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Monday, March 31, 2014

Loss

Photo by Laura Bear
This weekend was the anniversary of the death of my nephew Kyle. I had to miss the fundraiser in his honor because of my day job.  I thought loss would be a good blog topic this week.

Kyle became my nephew through my husband's family. He had some struggles in his young life, but he never seemed to take things half way. He was exuberant and funny. Everyone's friend. A PRESENCE where ever he went. I am not qualified to ponder what led him into the darkness of drug addiction, but it was not for lack of love and certainly he did not die because of lack of effort on his or his family's part. The reasons for Kyle's short time on this earth are not for us to know and are not important.

Every life touches many other lives. Every life is a story. Like links in a chain. So, when we lose someone, we feel that chain is broken, hanging free. But, life is also a cycle. Every living thing is born, lives for a while and dies. Some live very long lives, others are too short. Some believe that we come back to live again in another body. Others believe that we go to Heaven and live forever with God. Others believe we go back to the earth, returning to our carbon and water ingredients. I don't know that any of that is right or wrong, but we all die and we all mourn for people who die before we do. I believe that our bodies are only vessels. If you have ever been with someone who passes, there is a tremendous energy in the process. Often the process is not pretty as the spirit struggles to break free of the dying body. Other times, it is so quick there is no time to register what is happening. But, there is no doubt when the spirit has left the body. The vessel becomes a hollow shell. We know when someone is gone from it. But, are they gone forever? I don't think so.

Science shows us that we basically run on electricity. Self-generated electricity. Our hearts pump blood through our arteries and veins because of electrical impulses within the heart muscle. Electrical impulses travel through our brains in pathways that make us think and speak and respond. When our spirit leaves, that electrical source disappears. But what was there to spark the electricity in the first place? Why can't we "recharge" someone who dies (like Frankenstein). Because their essence is no longer in that body. But, science also tells us that energy never dies.Our essence is energy. Energy cannot "die" it can only change into another form of energy. It searches for another form or dissipates (like the energy from lightning). Water evaporates into gas and gas dissipates into water. Water freezes to a solid form with low temperatures then melts into water when it warms, but it is still water at its basic level. I certainly don't pretend to know the answers to the questions of the Universe. In fact, as Iris Dement sings, "I think I'll just let the mystery be."

So, what does all that matter when we lose someone we love? The fact is that they are still gone from us in the way we want them. We miss them. We miss seeing them and talking to them and being with them. We yearn to hear their voice. We all miss Kyle's presence on this earth. But, I do take some comfort in the idea that his essence goes on in some form and his memory will not die as long as we continue to tell his story.

Kyle, your story lives on.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Writer's Retreats

Photo by Laura Bear
On the subject of writer's retreats: definitely! My writing was reignited at When Words Count Writer's Retreat in the Green Mountains of Vermont. I was one of the first writers to stay there when it opened in October of 2012. The people who own it had a vision and created a spectacular place of peace and inspiration. Steve Eisner sat me down the first evening in the front parlor to find out what I was writing. He asked me questions about myself and my life and where I thought my story was going. If this was writing therapy, I was a willing patient! Jon Reisfeld was my first contact via email, encouraging me that yes, indeed I was qualified to come stay at the retreat. I had never been to one before and I hadn't written anything in many years (except reports and the occasional poem). They were so welcoming and excited about my writing that it was contagious.

Not only were the rooms beautifully appointed and comfortable, the food was amazing. Chef Paul whipped up masterful dinners, snacks, lunch, and breakfast every day. No cooking, no cleaning: nothing but writing, writing, writing. Before dinner each night, the writers (only me and this other fellow on that first stay), Steve and his wife Neale, and Jon met in the Gertrude Stein lounge for libations and discussion. Paul kindly stoked the fire and offered hors d'oeuvres as we talked about our writing. It was truly life-changing and just the kickstart I needed to get my writing wings back after a very long hiatus. A writer's Heaven, for sure and a lovely beginning to my first novel. Now, this can become quite expensive if you wish to pay for coaching sessions and manuscript evaluations, etc. and I did feel pressured to partake in these things at first, but later decided that the writing had to happen first, before I spent any more money on figuring out what to write.

