Influences and Impressions

bookworm monterey
The SF room, Book Worm Bookstore, Monterey CA

With the recent passing of genre giant Ursula K Le Guin, and the hundreds of remembrances of fans and fellow authors who were introduced to science fiction and fantasy via her novels and short stories, I got to thinking… I don’t think I’ve ever read any of her work!  I do now own one of her recent short story collections, The Unreal and the Real, that I’ve yet to crack open.  I’m well familiar with the titles, of course.  She’s one of the list of authors I will almost always find in bulk at used book stores.

So what did I read when I was first starting out as a teenage writer?  Well, that’s a good question.  I tried and failed at reading The Lord of the Rings in junior high because I had little patience for it.  I read some YA here and there, a lot of music books and magazines.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine was one of the few reading assignments I adored.  My freshman year I devoured Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.  I went through a short spell reading Vonnegut and Asimov.  Some comics.  But that was about it.  I spent more time enthralled by radio and records, as well as visual outlets like MTV, Miami Vice and the various movies we’d rent on the weekends.

And it kind of stayed that way, to be honest.  I read books here and there, but not nearly as voraciously as I do now.  I went through a Stephen King spell in the early 90s, maybe a few other authors here and there.  Douglas Coupland was probably the only mainstay for me then.  Instead I watched a lot of movies (and anime, whenever I could find it).  It wasn’t until maybe the late 90s, right about the same time that I started taking my writing a hell of a lot more seriously, that I decided that maybe I should start reading more, especially in my genre.

Occasionally I’d head to a book store and pick up one or two paperbacks.  By 2000 (right about the time I switched jobs and started the trilogy), my visits to Barnes & Noble and other book stores were becoming more frequent.  For a good couple of years I’d do a run to Leominster (about 30 miles east of my home town) that started at Newbury Comics for a cd run, and ended with a three-hour browse at the B&N up the road.  That was when I finally started finding my own literary influences; Kate Elliott, CJ Cherryh, Richard Paul Russo, Lyda Morehouse, Anne McCaffrey, and so on.  Interestingly, a lot of female genre writers and not that many male writers.  I looked for writers that jumped out at me, that did something unique that fascinated me in some way.

I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until around 2007, to be honest.  And I finally read Neuromancer around the same time.  I still don’t think I’ve read any Philip K Dick, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, Brian Aldiss or many of the old-school classics, many of whom had movies made from their books by that time.  Some, but not nearly that many as others.

Still, I’ve found my influences in my own way to get where I am today, and I’m still discovering more.  Haruki Murakami is a big current favorite of mine, for instance.  I’m fascinated by storytelling from different angles and avenues, different cultures and points of view.  Just like my avid movie watching back in the day, it’s all about a story that makes me stop in my tracks and think two things: How the hell did they make that work?, and Okay, I need to get back to my computer RIGHT NOW and start writing!  Whether it’s a movie, a book, a manga or an anime, if it moves me just the right way, I’m hooked and inspired.

STFU

not writing

I came up with a mantra in the spring of 1995 when I realized that if I was going to get any serious writing done, I was going to have to stop making excuses not to.  Or more to the point, I was going to have to stop procrastinating.  I had a lot on my mind that summer…a stagnating long-distance relationship; lots of overdue bills; a really horrible diet of cereal, ice cream, concession stand food, soda, and smokes; jobs that weren’t paying enough for me to actually live on.  It’s quite true that life stress is not conducive to the creative mind. At. All.

But I had the use of my girlfriend’s PC that summer, and a hell of a lot of time on my hands when I wasn’t at my theater job.  I had a few projects milling about in the back of my head.  And I had my radio and my music collection to keep me entertained.  All I needed to do was get myself into the groove somehow.  If I was going to finally jumpstart this writing gig with any seriousness, I was going to have to go all in.  I couldn’t do it half-assed.

Which meant that I had to come up with a daily reminder.  And this reminder was written on two index cards in very large letters — one was posted right above my desk, and the other was next to my bed.  That way I’d see them every single day, whether I wanted to or not.

This is what they said:

Just DO it.  Shut the f*** up and START WRITING ALREADY.

Terse?  Maybe.  But it did the trick.  The only reason for not writing at that time was so I could feel sorry for myself and my pathetic social life and post-college career.  I hated feeling that way, and I hated that I knew I was wasting time feeling that way.  I had to break the cycle somehow.

