved reading the story and the sense of the innocent imagination of the child character, but I wanted more depth.” Another editor rejected the same story a couple months ago because, and I quote, “Children aren’t that deep.” In college, a professor attacked me for being a technocrat. In high-tech, engineers attacked me for being “just an English Major.” I’ve been shamed for working from home and raising children. I’ve been envied for working at home and raising children. If we are honest with ourselves, envy or condescension, it’s all the same. It’s fear. Fear that what I am is not enough and I should be like you; fear that I might become like you; fear that if I see you as legitimate I can’t get the bananas I want because my path is not like yours. Fear.

People have stolen my work. I have received email copies of my own articles, sans my name, from friends who said, “This guy thinks like you do.” Once, I managed to get paid for one of my stories that had been pirated. More often, pirates have taken my work and turned it into money for themselves without a thought to my life and my effort. In a seminar, many years ago, I heard a teacher say to a student who was carefully picking up copies of the story we had just analyzed, “Why are you picking them up?”

“I don’t want anyone to steal my story,” the student said.

The teacher laughed then said, “You should be so lucky that people want to steal your work.”

Thanks, M.K. Wren, wherever you are. I’ve never forgotten. I am that lucky.

I’ve known honest, helpful agents. I’ve know agents who were liars and thieves. My name has been on black lists and white lists. Companies have tried to ruin me. I’ve witnessed, and even uncovered, some very shady doings within government agencies and corporations. I even worked as a consultant for ENRON on the project that blew up in their faces. I discovered that a company I worked for was a coke ring. Another was a front for actual spies. Another . . . And another. . . And another. . . I learned that an editor who won’t sign their own contract is not worth the argument, and I learned that when someone says, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just business,” that they have never been hungry or lived under a bridge. They think there’s nothing personal about food, shelter, and feeding self and others.

Freelance for thirty years. A lot of stuff has happened. Awards. Money. Friends. Lovers. Fans. Detractors. As Vonnegut says, “So it goes.”

I get paid. I write. Sometimes, I’m asked to give advice to agencies, entities, executives, and even other writers. Generally, the advice is ignored until the issues hurt enough. That’s very human. I know I often can’t see or hear things I should until I’m desperate enough to seek change. If only I had listened. If only they had listened. If only I hadn’t listened. It’s not my fault you listened to me.

Through all the years, I write. Today, I finished reading a novel. I revised a document that will help bring clean water to a village. I also wrote a few pages of fiction that are, well, meh. A rejection came in. This essay happened. I wrote. I got paid. I did my job.

The rest is just noise in a wind that howls in the back of the mind.

My friends at the WordCrafters in Eugene, an organization I often support by teaching, have a motto, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.” They have stickers that say that. I have one on the door to my office. It faces outward so I see it every day when I walk in.

Today, I was not a writer. I was writing. It was a good day.

It was good because the whole time I was writing, I felt no pain from my life. I even smiled and laughed. If someone stole my work, I didn’t know. If someone bought my work, I didn’t know. No rejections got read. No sick children or dying family broke into that magical space where vision and feeling merge to become words on the page. Food and shelter were worries to imaginary people who only live in my heart and mind and, with luck, in the hearts and minds of others someday. Political turmoil only existed as a theme. Liars and fools and all the various types of lesser people my righteous stupidity lets me believe exist in various moments all existed only as shadows and echoes far beyond the walls of my office and the light of my screen.

I was writing. I was, for a few blissful hours, what I was meant to be and what I have trained to be, and in the being of that writer, there was no striving or regret or fear or hope. Only the dream made word existed.

Writing cures everything if you are writing instead of being a writer.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?

by Cynthia Ray

chapter one pic

Writing short stories, poetry and flash fiction is fun, interesting and doable for me.  Undertaking a longer work scares the pen off my pages, because the skills and commitment required for writing a novel are very different from those needed for the short story.  I didn’t realize exactly how different until I ambitiously started a novella over two years ago.  I spent a few months on the task, became bogged down in the middle, frustrated with myself and the process and in a self-induced state of embarrassment, shame and regret I quit writing.  I gave up on myself and the book.

once upon a time

Recently, inspired by a friend’s publication, I dug out my draft and read it again.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t  as atrocious and stinky as I remembered.  In fact, I liked it enough to finish it after all.  Now that I am re-engaged with the project, and recovering from my feelings about my wobbly process,  I wondered how long it takes for someone, who is not me, to write a book. Is there an average?  Is there a right answer?  Do people start and stop, and then start again?  Is the process consistent among authors?  As you would imagine, the answer varies wildly among authors.  That, too, gave me hope and inspiration to write on to the end of my project, no longer alone in my leaky canoe.