I did return to When Words Count Retreat a few months later, for more time to spend just writing and to meet more writers. This time, there was a special deal for those of us who had been there before, and I was able to stay in the Mark Twain room with its own bathroom and large bed. I had many inspiring dreams in that room. Happily, I met several wonderful writer people who have been encouraging, inspiring, and have generously offered advice on editing and the business side of writing. I am so fortunate to have found a community of writers and creative people who are so giving and talented. I intend to return to Vermont again, but I am content to write in my own home at the moment. After reaching out to a local writer friend, I was invited to go to another writing retreat in the Finger Lakes. Much closer to home and much less expensive because we all share in the lodging costs and take turns cooking meals for the group. I can't wait to spend several days and nights just focused on writing and communing with other writers in a lovely setting.

By all means, if you have been hesitating on going on retreat to focus on your creativity, recharge your creative self and DO IT! Isn't your dream worth it?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Premise or Not to Premise

Photo by Kevin Tomasello
I have been pondering the idea of premise. Even though it is considered an essential component of fiction writing, premise continues to mystify me in many ways.

James N. Frey, in his excellent book HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL says there is no formula for finding your premise. Wait, what is a premise, you ask? Ah, good question. I had no idea what a premise was when the guys at When Words Count Writers Retreat brought it up. So, for those of you who are also lacking premise comprehension, I will attempt to explain, although Frey takes a whole chapter to define premise. Please forgive my simplified form.

A premise, as I understand it, is the root of the story. It is the reason you are writing the story. I am not talking about the piles of money you expect to make from writing your story or the years of psychotherapy you hope to purge through your story. Premise is the thing that drives your characters to do what they do. Yet, it is only true for particular characters in a particular story. It is not a universal truth. At least, that is how Mr. Frey describes it in the above mentioned book. Honestly, I still think that is a little convoluted. Merriam-Webster defines premise as "a statement of fact or a supposition made or implied as a basis of argument." A supposition is a hypothesis. So, is the premise the hypothesis of your book? Still seems clear as my salt-covered car windows.

The premise is the statement of truth for one particular character. It is always true for him or her, but not necessarily for everyone. What happens in the story has to prove the premise. The premise of my first novel was probably something like love leads to disaster, but disaster makes you stronger. The truth is, I can't start my stories with a premise. It's too academic for me. Too much like a college fiction writing class. Which for me, at least, can be paralyzing. I seem to have better luck when starting with an idea and then asking questions. I think you have to get to know your characters first. Many successful writers speak of the importance of developing their characters. For HEARTLAND, I may have asked myself some of these questions: Who is Addie? What is her background? What would happen if a little girl who is abused by her family escapes and finds a new family? Who is Lucy? What if a woman suffers a clinical depression during divorce and then finds hope when she inherits an old house? What is my character's story? It really is true that when you write your characters' backgrounds, they start acting a certain way when you write their story. It may help to outline a story and to decide on the premise, but if you know your characters well, they will tell you you are full of hooey if you try to write them into your hypothesis. They may prove your hypothesis wrong after all. So, does it help to have one? I don't know. It probably does if you can figure it out early on, but I think if it's too overwhelming, it's okay to just start writing about your characters first. Get to know them. Let them tell you their story. Worry about premise later.