Even if that meant working on the small, inconsequential stuff like transcribing my writing from the past ten years.  Even if that meant making small notes on scrap pieces of paper while at my job.  The main aim here was to create a daily habit out of it.  I’d worry about results at a later time.  As long as I was doing it and not wishing I was.

*

I’ll be honest, that’s still my writing mantra, twenty-one years later in 2016.  It’s for different reasons, of course.  I say that to myself when I’m having a mean case of the Don’t Wannas, or severely distracting myself online, or whatever.  I still have my moments of self-doubt (what writer doesn’t?) and wonder if the current project I’m on is worth finishing.

Procrastination and self-doubt are still two of my bitterest enemies, and the only way I know how to defeat them is via the same mantra:  just shut the f*** up and DO it.

And you know what?  It still works.

I’m not sure what to write next.

portlandia
courtesy Portlandia

Yes, I’ve blogged about this before.  I have a bunch of ‘maybe’ projects simmering on the back burner, waiting to be picked up and worked on, or trunked and forgotten.  It’s not going to take center stage until I finish and release The Balance of Light, so it’s going to be a while, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start with the pre-production.  I can certainly start playing around with outlines, character sheets, timelines and whatnot.  Just that the bulk of the project won’t begin until at least sometime this autumn.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of starting a new project.  As I’ve said before, it’s been so long since I’ve come up with a completely new idea that sometimes I wonder if I’ve forgotten how to do it.  [I don’t always think this, though…one of the ‘maybes’ came out of nowhere during my 750 Words exercises, so I know I can do it.]

I know I sometimes overthink this part of the process; it’s the most stereotypical of writer’s blocks: what should I write?  We focus too much on wanting/needing to start something.  It’s like when you need to start that term paper for English class, but you have no idea what to write about…and that’s when you start stressing, because you’re focusing too much on getting it done before deadline and not enough on the writing itself.

I try to keep my mind open when new ideas come to me; more to the point, I try not to rely mainly on chance and random inspiration, because that almost never works.  The trick is to sow some kind of seed of an idea and work with it for a bit, see if you can make something out of it.  I tend to be a pantser in terms of writing, so what I consider my best ideas usually come from something only distantly related to it: one of the ‘maybes’ I have on tap came to me out of someone else mentioning the Osmonds in passing on their blog.  Out of that came the idea of writing a fictional music biography.

I have an idea jar here in Spare Oom, a long narrow glass jar with a plastic stopper that I bought for a dollar-something at the kitchenware store up the street.  I haven’t used it in some time, but there’s a few years’ worth of scrap paper in there of passing ideas.  Thoughts that came to mind that I didn’t have time to follow up on.  Just images, scenes, or characters that popped into my head while I was doing something else.  I haven’t even looked at these notes for some time, so now I’m curious as to what’s listed.  I used a few of them for my daily practice words a year or so ago.  Perhaps it’s time to do that again.

I’m not sure what I’m going to write after the Bridgetown Trilogy is done, but at least I’m going to be somewhat prepared.

On Inspiration: Looking Forward to Life

image from Little Dorrit, (c)BBC
image from Little Dorrit, (c)BBC

I think it’s time I readjusted my attitude about my day-to-day.  It needs it.

I know many writers who write part-time — that is, they balance their writing time with their current day job and/or parenting duties.  It can be a frustrating attempt at balance, especially when your Day Job Brain functions much differently from your Writing Brain.  I play with numbers and emails all day, and I’m extremely well versed in business-speak.  That job entails a lot of logical, linear thinking.  Nine times out of ten, point A and point B should lead to point C.  [That tenth time is the exception setup, what I often refer to as “it goes like this…except when it doesn’t.”]  It’s not exactly a tough job — okay, it is in its own way, but I’ve been at it for seven-plus years and I’ve gotten used to it.  I don’t let it stress me out all that much anymore.

My writing, on the other hand, includes a lot of nonlinear plotting, multiple points of view (not just in narration but in character personality), and a lot of leaps of faith, in hopes that it’ll all make sense at the end.  It’s the dreamland I always look forward to, where I can play with words and images, make up fantastical things, and tell fun stories.

