Notes on (surviving) the writing life

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A Technique for Producing Ideas: struggling with that dreaded monster Plot

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I’ve been flailing, I confess: in Excel plot worksheets, in piles of plot index cards, in Word files summarizing my plot (or trying to), in books on plot, in on-line courses and YouTube videos on plot!

I saw all this as a sign of a project in trouble. I simply couldn’t figure it out! It occurred to me that I was “finished” — but not in a good way.

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So last night I was reassured reading A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. It turns out that my piles—and piles—of index cards are not a mistake.

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I turns out that my Lost-in-the-Very-Deep-Dark-Woods state of mind is simply Stage Two of the Creative Process. 

A Technique for Producing Ideas is a slender little book, a classic for marketers … but the wisdom in it applies to any creative endeavour. 

For example:

The first [step in producing ideas] is … to gather raw material.
So: all my frenetic searching was not a waste of time? So: my impulse to know everything possible about my subject is not procrastination?
… it you have any sizable job of specific material gathering to do it is useful to learn the card-index method of doing it.

Ah ha!

You take one fact [on an index card], turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. … You bring two facts together and see how they fit … like a jig-saw puzzle.
I especially his description of the “searching” stage of the creative process:
… it is almost like listening for the meaning instead of looking for it.
And, he adds:
When creative people are in this stage of the process they get their reputation for absentmindedness.
So very true.
First, little tentative or partial ideas will come to you. Put these down on paper. Never mind how crazy or incomplete they seem: get them down. These are foreshadowings of the real idea that is to come, and expressing these in words forwards the process. Here again the little 3 × 5 cards are useful.
The second thing that will happen is that, by and by, you will get very tired of trying to fit your puzzle together.

Tell me about it!

Let me beg of you not to get tired too soon. The mind, too, has a second wind. … Keep trying to get one or more partial thoughts onto your little cards.
after a while you will reach the hopeless stage.

Can he read my mind?

Everything is a jumble in your mind, with no clear insight anywhere.

He can!

When you reach this point, … then the second stage … is completed, and you are ready for the third one.
So: Stage One is information gathering (check), and Stage Two is hopelessness (check). What could possibly be next?
In this third stage … you drop the whole subject and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can. … Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.
Binge watch Making a Murderer? Going to the beach? All this is not procrastination, avoidance? So all this is Stage Three?
Indeed it is. So what’s Stage Four?
In the first stage you have gathered your food. In the second you have masticated it well. Now the digestive process is on. Let it alone. … if you have really done your part in these three stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.

Which will be?

Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.
Perhaps not surprisingly, reading this slender little tomb, I began to get a rush of ideas … which I quickly scribbled onto index cards.
This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.
There is, of course, a final step—Stage Five—and that’s taking “your little newborn idea out into the world of reality.” (I.e.: trying to work it into the complex fabric of the manuscript.)
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. … Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.
And so, feeling inspired, ideas popping, I look forward to our two weeks at the beach as Stage Four. 
Happy New Year!
xoxo

 

Happy New Year! (From 1867 :-)

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1867: Double-page hand colored wood engraving featured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated newspaper titled, “A Happy New Year.”

This and other delightful historical New Year’s Eve images can be found here.

I especially love this rural frolic:

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It’s not even 9:00 here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and already I can hear fireworks.

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Happy New Year, one and all!

xoxo

 

Was Josepine very promiscuous?

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Portrait of Josephine before she met Napoleon.

It is always hard for me to read biographies about Josephine. I’ve yet to read one I don’t have a quibble with. The same holds for a “Great Lives” BBC broadcast I listened to recently on Josephine. It pleases me that Josephine was chosen as one of the “Great Lives,” but there were a number of statements made that I very much question. One statement made was that she was very promiscuous. I ask you: How many lovers does a “very” promiscuous woman have?

How many lovers did Josephine have?

For Josephine, there was General Hoche, and—as is claimed — Director Barras, and — also claimed — Captain Charles.

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Portrait of General Hoche.

Although there is no absolute evidence regarding Josephine’s involvement with General Hoche, I personally believe that he might have been her lover. We really know nothing concrete, but Hoche was a lovable, attractive man, and she could very well have loved him.

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Director Paul Barras

Regarding Director Barras, the question posed on the broadcast was, “What did she have to offer him?” The question was rhetorical: I.e. nothing, it was implied.

Au contraire. My historical consultant, Dr. Catinat, an authority on Josephine, told me that what Josephine had to offer were connections to wealthy Caribbean bankers, contacts she had made as a Freemason. (Women could be Freemasons then.) Barras, although powerful, was very much in need of financial aid, and Josephine was able to put him in contact with men who could help.

Josephine received money from Barras, no doubt, but Dr. Catinat felt that in balance, Barras was the one who came out ahead. This perspective is never mentioned. Instead, it is assumed that because Josephine was receiving money from Barras, she had to be sleeping with him.

