Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Live A Little, Write A Lot!

In this column I’ve written before about how sometimes you have to step back from writing to gain a fresh perspective. Kudos to you if you are having a hot streak--ride it for all its worth. If you’re not though, it might just be that you’ve gotten jaded and have run out of fresh ideas.

I know, from my own experience, I go stale if all I do is sit at the keyboard and churn out story after story. Fortunately for this mom and grand-mom with a 4 generation family, life frequently gets in the way, making sure I am going to be forced to come up for air and witness what the rest of the world has been up to.

I have varied interests outside of writing: I’m a reader, a crafter, a crocheter, and an avid gardener. I love to haunt flea markets, thrift stores, and yard sales. I cook and bake, and I enjoy making music. I’m also a bit of an amateur naturalist. So generally when I’m not writing, I’ll either be outdoors doing something, or indoors making something— maybe even online researching a brand new project. My family and friends have always remarked that I seldom sit down and just ‘veg out’. I always have something in my hands, some project in progress, something to talk about or show someone.

Case in point: the last 10 days or so have been devoted to getting my vegetable garden done up the way I want it. We got a late start with funky, flip-flopping spring weather and equipment problems, so it is just starting to look like something. Mother Nature waits for no one and so those plants have to go in. I had planned ahead for spending the nice weather outdoors, so I finished almost all of my writing commitments for this year before May was over. I’ve only volunteered for additional projects I know I can handle or that have open ended deadlines. We can certainly live without a garden, but we have spoiled our palates (homegrown produce is far superior), and in all honesty, my soul cries out to go play in the dirt and watch the miracle of life unfolding from seed to shoot, through harvest or blooming. I can’t imagine my life without a garden in it, not after almost 40 years of tilling, planting, weeding, and watering; so I make time for it. I feel a great sense of peace when I’m out there, and great pride when I put food on the table that I nurtured myself. This is something important, something my heart needs, so I will do the blasphemous thing and set most writing aside for now to concentrate on getting that garden filled up and growing well. It’s a choice, and since I’m not depending on the infrequent royalty checks to sustain me right now, I can do that.

Not everyone can afford to take time off from writing, and I do understand that too. Now what does that all have to do with writing pulp? Well, first of all, like a cold sip of water, a change of venue cleanses the palate between courses. Pulp is fast paced, action oriented, hard hitting and non stop thrills on the page; but it requires hours of time at a keyboard trying to get things just right. That can get old, and frustrating. Gardening is also about being patient, but it involves following routines, doing things in a timely manner, and watching for the unexpected. It can be rewarding or disheartening when things go wrong, and it has its own share of shock and awe. You can watch something slowly growing, coming into its own, and feel a great sense of anticipation and accomplishment. And then overnight an animal eats it, a hailstorm takes it all down; you lose it in a frost, or to an insect attack.

Yeah, that all kind of sucks, but it’s part of the drama that is real life—not the artificial world on the 6PM news and the so- called ‘reality shows’, but the unforgiving world our ancestors faced with no more than raw nerve, crude tools, and weapons they fashioned themselves. Mother Nature still rules this water planet, and She has a very perverse sense of timing when it comes to tossing in cataclysmic events. You might even say, it’s a rather pulpy approach. You no more think things are going well, and WHAMMO, something comes hurtling down out of the blue to rock your confidence. Of course you’re going to fight back! That’s what heroes do after all… So there’s a lot of pulp out there in the real world. I get to see entire life stories playing out. A crow carries off a robin fledgling to feed its own young while the screeching parents dive bomb it. A beetle blunders into the web of a spider and is quickly nabbed, wrapped and sedated. A chipmunk barely eludes a hunting cat.

There’s a lot of story fodder waiting to be mined if you take the time to let your imagination run wild. Not all writing is done at the keyboard you know. Some of the best ideas occur to you as you’re doing something else. You can be very inspired to write from things you observe in your interests and hobbies as well as your travels. You can build characters from the people around you and take everyday settings and turn them into story fodder.

I’ve often thought Quincy Market in Boston, with its cobblestone streets and myriad vendors, would make a wonderful setting for a fantasy or science fiction novel. Change the automotive traffic speeding around the square to hovercrafts or horse drawn carriages, put the people wandering through in different costumes or make them alien races on a planet with a red sun and purple sky. Maybe that businessman over there perusing the Wall Street Journal is really an assassin waiting for his mark. Maybe that girl busily texting someone is actually programming a bomb to detonate a building downtown. When you’re busy somewhere else, make up things about people who are around you, let your mind wander a bit. Even a trip to the grocery store becomes a writing exercise.

So I’m out in the garden, and I’m building temporary raised beds with a rake and stakes and string. This is a new patch for me, only my second year playing out there. There have been gardens here in the past, on this land that was first boreal forest that got cut down and cleared by colonists, then a small subsistence farm that grew up through the years to a working dairy coop. It was last owned by folks who ran first construction and then trucking businesses off the property. They didn’t have time for a lot of fussing, so they tilled and planted a garden every year, but never took the rocks out. It is filled with everything from pea gravel to two-fisted size chunks—enough to fill a quarry pit—and I’m just stubborn enough to want that rubble out of there. I am doing more rock hauling than anything else. It’s backbreaking, mundane work, so my mind tends to wander as my hands keep busy.

What kind of things do you suppose I think about? What if all those rocks were alien life forms? What if they were eggs of some strange beast? The remains of an elder race? The post-apocalyptic debris of a war that blasted a stone city to smithereens? What kind of story could I build on those concepts? I found some chunks of thick clay tile, probably from a drainage pipe, because there used to be a building nearby. Could there be a subterranean city down below? Is it filled with dangerous mole people? Watching a great blue heron flapping by, flying off our pond and over the field toward the bigger pond across the road, I got to thinking, what if that was a dragon or some other kind of aerial predator? How would I get away, and not be noticed? Suppose it was an enemy fighter craft, or a flying super villain come to subjugate our countrymen? How could a simple farmer react and save her life as well as her vital crops? Maybe I’m a wizard, or a gunner, and my rake is a staff or a rocket launcher in disguise! Or if I scratched up a skull and leg bone, would I be able to investigate the murder and bring the perp to justice?

You see where I am going with this?

Getting out there and away from the keyboard doesn’t mean I’m not still able to reach down inside and pull up that big bump of wonder and curiosity that will have me furiously pounding the keys somewhere down the road. In fact, the change of setting is very inspiring. That’s why I carry pens and paper in my garden bag whenever I go out. Hey, along with all those other ideas, I also got this week’s column from it! And you can do that anywhere; at a 4th of July picnic, a boring PTA meeting, or a necessary trip to the auto parts place. It takes a writer’s eye and some keen observation along with the willingness to say… “Hmmm, how can I use this juicy little detail and pulp it up?” I’ve done that many times over the years.

So yeah, if you have obligations or hobbies that keep you away from the keyboard for long periods of time don’t fret—mine them.

We live to write perhaps, and some of us write to live, but we also have to do things that aren’t necessarily connected with writing. When you can make that mental leap from what is going on around you to something that can be modified into a scene or story, you’re going to be a lot better off and more content with your necessary time off from writing.

So go do the dishes, shoot hoops with the kids, attend to your boss’ boring party, or clean the garage. Just keep the notebook or mini recorder handy and let your mind meander to the what-ifs? Put the people around you in different settings. Now and then, get out on the links, go to the beach, or spend some time in the bowling alley. Whatever it takes, get back into life, because that’s where the best stories are waiting.

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