Just as logical, but completely different frames of mind.  I’ve been doing both for so long I can easily switch between the two when need be.

 

Cary Grant from His Girl Friday
Cary Grant from His Girl Friday

Lately I’ve been in a rut, however.  By the time 4pm rolls around and I log off, I just want the day to be done already.

Okay, maybe the situation’s not quite that dire…but after eight hours of the Day Job, sometimes the last thing I want to do is work on something else.  I want to be lazy and goof off!  I don’t even want to go out at night…I just want to sit around and whittle the time away.  Thankfully my ingrained guilt receptors kick in soon enough and I get to slog away for a few more hours doing whatever it is I need to do creatively.

How did I get this way?  And don’t tell me “you’re getting old.”  I may have just recently turned 44, but I’ll be damned if age is going to be an excuse for being a lazy bum.

I started thinking…what was it that got me excited about writing previously, anyway?  Or excited about going out to do something?

As always, I thought back to a time where I was truly excited about my writing time.  I thought about my Yankee Candle days — I had a half-hour commute each way, I moved hundreds of boxes all day long, and yet I still managed to make a weekly habit out of doing a comic book and new cd run in Amherst.  I was also able to spend two solid hours writing at least a thousand words every night.  My personal best in terms of word count that I’ve been trying to reach for ever since.*  Or my days at HMV, where I’d drive 50 miles to the mall I work at, slog through the day, drive 50 miles back home (or the 70 miles to Amherst for the occasional comic book run, then an additional 30 back home!)…but still balance that with the hour before work writing longhand, and the hour or so at home, transcribing to the computer.

Point being:  I know I can do it.  There’s no doubt about that.

So why am I complaining that I can’t, or don’t want to?  It’s not as if I’m particularly exhausted, mentally or physically, or can’t stand the project I’m currently working on.

I mean, I’ll be heading over to Amoeba over on Haight tonight to see The Church, one of my favorite bands, play an in-store show.  The store is only a few miles away, and I’ll probably be home before 8pm anyway.  And yet, why do I feel lazy enough to want to come up with an excuse for not going?  I mean, come on.  It’s the freakin’ CHURCH, for pete’s sake!  They only sing my favorite song ever!  Why the hell am I feeling so damned lazy??

Finally it dawned on me, just today:  I was looking at this current schedule from the wrong angle.

I work at home, so it’s not as if I have to deal with a commute; I wake up at 6am, have breakfast, read some webcomics and catch up on the Twitter feed, and log on at 7:30.  I take two fifteen minute breaks and a half hour lunch.  I log off at 4pm and we head over to the YMCA soon after to get our exercise.  Dinner is usually around 5:30-ish and I’m writing by 6:30pm, all the way to about 8pm.  I get my daily words and my project words done at that time…and if the work day is particularly slow, I sneak in some personal writing, such as this particular blog entry.  The day’s packed to a reasonable degree, but I’m not draining myself in the process.

All the same, I’ve been suffering from a terrible case of the Don’t Wanna’s.

And that’s the issue right there!  It’s not the schedule or the work/writing balance that needs fixing:  it’s my attitude.

So I submit this:  let’s return to my YC-era work mindset — my day job is my paycheck, but my writing is my career.  But don’t forget to have fun as well.

I’ll still dedicate the same time and brain power to the day job, of course.  But let’s also look forward to logging off at the end of the day.

Let’s remind ourselves throughout the work day that, once I’m off the clock, it’s time to go and have some fun!  Let’s look forward to walking around the neighborhood after work.  Let’s look forward to playing in that imagined world for a few hours.  Let’s look forward to having fun with what I love doing the most.

It’s not about trying to do everything at once.  It’s simply a change of attitude.  Look forward to life.  Look forward to that bit of entertainment.  Look forward to that writing time at the end of the day, because you know and I know it’s a hell of a lot of fun, even when it does get frustrating.

Chances are, the payoff will be worth it.

 

Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

 

*  Mind you, I’m not trying to force a thousand words on a nightly basis, because it depends on the project.  I’m working on Walk in Silence but not logging any new words because most of the work has been what I call ‘framing’ the flow of the book.  My sort-of daily 750 Words have been consistently over 750 and flowing quickly, so I can safely say I’m counting the words where they really do count.