April Update – Reading Goals and Writing

Friends,

Today I don’t have a post specific to any one book, because I haven’t finished one in awhile! What I want to accomplish here is a gathering of thoughts to move forward in April.

Officially, my Classics Club personal challenge started on April 1st. Honestly, I don’t feel a huge need to jump into it head-first, and I’ll tell you why: the last two solid weeks I’ve been almost ceaselessly been working on writing a story. I’ve had the idea in my brain since an 8th grade history lesson, and it’s just been floating around in there until now. I never wrote anything down about it before – and I’ve taken it as a sign that it hasn’t gone away yet (after…10 years?). I think I have the skills now to at least begin.

You might think two weeks of solid writing (or as much as you can do with a full time job, a trip to Oklahoma, and general life activities will allow during that time period) will have really gotten me somewhere…and it has, but at the same time, it really hasn’t. Guys, writing is hard. For every question I answer for myself, ten more crushing ones present themselves, and most of the time it seems completely impossible to write this book realistically enough to actually be published. I know I shouldn’t think of publication as my goal, but of course that idea is always floating around in the front of my mind (there seems to be a lot floating around in there…!).

My idea is basically a historical fiction story (but I feel constantly tempted to switch to Fantasy because just the genre distinction would make it so much easier!), including quite an immersion into Native American culture. Think about that for a second, because I didn’t when the idea struck my mind. You want to write about Native American culture, Emma? Which tribe of the hundreds, in which part of the country, at what time period, or will you take fictional liberties, and then what genre will it fall under? What language did they speak, and how are you going to jungle gym around that as you write dialogue and integral plot advancements? What kind of names did the tribesmen have? What was their daily life like, what celebration/rituals did they enact, and how will you write about them with very limited resources avaliable? Who were their friends, enemies, and gods? What was the most important thing to them: survival, family, ‘worship’ of nature, all three, or something else completely? How would different personalities manifest in that type of environment? Ah, you get the picture.

The thing is, most of these questions are really impossible to answer fully, by an amateur like me. I don’t even relish the idea of research at this point – where do I start? I’ve checked out several books from the library that will hopefully help me get started, but I have A LOT of work ahead of me. Every day I ask myself if this story will be plausible, if I should give up and work on something else and come back to it in another couple of years. The thing is, this story will never leave my brain, I know that. I need to get it onto paper in the best way I can, period. Perhaps it will be something I work on for my whole life, and I think I’ll be okay with that. With that said out loud, it’s easier to move forward with some of the details a little fuzzy – okay, so most of the details, and central plot points are fuzzy at this point…sigh.

One thing that really has truly helped me, and will continue to help me as I write this book and many others, I hope, is this blog, maintained by K.M. Weiland. I stumbled across her YouTube videos probably a year or two ago, and I’ve found they really make me look at writing in different ways, and when you’re writing, and especially editing, that’s exactly what you need. I’ve actually purchased her book, Outlining Your Novel, and it has been incredibly helpful as well. So when I say that I’ve been writing for two weeks, I don’t mean I started at chapter one – I started outlining, plotting, and planning my novel. So far, that’s all I have. I’m not worried at all though, in fact, I feel better about the jumble of pages I have right now that I would if I’d tried to start this story from it’s currently unknown beginning.

My plan is to continue panning my story developments, an outlining while I try to start reading some books that will hopefully help me. As of right now, I have a very limited knowledge of Early/Pioneer American History, as I’m sure most of you don’t.

The United States public school system tends to teach about Columbus ‘discovering’ America and the Mayflower in the same lesson – events that took place over 100 years apart and in very different parts of the continent, and Columbus was not even the one who got here first! I think the reason I never got into US History is because it is so clearly skewed by something, I just can’t put my finger on exactly what – shame? We glorify the Native American’s generosity because it makes a great activity to construct pilgrim shoe buckles from construction paper and hand-print turkeys with five year olds for Thanksgiving, and gluttonizing with family, while ignoring the complete disrespect we showed the Native Americans afterward – not to mention the pressure to abandon their lands and utter massacres (of people and food supply) that happened throughout the following two hundred years. Hundreds of languages, cultures, traditions, wisdoms, and natural remedies were lost within a handful of generations, and there is no recovering them – Natives practiced oral traditions and had very little, if any, writing. I need to learn about this time – I need to find a place in this timeline for my story to exist. And yet, do I even bother telling this story when history shows us my characters, or their descendants, survive only to be decimated by manifest destiny? This is why it’s so tempting to create a fantasy – or at least an alternate history. Changing an event (which one, I’m not sure), to alter the course of history where my characters and their descendants will have a chance to thrive. How can I fall in love with them just to have them murdered or starved and humiliated once my story ends? I still have a lot to figure out, obviously – a lot of thinking still to be done.

As far as reading goes, March wasn’t very productive. I listened to a few audio books at the beginning of the month, but I don’t think I’ve done much physical reading at all – it feels like I haven’t anyway. Instead, I keep getting these impulses throughout the day, cravings really, for certain books – Heidi, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Catch-22 – but I’ve found myself sat in front of the computer just after work and then all of the sudden it’s 10 o’clock. First goal of April – less computer time!

I also want to start some research for my story in the form of novels and non-fiction volumes. I started A Journey Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz yesterday on my lunch hour, and I’m really excited to get into it. The premise of the book is to follow the trails of the first European explorers of America, literally and historically. I also want to start James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, which will also fulfill my Classic’s Club challenge – I also own those already, so no excuses, I will start!

