The Writing Life – Whatever it Takes

330am

Happy New Year!

Early October had me leaving Atlanta with the clothes on my back to reach Jacksonville in time to evacuate my parents from what was supposed to be a Cat 4 hurricane grinding up the coast. Two hours south of Atlanta I received a call asking me to be a Team Lead for a different company – a gig that would put working me in Jacksonville for a while at least. So, I said yes. After a crazy evacuation, I began that assignment, only to have it finish two weeks later. However, by then, I’d had another offer for a long-term opportunity that would allow me to sleep in my own bed for the foreseeable future. I took it.

Then we launched into the endless holidays. All the three and four-day weekends filled with either a backlog of chores not done while I was constantly away or holiday preparations at my house and my parents’. This was the first holiday season for them in their “new” house and the first for me at mine for several years.

All good stuff but meant none of my “free time” got me any further on my writing projects.

I was so long-term exhausted after months of running full-tilt and then the 12 hour/7 day Team Lead phase that I was falling asleep at 7 p.m. – which meant I was waking up around 3 a.m. Once mind and body had recovered, I realized that, with my new job and new life at home, getting up to write at 3:30 a.m was really my only option AND completely DOABLE!

And so, that’s exactly what I have been doing. It’s still nothing like enough time. And my weekends continue to fill up and not provide the larger chunks of time that I need to make this all happen. However, it’s a lot better than nothing and I keep thinking if we can get beyond the extras (backlog of tasks and holiday stuff) I might finally GET an additional 3-4 hour session on Saturdays, and/or Sundays.

So, for me, 3:30 a.m. it is.

Water for Elephants and Self-Determination in Ageing

Water For ElephantsSara Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge (Philadelphians pursue the Loch Ness monster – World War II) debuted this week at No. 12.

That makes it past time I complete this post that’s been simmering in draft mode for months.

I finally read Water for Elephants last winter. I know I’m swimming against the tide – again – but I didn’t really get the excitement over it.

I’ve not seen the movie, but I imagine the potential visuals were a strong driving force for the project. But the main story? Meh. Sorry, I didn’t find it that interesting. It was just a love triangle set in a circus environment. The lesson here might be that great word-crafting and an exciting context still requires a compelling story with compelling characters. Of course, the book received endless 5-star reviews. So what do I know? But I find it interesting that the critical movie reviewers complained that the two lovers lacked chemistry on screen. There might have been any number of causes: the acting? the directing? the screen play? the editing? But, I found the same problem in the book. The characters didn’t make me care and so I wasn’t convinced all the drama was worth it.

However – really big however – the circus story is narrated by the main character, now a nursing home resident. This character – present-day Mr. Jacob Jankowski – made an immediate, deep and lasting impression on me.

At 90+years-old, Jacob is fighting for self-determination. His nurses are kind and do their the best for him. They are trying to keep him out of trouble; keep him from danger. But he longs for freedom and he proves that he is capable of much more than they are comfortable with. No doubt they have residents with varying abilities, and so, like all institutions, they must standardize and systematize, reducing everyone to a lower commonality or else they would be undone. But Jacob clings to every last bit of control he can grasp.

The Take Away – I am helping my parents make the continuous adjustments that come with growing old: Dad no longer drives. Mom got rid of all their glassware. Throw rugs are gone – taken up to prevent falls. And now we are working to get them moved from ten hours to ten doors away. Water for Elephants sent up all sorts of flashing lights for me – not circus lights, warning lights. And they continue to flash every time I am about to make a decision that affects my parents’ lives: Am I making a decision for them based on my own preferences? Is this choice something they can and should still make for themselves? What do THEY want?

Jacob constantly reminds me: Let them have a say in every possible decision. There will be enough, and increasingly, fewer choices for them. Stop first and consider: Is this a question of danger in any way? If mom wants her new walls painted marigold when I would use a cooler color – what’s that to me?

Find every opportunity to let our elders retain their self-respect and determination.

– Recommended

Would I read more from Ms.Gruen? You bet.

Time Management and the Disordered Life – Update #1

Must Keep Writing!

10,000 new words in six days! Whew. Mostly rubbish but something to work with. I’m trying to set short-term goals based on what looks possible within the next chunk of time. Those six days were spent away from home, helping my parents with their move. While I am with them, we have a standing agreement that I spend my mornings working on my writing. I am often able to squeeze additional time (mostly reading, research and social media) into the evenings.

I’d set myself a minimum of 1500 words/day while there – see here – enough pressure to keep me focused but not so much to make failure inevitable. I’m not sure of the exact final count because I often delete chunks of in-line notes along the way. But I definitely averaged above my 1500 word/day goal.

Now I am home again – for about a week. This time must include unloading and finding room for the belongings I always cart south by truck and small trailer on these trips; quarterly and 2014 tax paperwork, phone calls regarding all of the preparation needed to establish Mom and Dad in their new home: new doctors, Invisible Fence estimates, lawyers; buying paint for their “new” house, the usual personal catching up (laundry), and, if the weather will allow, some exterior painting on my own house.

