When A Writer Gives Up, Part 1

pexels-photo-269451In Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes about the notion of story ideas drifting about in the ether, coming to rest with one writer or another. If given attention, the ideas stay and grow. If not, they eventually move on to a more receptive audience.

I believe this.

More than two years ago, I visited Gettysburg for the first time. If you’ve never been, do yourself a favor and go. If you possess an ounce of sensitivity in your soul, you can’t help but be affected. There’s a quality to the space … the silence … the sense of energy, of presence, behind that silence. Anyone who thinks it’s a boring old bunch of empty fields dotted with memorials is missing the point. Because of that visit, I will never be the same. I’m grateful for that, and can’t wait to return.

At any rate, shortly after that visit, a line of narrative popped into my brain–a description of a minie ball blasting into the abdomen of a young soldier from Maine on the fields of Gettysburg–and I knew I had the idea for my next book.

But I also had an idea for a book of narrative nonfiction about this man I’d met 20 years earlier who spent 30 years lovingly caring for the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity. My research into that book–my tentative forays to locate this gentleman–had suddenly borne fruit, and here I was juggling two ideas.

My first inclination was to go after the Civil War story. But the minute I decided that, I heard–literally heard–a voice in my head say, “If you do that, you will lose the elephant book forever.” And I just couldn’t accept that. I couldn’t risk it. Telling the story of Roger Henneous and his pachyderm family was more important to me. It felt vital. It felt necessary. And, in truth, it felt like a goal I’d been working my way toward my entire writing life.

So I set aside the Civil War story and threw myself into the elephant book. In six months, I had a first draft. A very rough first draft, but at least it had a beginning, middle, and end.  I’ve since lost count, but my guess is the manuscript went through something like six iterations before reaching a point where I could search for an literary agent–happily accomplished when I signed with Bonnie Solow–and begin the ongoing task of offering the book to publishers.

At long last I could turn my eyes toward the Civil War and all the research books I’d collected in anticipation! Except the power of the story had left me. The drive to write it had withered and vanished. I suspect the idea got tired of being ignored and wandered off to a more fertile field, one ready to accept it.

Every now and then I toy with going back to see if I can revive that sense of vigor and excitement, but I don’t know. I may have missed my chance this time. But that’s okay. Something else miraculous occurred.

When Reading Leaves A Bad Taste In Your Mouth

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Photo courtesy of pexels.com

“Milk takes on the flavor of what it’s next to in the refrigerator.”

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you’ve undoubtedly read that quote or something like it more than once. I’d heard it long before King made it known because, like him, I grew up with a mother born and raised in Maine; way up Maine in “The County” –Aroostook, for those of you not in the know — about as far as you can go without becoming Canadian.

As a child, I incessantly nagged my parents to move to Maine. My grandparents were there — well, Pop was there; the one grandparent in four who actually paid attention to me — as well as a plethora of cousins my own age. Back home in New York, I had a grandmother who apparently hated everything in the world except her son-in-law and her boxer dogs, a handful of disinterested aunts and uncles, and cousins all vastly older than me. (When you’re a kid, a gap of 6+ years is vast. We won’t get into the 12+ year difference between me and my sisters.)

But back to the milk.

The saying works because it’s true. Store some chopped onions next to your carton of milk if you don’t believe me. If you’re a parent, you’ve seen the phenomena in your children once they begin school. They go off that first morning, your little kindergarten angel, only to return as Satan having, in the space of a few hours, picked up all sorts of noxious behaviors.

Where I find the truth of that quote applies to me is in the books I read. Assuming they write long and hard enough, each writer develops his or her own voice … or should. If not, there’s a real problem that needs addressing. That being said, writers also “borrow” from other writers.

We’re not talking plagiarism, which is a much bigger issue and should never-ever-ever happen. What I mean is that as you read something, you may find bits and pieces of that other writer’s style slipping into your own work. And that’s okay, so long as you don’t lose yourself in the process. Personally, I don’t mind a dash of Harlan Ellison or Barbara Hambly, Terry Pratchett or Stephen King sprinkled over the top of what I write. Hell, they–and several other writers–have been some of my best teachers on this long road of learning the craft. (You do read, don’t you? I mean something more than blogs or the newspaper? As a writer you must, and if you don’t, shame on you.)

But sometimes that unconscious tendency to borrow backfires.

I’m reading a book right now. It’s new, recently out, and no I won’t give you the title or author. It’s good … I think … although I swing between viewing the protagonist an independent woman and a chronic whiner. But the thing is, the damn story is bringing me down, man. It’s delivering no creative spark, no impetus to go at my own work with renewed verve. Instead, it’s draining me of the urge to write at all. Worse, it’s making me feel old and that, goddammit, is not acceptable. So I’ll be returning the book to the library unfinished, yet to even reach the heroine’s basic conundrum (assuming there is one).

Because, see, I can’t afford to take on that sort of flavor.

How Do Writers Learn?

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Some of the writers who keep me sane and teach me a lot. L to R – Dan Foley, me, John Valeri, Ryanne Strong, Stacey Longo, and Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Writers learn by doing. You can’t be a writer unless you write. For me, this means nearly every day. I may allow myself time off here and there, but it’s bloody rare. Even if part of me wants a day off, there’s another part that craves that ass-in-the-chair time. I need it. To quote Debbie Reynolds in the movie In and Out, “It’s like heroin.” 