In the writers who “git r’ done” category:

  • Jane Austen, according to family tradition, began writing First Impressions, the novel we know today as Pride and Prejudice, in October 1796 at the age of 20. She completed it in August 1797, just 10 months later. (Has it really been 300 years and they are still making movies of this story?!!)
  • Victor Frankl wrote his amazing and inspirational book, Man’s Search for Meaning, over the course of nine consecutive days, but he had thought about it for years during his time in the camps, and written it in his head.
  • It only took Charles Dickens six weeks to write a Christmas Carol- Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit helped speed up the process. When Dickens wrote he “saw” his characters much like the way that young Ebenezer Scrooge saw the characters from the books he had read.
  • Stephen King says that “”The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season,” he says. If you spend too long on your piece, King believes the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel.

But take heart, my slow writing friends. Look how long these famous books took to produce:

  • Melville’s tome, Moby Dick, took 18 months (but that was a year longer than he had planned).
  • Margaret Atwood took over a year, with starts and stops, to write the Handmaids tale.
  • JK Rowling worked on her first novel for more than six years.
  • George Martin also took six years to write Game of Thrones.
  • It took Tolkien more than 12 years to write Lord of the Rings, and he kept on tweaking his books even after that.

Finally, here is a short list of novels that took from 10 to 20 years to write.  Mine won’t take that long to finish.  I promise.  By the way, what are you doing here?  Shouldn’t you be writing?!

the end

The Definition of Insanity

By Christina Lay

© Adrian Ionut Virgil Pop | Dreamstime.com

I once again found myself on the periphery of one of those conversations between mothers. You know the one, where they coo over newborn baby photos and then quickly descend into recounting the horrors of a 48 hour birth procedure that included suction cups, multiple doctors and gravity. Then, as always, one of the mothers leans back smiling and says “But then you forget about all that, and have another one!”

I nod sagely. Yup. Writing novels is just like that.

Now I know there are mothers out their gritting their teeth and composing terse missives to me about how writing is NOTHING like giving birth and are lining up many terrifying and explicit examples for me to ponder. But I will blithely continue in my ignorance, because poetic license.

As you might know if you read my posts, I’ve been consumed in a two-year birthing process of a novella that turned into a novel that turned into a many tentacled monster that has no intention of every leaving the cozy confines of my computer to enter the harsh fluorescence of a published reality. And you know what my go-to solution is? Well, I’ll just write another one. That one will go smoothly and will require no suction cups.

Haven’t we all been there? After a tortuous year or two or ten, we deliver onto the world a misshapen squalling mess of a thing. It is beautiful in our eyes only, and requires more attention than ever, which we give it in the hopes that it will someday move out and stay in touch via the form of royalty checks. So what do we do once the thing no longer requires 24-hour care? We immediately start another, sure this one will be much less painful, and more easily pushed out of our brains into the light of day.

And the really sad thing for us writers, and why we deserve more sympathy than actual mothers, is that nowhere in this process is sex involved. In many ways, writing is anti-sex, because it’s a lone endeavor, and one that doesn’t promote social skills or bathing. If there’s any comparison to be made, it is that those first moments of inspiration, those early pages of infinite possibility and gleeful spewing of words, is a tiny bit orgasmic. But there’s no climax. No, the flirtatious tease that is our muse develops a sudden headache, and we are left to bring up baby on our own.

If we’re lucky, we belong to a coffee klatch of writers who gather occasionally to recount tales of horror and express sympathy, and maybe one of them is even lucky enough to have pictures to coo over in the form of cover art. Oh, blessed day!

If writing a novel is like giving birth, than composing a blog post is like passing a kidney stone. No, I’ve never done that either, but a kidney stone is smaller, so I’m assuming the process is proportionally shorter and less painful. But no tickle fest either. If there’s one thing I deeply regret as I look back over this past year, it’s allowing my post to be scheduled for New Year’s Day. This is the day when any writer worth their salt summons up all the Facebook meme wisdom they’ve absorbed over the past year and distills it into an inspirational post that will lift their fellows from the mire of despair and bring relief to the hearts of those pummeled into whimpering piles of sleep-deprived misery by the unrelenting joy of growing a novel in their brains.