So, my next short-term goal is: a minimum of 500 words/day on the manuscript (blog posts don’t count!) and putting together some reference lists that I feel I need to finally tackle. I’m at the point in my scribbles where placeholders for the names of minor characters, major articles of clothing, architectural terms, etc, are slowing me down. One can only have so many Whosywhatsits, So&Sos and thingamajigs in a manuscript before going nutso.

Time Management and the Disordered Life

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

Day job, family, (laundry, errands, bills, stray cats and trying to move aging parents to new home), news headlines, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, real life relationships – everything conspires against our creative arts. This past week, with 20x more discretionary hours available than usual, I lost focus. I meandered down every possible rabbit hole. A lot of it was good – I’ve learned about marketing, how to use Twitter, found new resources and finished some research – but I didn’t add one word to my manuscript. I floundered.

Today I’m packing to head north again and wishing I’d used this week at home more effectively.

My life goes from 95% externally structured (when on an adjusting gig) to negligible external structure (between gigs). I have been self-employed most of my life so I am adept at self-structure and motivation. But from time to time even I fizzle out.

So, in an effort at self-help, I’ve added a special page to this blog to track my challenges in focus and productivity. I’ll keep it separate from this main feed in order to not clutter it up. Since technically it won’t scroll like a blog, I will continually update the page text and see if that works. It will include periodic reviews of how I am doing, plus observations, tips and resources to combat this struggle. I can’t promise there will be no pity parties.

I’m calling it Creative Accountability. We’ll see if it works.

Collateral Damage

The Shepherd's Song

Ever wonder about those poor peasants who are always raped, pillaged or wholesale deported to foreign lands?

I do.

I love reading historical fiction about movers and shakers; kings and queens whose passions turn the wheels of history. But every time a village is burned and the women and children are dragged off by their hair I think, what about them?

They are the red shirts of history.

Maybe I identify with them. Since childhood, I have read about historical upheavals and wondered, how do the regular folks survive? How did people get on with their lives during the bombing of Britain? What became of the ethnic Koreans deported to the Kazakh SSR? How do you feed your family when Boko Haram is in the neighborhood?

It is hard enough to hold a steady course when my plans are derailed by a sudden car repair..

Kings, queens, statesmen – the important people – are fascinating because they have choices and their choices affect the rest of us. Writers like Sharon Kay Penman and Hilary Mantel get into their heads and humanize them so we can imagine great moments in history through their personalized visions. But from my little person’s view I’m drawn to those who have to constantly adjust to a world not of their own making. Writing my novel is an exercise in answering this question: how does the baker, the miller, the foot soldier, the dairy maid, the sailor navigate this volatile world?

Hooked on History II

Roman Main Street

The rest of the story. Originally posted on my Long Ago & Far Away blog in August of 2013:

It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?

The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?

It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.

I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.

That was in 1993.

My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was, though, compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)

Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!

About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.

What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.

I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?

Hooked on History

Two Men in Osh

This was originally posted to my Long Ago & Far Away blog in August 2013. I thought I should include it on this site since it explains how I came to this adventure:

Most people can testify to at least one teacher who made an otherwise dreaded subject come alive. I had several excellent English teachers but already enjoyed literature and drama. History required a master storyteller. I’ve forgotten his name but he made American History sound like it had happened to him. Last week. He knew all these tidbits and side stories that were not in the text book. He transformed a dull, irrelevant topic into entertainment for junior high students. This miracle might qualify him for sainthood.

But my true love of history occurred much later. Why are so many of us hooked on history only after we reach adulthood? I think it is then that we ask new life questions. It’s no longer, “Why can’t I borrow the car?” but rather, “Why do people behave this way?” Or, for me, “What happened here?”

I became interested in Christian history around 1987. I was back to church after several years of distraction (college) and wanted to understand the development of my own traditions and theology. I’d been taught the Bible since I was a child but wondered how we got from those stories to the present. At the time, I was a temp word processor for a major corporation. Work was slow so I brought in reading material. On my desk sat, Here I Stand (a bio of Martin Luther), and a stack of Puritan history books. People kept asking me if I was taking a course. They were mystified when I confessed I was reading for pleasure.

My next phase came when I moved to London. Try to walk around London for a day and not long to spend the rest of your life exploring every layer of the past hidden in each cubic inch of that soil. So, for the next few years, I devoured British history. I lived in the East End surrounded by Bengali, Pakistani and Somali immigrants and I built deep friendships with many of the women. Over time I became fascinated with early Islamic history. I asked the same questions of Islam that I’d asked of my own faith – where did this come from? How did what I saw in 1990s London come from what happened in the seventh century Near and Middle East?

Meanwhile, I had been a painter, a theatre designer, and an inner-city community worker. The accessibility of London gave me opportunities to travel: Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the newly dismantled USSR – every location steeped in stories. Can you stand in the open air markets of Fez, Morocco or Osh, Kyrgyzstan without feeling you’ve just experienced time travel? Without imagining the sights and sounds of a thousand years? I found a new love for old travel books – stories of The Great Game and intrepid Victorian women – but writing, of any sort, was not on my radar.

Not yet.