Writers learn by reading. Books. Magazines. Blogs. Read great ones. Read good ones. Read those that stink for no other reason than to learn how NOT to do it. In the beginning, you’ll undoubtedly borrow from the writers you like most. And by “borrowing” I DO NOT mean stealing ideas, lines of narrative or dialogue, or their characters. What I DO mean is writing as they do, mimicking their style, their cadence. When we’re starting out as writers, this happens all the time as we hunt for our own singular voice. .As long as this borrowing doesn’t become a life-long habit, you’re okay.

Writers learn from other writers. Join a writers group. Start a writers group. Talk with other writers online. Critique one another’s work. You’ll figure out pretty quickly who knows their stuff and who’s talking out their hindmost quarters. Find blogs and follow them. How? Search and read. Find the ones that resonate with you.

Lately, Jane Friedman has been my guide. I learn something every time I read a post or watch a webinar. This past week, I spent more hours than I care to admit reworking my website, an adjunct page, losing one of my two Facebook pages (because I didn’t really need two–as Jane explained it to me–and don’t have the time or energy both required) and revamping my main one, all to better my focus on what I want to achieve as a writer. The woman knows her stuff.

I think I’m getting there.

What To Do When You’re Angry

Can’t speak for any of you, but when I’m angry, I write. Might meet it head on, might  come at it from behind, might ambush it from the side. Doesn’t matter. I write to bring it out, expose it, maybe even try to make sense of it (assuming there’s sense to be made, which too often isn’t the case).

So this post isn’t about about elephants or writing or ice cream or summer or any of the other things I typically write about.

Because I’m angry.

I’m beyond angry. I’m enraged. I’m also frustrated and horrified  and hands-up-drop-em-down-mind-boggled-what-the-fuck-do-we-do-NOW?

You all know that feeling of evil surprise — that “where the hell did that come from” sensation, like you’ve stepped on the business end of a rake and snapped the handle up ka-POW! right between the eyes. In some ways, I haven’t been this angry since a young woman I barely knew, a lovely girl named Rebecca, died in June 2011

My rage is two-fold.

Yesterday, my brother Gene’s son, Josh, died. The particulars aren’t pleasant, but they aren’t mine to share, and it’s really nobody’s business and it isn’t important anyway except to those who knew him. Suffice to say that Josh’s demons won, dammit to hell. He leaves behind a grieving father and step-mother, four children, friends, and relatives. He drove them crazy. He worried them incessantly and, sometimes, unnecessarily. He refused to believe in his own self-worth. And now he’s gone and there ain’t no coming back from that.

Today, I discovered that a woman I met on Facebook, someone who’s become a dear long-distance friend, has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

She writes: “Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow.
The cause of multiple myeloma is not known. Risk factors for multiple myeloma have not been established although researchers have suggested genetic abnormalities, such as c-Myc genes or environmental exposures, may play a role. The prognosis for myeloma is only fair. Median survival is about three years, but some patients have a life expectancy of 10 years.

Well, darn it.”

Darn it, indeed. Darn it to Hell.

Where To Go For Elephants

Hello, all! I wanted to let you know that I’ve started an adjunct site to this one, focused entirely on elephants and the stories behind my book The Man Who Loved Elephants: 30 Years at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo, which is being offered to publishers by my agent, Bonnie Solow.

Roger pontificating

Photo courtesy of Roger Henneous

Gruff, bow-legged, and whiskey-voiced, Roger Henneous admittedly “suffers fools lightly, and damn fools not at all,” but when it comes to elephants, he’s nothing but a big marshmallow. For nearly 30 years, he served as mother, mentor, teacher, and therapist to the largest breeding herd of elephants in captivity, among them the illustrious Belle–who made history in April 1962 by delivering the first calf born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years–and her equally famous son, Packy.

Belle became special to Roger for a different reason when she saved him from being killed by another elephant. From that moment, the two of them were bonded in a way UC Davis veterinarian Larry Galuppo later described as “incredible.”

At The Man Who Loved Elephants I’ll talk about these stories and more, and share photos from Roger’s days at the zoo. I hope you’ll join me there!

Healing Takes Time

Five days ago was the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death.

I didn’t think of it. Not once that day, or in the days that followed. Not until I was out in the yard this afternoon, watering plants, did it occur to me that the anniversary had passed without recognition.

I think that’s a good thing.

I believe it shows that I have no regrets; that Mom and I did the work together we were meant to do–the healing we were meant to do.

I sometimes wish certain things  had gone differently, but not to the degree that they keep me up at night or induce tears as they once did. Mom forgave me my foibles, and I forgave her in turn. It all worked out in the end.

Thanks, Mom.

*******

Oh, for anyone who’s interested: Virginia Dare Crandall Hersey Limbacher fought a valiant battle with Alzheimer’s during the last few years of her life. I invite anyone involved in a similar journey to check out my other blog: The Wild Ride – Caretaking Mom Through Alzheimer’s. Sometimes it helps to know you’re not alone.

The Joys of Book Promotion

Well, it was a hot day, but the breeze kept it from being oppressive and the beautiful shade tree kept us from overheating. Worst things were a) the mess of tent caterpillars, and b) the second set the band played. Otherwise, it was a fine day on the Colchester Green, promoting reading, Books & Boos Press, and our own creative efforts.

Colchester

Left to right: Terry George, Stacey Longo, g. Elmer Munson, and yours truly. Photo by Jason Harris.