I could probably come up with something inspirational if I dug deep, altered my perceptions, took on an attitude of gratitude, had more coffee and attended a 12-Step meeting or two, but I’m not feeling it. My baby refuses to move out. It’s a surly teen now and lurks in the basement wearing all black and not speaking to me (yeah, I’m gonna milk this metaphor for all it’s worth).

So as I am locked in this battle yet again, I reflect upon a piece of wisdom I’ve heard many times in many Al-Anon meetings: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I have to ask myself, has my compulsion to craft stories become an addiction? Is it insane to think that I will ever “get the hang of” the noveling thing? Is it self-deluding to hope for an easy birth? The answer to all of those things is Yes. Does that mean I should stop? Hell, no.

The problem isn’t the writing, No, never the writing. The problem is that word “expect”. Here’s another bit of annoying 12-Step wisdom: An expectation is a resentment waiting to happen. In this case, a writer who expects an easy go of it, who expects their next novel to be perfect, wonderful, Harvard-educated, with great posture and clear skin, is doomed to fall into resentment. Resentment of the very story they’ve conceived and nurtured, resentment of themselves for not living up to their goals and dreams. Insanity is expecting that we’ll be able to do this thing, write these novels, and look good doing it. That we will one day become that person in the memes who wallows in joy, wildness, creativity and spirituality all while looking great in a flowing frock on a beach or a mountain top, backlit by a sunrise.

No, there will be drool. Blood maybe. Tears definitely. All days will be bad hair days. Mysterious stains will appear on all our favorite things. We will trudge, fall down, ugly cry, and doubt. Oh, there will be so much doubt.

Inspired yet?

Okay, let’s try that again. The thing to remember is that we will forget. Forget the pain. Remember those exciting moments of foreplay, and the wonder of creating something new. Insanity is believing the resentments and doubts and drool and letting them stop us from doing our thing. Sanity is doing what we love no matter how much it hurts. For someday we’ll look back on those stories and novels and oh-so-many pages, and be able to say, “I did that” and be proud. Maybe we’ll even have pictures to show.

My Holiday Gift to Writers, by Eric Witchey

Sitting female teacher surrounded by school-aged childrenPhoto Source: iStock, diego_cervo.
Please pardon my abuse of form, line, and rhyme.

A Holiday Story

Eric Witchey

Twas three weeks until New Years, and Wrimo was done.

The revisions had started. They weren’t very fun.

Plot  stickies were strewn o’r the coffee-stained floor

And my phone was turned off. Ha! Ring nevermore!

I hated the tinsel, the red and green lights

That draped from my bookshelves and flashed in my nights

My pumpkins and witches, bones, and fake gore,

With my raven were stuffed in a box by the door.

My letters to Santa went out in e-mail.

“Buy my book. Leave reviews. It’s right here on sale.”

Santa ignored me. He did every year.

My stories lived only in ether, I fear.

A notice of email pinged on my box.

Damn, I forgot to shut off my intox.

Better than fixing a flaw in the plot,

I clicked on the notice with nary a thought.

“Mr. Writer, it started”—innocent enough.

“I read your last story and think it’s real buff.

It made me think of my mom and my dad,

And I couldn’t help wonder if you knew how sad

My parents are that I’m leaving real soon.

They’ll miss me. They love me. Please grant them a boon.

Stories are healing, though I can’t be healed.

A story for them, I hope that you’ll feel

Is worthy of time, of love and attention.

Please, when I’m gone, if you could just mention

Our names in a story about love and joy.

Remind them that they still love this small boy.

Remind them that love makes a life and a family.

If you could do this, that would be dandy.”

After I wiped away my sad tears,

I read the kid’s closing and let go selfish fears.

“Please do this for me,” the brave child said.

“Give them a vision of love when I’m dead.”

Now, Wrimo meant nothing. Revisions felt lame.

Only one thing mattered. Not fortune or fame.

Only the love that a story can weave

Into the hearts of the people we leave.

Stories are doorways, or windows, or paths

Into hearts and minds to do work as salves.

Distraction, or message, or battles with dirks,

Stories give healing for foibles and quirks.

By telling in paper, e-reader, or chant…

By ink or by stylus, by pen or by rant…

The word shamans’ duty since stories began–

To bring healing and peace to just one fan.

That letter to me, no Santa would read

Santas don’t write. They can’t plant a seed

Deep in the hearts of those who must heal.