I’d also like to read some more poetry this month, though I’m not sure how much of it I will posting about here. Perhaps I will share some of my favorites as I go – I don’t really have a plan. I would like to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, an epic poem written in 1855. This might also give me another perspective on Native American life. I think poetry will be a good focus this month because they’re super portable, and shorter in length than say, a chapter in a novel, so I will be able to focus for shorter periods of time of those and more time on writing and research. Gosh, listen to me bellow about the ‘research for my book’. It’s not glamorous, I assure you, and I will probably do a piss poor job at it, but if I pace myself (through the years), I might come up with something at least coherent. Lord help me.

You guys might not have been waiting on the edge of your seat for an update like this, but it feels good to journal about where I’m at right now, and where I plan to go from here in the short term. Already I feel better, more organized mentally.

I just had the sudden urge to watch The Neverending Story – was that a book first? Anyone know?

Until next time,
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Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – A Reading Journal

Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird by Bird is one of the few books I’ve read about the act/art of writing. Since I was a little girl I’ve had this fantasy in my head of being a ‘Writer’. I never really had a clear vision of it – I didn’t want to necessarily be rich from it, or famous, or be a slave to it at all, I just wanted to be one. When people asked me what I wanted to be, I would usually say a ‘Teacher’, because even then I knew that ‘Writer’ was a difficult career to get into, and an almost sacred one – I didn’t want to say it out loud.

When you finish school, however long you go, you slowly realize a little bit at a time that this is it. This is life, what am I going to do with it? It’s not freeing, like you might think – it’s intensely paralyzing. It’s been several years now since I’ve graduated high school and dabbled in community college, and as I continue to ‘grow up’, I realize there’s nothing stopping me from being a writer, and that in fact, I am one.

I may have a romantic view of ‘Writer’, and I can’t really explain what I mean by that right now – I can’t formulate the idea into words just yet, but perhaps someday I will be able to explain it, but maybe you already understand. When I sit down to write, there is a feeling – like an energy. It’s not when I’m writing everything all the time, but when I’m able to slow my brain and really focus on what I’m putting to paper, there is a ‘fog’ that I slip into, and it’s wonderful.

I think one of my biggest hesitations as a kid, and even until very recently, is that I didn’t think I was very much better at writing than anyone else. I remember a paper I wrote for one of my toughest college classes, Philosophy. The teacher was brutal, and I was really struggling to keep up. I think the one thing that saved me in that class was my essays. I remember one day very clearly getting a paper back that I didn’t have high hopes for – and as I listened to the grumbles of the students around me getting bad news as she handed them back, I wasn’t feeling optimistic. I got an A and a note that went something like this “You are very good at explaining your thought processes through your writing”. I think I was beaming for the rest of the semester. It wasn’t the first time I received praise for my writing, but the class was so hard, and the teacher so picky and specific, that it really meant something to me.

Since then, I’ve had two people who know me on a day to day basis, but don’t know much about me personally – for instance, they didn’t know I kept this blog or even that I’m interested in writing at all – tell me that I should be a writer. The most recent time was three weeks ago from someone who isn’t afraid to speak the truth. Friends of mine note some of my characteristics as having an extensive vocabulary (though I don’t think I have one), and generally being good at wording things (also – grammar police). I get asked A LOT how to say something through a text message for example. These things of course, don’t make me a writer, but they are flattering!

What makes me a writer, I think, is my mentality, and my desire to write. I don’t always actually sit down to do it (after all, in this world we live in there’s only about a billion other things to be doing at all times, and writing isn’t exactly something you can multi-task), and I have very little work, and none of it completed to show for it, but I’m always thinking of stories in my mind, always daydreaming another scene, more characters, another situation – and they’re there, waiting to be put to paper, when they’re ready.

Bird by Bird

I read this book on high recommendation from Mabel at Maple & A Quill. I also recommend her post about this book, which an be found here.

At first I was skeptical, because Anne Lamott is a little ‘out there’ in the beginning. It seemed a little bit like she was trying to be funny or witty or something – maybe she’s just overly-confident. Luckily, it’s not like that the whole way through, although it does fade in and out frequently; after I’d read about 50 pages I realized that it actually was funny (usually), and I relaxed about it a bit (the mood you go into something with radically effects what you get out of it).

What matters is that ultimately, I respect her opinions on the writing process. She has the same outlook I do, on most points. Find your characters, spend time with them, and plot and conflict will come on its own. As I shared in my goodreads progress update, no matter how stupid/crazy/ridiculous you’ve felt about your first draft of anything, this girl has felt worse!

I found many ideas from this book helpful and inspiring. The one inch picture frame, for example (although I didn’t understand this at first, I came to realize what she meant in context): focus on one element, and write as much as you can about it; or as I interpret it, write an idea from another perspective. For example: what would the narrative of your dinner party be like from your dog?

She also calmed my nerves about one of the stories I’m currently developing. I’ve got a handful of characters in mind, and no ultimate plot. I’m not sure where its ‘going’. I’m not sure where it will climax. I’m not sure if any of the events I have in my brain right now are the right ones, if they’re realistic, or if I’m forcing them to happen. I don’t know anything yet, except five characters of varying importance and a strong desire to write about them. Apparently that’s all you need.

Honestly, I think I liked Mabel’s blog about it better than the actual book, and that happens sometimes. Although I didn’t really ‘click’ with this book, I’m glad I read it. There was quite a bit of valuable advice for aspiring writers, it was quick to read, and mostly uplifting. As Lamott says at one point in the book, writing is about telling the absolute truth about things, it’s what connects us as humans – finding similarities in someone else’s story to our own, something we can relate to.

Until Next Time,
Emma