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A UK political cartoon showing Josephine and her friend Therese dancing naked for Director Barras, Napoleon looking on.

Several mentions were made of the cartoon of Josephine and her friend Therese dancing naked for Barras, as if this was something that actually happened. They failed to note that the cartoonist was from the UK, which was at war with France. Enemies delight in portraying the enemy in a vile light. Again, while writing the Trilogy, I checked with my knowledgeable French consultants, who declared such stories untrue.

Was Director Barras heterosexual?

Dr. Catinat also told me that Barras was homosexual, possibly bisexual. He had no progeny — in spite of claims that he had many female lovers. I am personally inclined to think that he was more homosexual than bisexual, but there really is very little to go on.

Long ago someone told me that, in her opinion, Josephine was a woman who enjoyed the company of Gay men. Frankly, that rings true to me. Josephine was bohemian, and she loved men and women of the theatre and the arts.

And what about Captain Charles?

Which leads us to Josephine’s third so-called lover: Captain Charles.

Sweet Captain Charles, Josephine’s business partner.

Hippolyte Charles, too, had no progeny — that we know of — and although we know next to nothing about his personal life, in manner he was gay as a tea party. Supremely fashionable, he enjoyed dressing as a woman.

Furthermore, at the time when Josephine was supposedly having a torrid affair with the Captain, she was quite ill, suffering from fevers and violent headaches, likely brought on by a premature menopause (the result of her imprisonment during the Revolution).

The portrait of Josephine as a woman having a torrid love affair at this time is hard to fathom. I don’t know about you, but I simply cannot see Josephine in the bed of either of Director Barras or Captain Charles. And even if I could, would these three lovers make her worthy of the label “very promiscuous”? I think not.

The BBC broadcast mentioned that Josephine was mesmerizing to men. Yes, she certainly was. What they failed to mention is that she was well-beloved by women as well.  As a rule of thumb — at least in my book of Observations of the Human Species — is that a promiscuous, manipulative, calculating woman is given a wide berth by other women. Josephine was trusted by women.

I rest my case.

(For more on this theme, see Josephine: Saint or Sinner? (Who knows?)

What have I been doing?

Other than spending quite a bit of time in Physio Therapy to help my Hip Bursitis (ouch!), I continue to wrestle with the Moonsick outline. It’s a big job, but I’m happy to report that it is coming along.

Great links to share…

The news continues to be dire. I am given hope by the resilience and creative joie d’vivre of the Belgians in their response to the order not to post telling photos to social media during the lock-down. National emergency? Belgians respond to terror raids with cats. This one is one of my favourites:

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This YouTube video of people dancing on a Paris Metro is pure joy to watch.

I belong to a FaceBook group of authors, and now and then one of the members asks for help with coming up with a title. One of the authors posted a link to a Title Generator. It may never come up with a usable title, but it’s fun.

I started writing historical fiction because I wanted to imagine a world “peopled” by horses. I no longer have a horse of my own, and my riding days are behind me, but I continue to be captured by these beautiful creatures. This video on wild horses is stunning.

Have a great week!

Making creativity a habit

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I’ve been recently inspired by Twyla Tharp’s book THE CREATIVE HABIT: LEARN IT AND USE IT FOR LIFE.

Here are some quotes:

Some people find … the moment before creativity begins … so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard; they take a nap or go shopping or fix lunch or do chores around the house. They procrastinate. In its most extreme form, this terror totally paralyzes people.
I always—always—am compulsively motivated to do something to avoid beginning. Suddenly I will need another cup of coffee, or a snack, or …
After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves—write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon—but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.
I know this works, I know this is true: I preach it, yet I don’t always succeed in doing it. Today is an example. I frittered away the morning hours answering emails that I told myself were urgent … but, frankly, anything can wait a few hours.
So: it was just an excuse.
The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. And this routine is available to everyone. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits.
Yes, I’m shouting these words! At myself as much as to all of you.
Here are some more delicious quotes:
In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative … 
there’s a process that generates creativity—and you can learn it. And you can make it habitual.
It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colors and textures of paint to represent a haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavorful dish. No one is born with that skill. It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding. And it takes time.
If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.
That’s the reason for the exercises. They will help you develop skill. Some might seem simple. Do them anyway—you can never spend enough time on the basics.
Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into … creativity. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it’ll just leave you stunned.
It’s vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
Read this blog post for more quotes and an example of one of the creativity exercises Tharp gives in this book. Always carry a pencil is one. :-)
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Twyla-Tharp

Who is Twyla Tharp?

Among many other things, Twyla Tharp is an artist, choreographer, and creator of the smash-hit Broadway show, Movin’ Out. She has created 130 dances for her company, the Joffrey Ballet, the New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. She is 74 now, and far from slowing down: Choreographer Twyla Tharp brings two bold new works to Kennedy Centre — an interview in The Washington Post. My hero!