Word shamans do that—we whom muses wield.

For a child who loves beyond life and reproach

To the pen, to the page, to the tale we approach.

The years that will come are made of our vision

One family from all should be our heart’s mission.

-End-

From Fantasy to Reality and Back Again

by Christina Lay

Perhaps you’ve found yourself wanting or needing to write about a place you’ve never been, but you feel confident you can pull it off because you’ve read so many books about the place, watched so many movies, and done so much research when you should’ve been writing that you feel like you’ve been there, that you know it through and through.

This happened to me a while back. I decided to finally write that steam punk fantasy mystery that’s been swirling in my mind for years. I had the story completely figured out. I set pen to paper (or actually, fingers to keyboard) and…wrote about a page. I quickly realized I didn’t have the knowledge, the words, or the grounding that I needed to continue. You see, this story began in London. I’ve never been to London, but I truly felt that I knew it so well I could have my characters walk the streets and the descriptions would come to mind as I went. After all, it’s one of those places that permeate popular culture. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens , even Paddington Bear. I’ve probably read hundreds of books set in London and its environs, and watched even more movies. The images are there, but the grounding details are not.

As I sit here and think the word “London”, innumerable scenes scroll through my head; all supplied by other people’s fiction and news reports. Yes, I can do copious amounts of research and fill in all those missing words and street names, but nothing can replace actually walking the streets, smelling the diesel fumes, turning a corner and stumbling across that unexpected something that unlocks the key to your next scene.

The Expected

I’m writing about this now because I’ve recently had the experience of finally setting foot in another of those iconic places: New York City. If there is anywhere in the world more entrenched in my imagination than London, it’s probably New York, and this mostly from television. Isn’t every other TV show set there? Isn’t every other comedian born there? We studied it in school, starting with pictures of Dutch guys buying Manhattan from the Native Americans for a handful of beads and culminating with a barrage of vivid images from 9/11. Hardly a day goes by without some image being beamed at me from Times Square or Wall Street or Madison Avenue. I had definite and firm images planted in my brain, and not only images, but expectations and emotional responses. I knew NYC would be exciting to visit, and full of interesting things, but I also had a pre-loaded set of expectations fueled mainly by 70s era TV. You know, Starsky & Hutch, Barretta, that sort of gritty crime show. Cold, hard, dirty, scary, unfriendly. Vast blocks of rundown slums. Shady characters menacing people in Central Park and on subway cars.

What I did not expect was the vast amount of historical buildings in fine shape, the beauty of the skyline, the European elegance, and the friendliness of most of the people. And a rather disappointing lack of shady characters.

I’m not here to do a travelogue for Manhattan. What became important to me is how vastly my internal NYC landscape has changed. It has morphed from a frightening, sprawling Metropolis to an endlessly intriguing patchwork of neighborhoods where real people live and work. And the big picture is now peppered with small details, little glimpses into daily life. True, ten days as a tourist does not an expert make, but I can now confidently have a character walk through Central Park without relying wholly on outdated scenery supplied by someone else’s artistic eye.
I thought a lot about the TV show Seinfeld while I was there. So much reminded me of that show, of what I expected to see, and I was happy to see it, but I was even happier to see the unexpected.

The Unexpected

The Highline is a great example; this is an elevated train track that has been converted into a raised park, a pedestrian skyway full of vegetation, art installations, fascinating backstreet views and yes, tourists. I’d read about it, but walking it let me peek not only into the “backyard” of the meat packing district, but it gave me a glimpse into the heart of the people who live there. It’s an amazing civic project, one that says a lot about the city that grew it. And what it says is nothing I ever would have expected.

I can talk about the sensory overload of being in a place, but you know that already: how valuable it is to stand on the corner and smell, touch, listen, and taste the environment. To meet real people instead of observe characters, to walk through Central Park at night and be only a little bit nervous.

Displacing a landscape crafted over decades is a touch trickier, and truly a fascinating experiment in rewiring one’s brain. Even now, I can feel the reality slipping back beneath the layers of fantasy that I, as a compulsive storyteller, can’t help but weave. But now, at least, my fantasy is grounded in reality. There are many places you can’t go; ancient Babylon being one, The third moon of Saturn another. But if you can go, and if you want a place to play a major role in a writing project, there’s no substitute for being there. Only your own experience can displace the imaginary world in your head, and then seed it,feed it and regrow it into a more authentic fantasy when you return.