That's my advice for today. Take it or throw it. Argue about it. Dismiss it. Whatever you like. What matters is that we keep writing despite our fears. Keep the fire burning. Stay warm everyone!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Room of One's Own

Photo by Laura Bear
As I wait, I continue to write. Rejection is hard to take, but it hurts less while I am working on other projects. Four swift rejections. Does that mean the ones I haven't heard from offer more hope? The longer the wait, the more they contemplate? At least, that's what I am choosing to believe for now. In the meantime, I am working on my next novel and those two short stories. Perhaps I should write more nonfiction articles and try the magazines. Alas, I am compelled to create fiction at present.Virginia Woolf was right, it's important to have at least a space of one's own to commune with the muse. I am fortunate that we were able to transform the smallest bedroom into an "office." A friend built shelving/desk units to match the desk already there. There are bookshelves on the opposite wall as well. A filing cabinet. A couple storage units with drawers in the corner. Notebooks to record my thoughts. Windows that overlook the garden in the backyard. It's not quite as neat as it was in the photograph.

Most important is what's on the shelves and walls. Posters from music events and trips we enjoyed, beloved books, handmade pottery (more has been added since the photo), a framed quote with a black and white picture of a solo canoe: The thoughtful soul to solitude retires. Stones and crystals to encourage mystical powers. Photographs of family and favorite photos my spouse and I took of wildlife. (Not the partying kind, the actual wild kind). The bears that visited our birdfeeder a couple Junes ago, a peregrine falcon, a goldfinch. Things I love. Things that inspire in the hope of tempting the muse. My muse is mysterious and fluctuating. I don't know the gender of my muse. Sometimes she is a lovely woman with flowing hair, sometimes an old hag, sometimes a man who strangely resembles Stephen King, sometimes my muse is a child, playing hide and seek. I become frustrated with this changeling when I can't capture an idea on the page. If only it was more reliable.

It is difficult to write great sweeping works of art when one works full-time to make a living doing something else. Yet, it is life that allows me to write at all. Experiences are the stuff of story. Mining the ideas can be daunting, but having a room of one's own, even a shared one, allows me to explore those ideas in relative peace. A cat may walk across my computer keyboard. The dog may bark. My son may call from Minnesota. My husband may want to spend some time with me. But, the space is there, even when I have to fight for it. It is worth it.

May you find your own space.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Patience

Photo by Laura Bear
This week went by so fast. I had a response from a publisher that they received my submission and will be reviewing it. It will be at least 6-8 weeks before I know anything from them. So, now it's time to practice patience.

This photo of koi fish in a pond at Tioga gardens is a good symbol of patience. I didn't have patience that day. My husband and I had just bought a new digital camera. I hadn't taken pictures in years, but it was something I used to do quite often. We went to Tioga Gardens here in Owego to practice taking close-ups of flowers while we learned how to use the camera settings. I didn't understand that the focus didn't work right if I held the camera too close to the subject.

Every time I framed my shot then came in closer to catch more detail, the camera refused to focus on any part of the picture. I was so frustrated that I lost my own focus. I started yelling at the camera, my husband, the plants...Evil Laura emerged and it wasn't pretty. The more my spouse tried to help me, the more irritated I became. Pride and Embarrassment tantrumed all over Rational, and my spouse took the brunt of it. I had to break away for a while to calm myself down.

Even though I was ready to throw the camera, my husband let me take it--probably out of fear for his life. I stopped in front of the koi pond in the giant greenhouse area and watched the fish. My breathing slowed in time to the ripples of fish as they swam across the water in random patterns. I waited with my camera focused on one spot until several fish came together in the frame. Then I snapped my photo.

Now I am focusing on the writing. It's too overwhelming to focus on trying to write the right thing, trying to get published, trying to figure out social media, trying to figure out the business of writing. These things will come in time. I am not a patient person. I want to know things right away. But, I am better at waiting than I used to be. I like to think of it as productive waiting, which helps quell the need to do something.

I am pleased to say I have begun my second novel. It's only in its infant stages, but I have an idea to develop. Only with patience and attention can I grow that idea into a story. Patience that the process of writing is the teacher. Writing will guide me to what comes next. One word at a time. I am grateful for the desire and the ability to do it. For now, that's enough.

Thank you for reading.