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A few great links to share

Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer. Be sure to click through the individual paintings and read the explanations. It’s wonderful how you can zoom in for a close look. I especially liked “The listening Housewife.” For a review of this exhibit, read this post.

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Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count, an inspiring— and funny—Ted-type talk by Brené Brown.

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What I’m up to

I’m having a hard time with the revision of Moonsick. I keep stirring the pot, but it’s slow to thicken. This beautiful photo of “Man in a fog” by Harman Wardani feels perfectly expressive of my state of mind.

Reading Tharp’s book, I realized that I have a ritual that triggers creativity: I record the day’s writing goals in a notebook and — bam! — I’m off to the races.

You may have noticed that my website is being revised (so that it will be visible on all devices). It’s still in the construction phase, so please bear with us.

The world news continues to be both distracting and extremely distressing. This cartoon, which I posted to FaceBook, has been getting a lot of “likes,” so I gather most everyone feels the same:

News cartoon

Have a good week … . Stay sane!

Shouldn’t you be writing?

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Yes, I should!

I’ve been MIA: sorry.

I have far too much going on, and now … the international news is devastating. A novelist by nature spins out horrific scenarios. It helps to curl up in a fictional world.


A few links to share …

• Coincidentally, I’m reading The War Reporter by my SMA and FB friend Martin Fletcher: set in Syria. It’s excellent: I recommend it. Martin has been an award-winning foreign correspondent in Middle East hotspots for much of his life: he knows whereof he speaks and he’s a fine writer.

• In the much-needed calming department: The ONE Thing You Need To Do On Sunday For A Stress-Free Week. Excellent advice.

Especially for us history geeks …

• Mr. Darcy Strips off …  It’s often difficult to find out what’s under those clothes, and even more difficult to find out how they’re put on … or how they come off. :-)

And last, for writers in need of a title …

• This list of titles of 18th century novels is hilarious. It’s really so hard to choose. Here are a few of my favourites:

The Expedition Of Little Pickle; Or, The Pretty Plotter

He’s Always In The Way

Love And Madness. A Story Too True. In A Series Of Letters Between Parties Whose Names Would Perhaps Be Mentioned Were They Less Well Known Or Less Lamented


 

I took the photo at top decades ago. I was working at my desk (and yes, likely writing), and I looked up to see our Palomino Bailey looking in the window. Miraculously, I was able to get a photo.

(Every time I look at this shot, I think: she needs her forelock combed!)

I have joined an informal NaNoWriMo Facebook group which is helping me keep on track. Speaking of which …

YES, I should be writing.

Have a good week. Send healing thoughts out into this sad and far-too-violent world.


My take on HARD CHOICES, by Hilary Rodham Clinton

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Hilary Clinton’s HARD CHOICES was a game-changer for me. It’s going on my “Best of the Year” list.

Many dismiss this book as campaign positioning. I see it as far more. I think it’s a valuable historical document, a very detailed account of what one term as US Secretary of State entails. I also think it’s Clinton’s “for the record” legacy.

I came away extremely impressed with what she accomplished—or tried to accomplish—and impressed, as well, with the role of the US in attempting to keep world peace. The world is a tinder box of explosives; the job of the US Secretary of State is critical!

Hilary’s “Smart Power” approach—diplomacy being the most important part of the equation—strikes me as sound. She makes very strong arguments for environmental protection and equality for women worldwide being key to both US security and economic development. She is a tireless advocate of Democracy. She’s a little more of a Hawk than I like, but that’s easy for someone not in the thick of it to think. Her humanitarian values are front and centre.

I came away from reading Hard Choices wanting to campaign for Hilary for President. I’m no longer a U.S. Citizen, but the U.S., like it or not, has an enormous effect on the well-being of the world—my world—and whoever is running that country will have a profound effect on my life and the lives of those I hold dear.

I highly recommend this book as an overview of the extremely serious problems in the world today. (It would be a worthy task for any book club to take on. The discussions would be heated, without a doubt!)

I’m both heartened and alarmed after reading this book: heartened because of the worthy work being done, and alarmed at how how fragile things are. A party less inclined to effective diplomacy and one that does not recognize key dangers (one that denies global warming, for example!) could spell disaster for our world—my world.

I rarely speak out on political issues. Some of my wonderful readers and very good friends are not in agreement with my views, I know, and would be inclined to dismiss anything written by Hilary Clinton. I urge you to read her book, and then let’s discuss.


Note: I listened to the Audible edition—all 27 hours of it!— and I highly recommend it, with a few cautions. The lion’s share of this very long and detailed book is narrated by Hilary, and she does a fantastic job. I didn’t care for the other narrator, Kathleen Chalfant; she puts too much emotion into her voice, which, for me, is distracting. Fortunately, she only narrates the short opening and closing sections, which are not the meat of the book.

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