My Home in Estes Park

I recently read a magazine article which was primarily about the subtle joys of retirement.  Her point was that, while it was hard to become accustomed to determining her own use of time, she found it to be a great wonder in her life.  I agree with that wholeheartedly, both the difficulty of getting used to it and the joy it brings being truly the captain of my fate, as it were.  But something she wrote got me to thinking.  One of her greatest joys now that her children have grown and she’s no longer employed is that she does not have to be home at any given time, nor stay home.  Her life, now, can be and is spent away from home, in the great world.

For me, however, the entire purpose of retirement, the delight I gain in not having a paid job, is that I can stay home.  I have always liked home best, enjoyed the freedom of doing what I wished inside the cozy, private space of my own domain, taking care of my house and possessions, working on my computer, reading, sewing, needlepointing, even watching TV, enjoying the antics (even if they are mostly asleep) of my cats.  I still arrive back at my house, put my car away and close the garage door with a feeling of safety, security and joy.  I’m HOME!  I remember how glorious that feeling was when I was working, but it still lives in me every day.

So I’m curious.  What about the concept of  home can be to me such a welcome refuge, but to others more a prison?  Perhaps for the writer mentioned above, her time at home had always been spent dealing with, picking up after and mothering children, cleaning the space, figuring out what to have for dinner, and much more.  It could very well have been a place where there was no leisure, no self-determination, no feeling of refuge.  It could very well have been a place where the writer simply had more and even harder, perpetual work to do.  I have heard from women, particularly women with small children, that leaving home, getting out of the house, is like being released from a particularly noisy, messy and sticky jail.  I didn’t have children, so that aspect of life at home was not at issue.  But I was married, once, and sometimes the presence of a husband seemed to loom over me.  My home, my rooms, weren’t really mine.  I was fortunate because our house had a small basement room that I used as a sewing room and (later on) a refuge from my marriage, and I suppose it served as an emotional release valve.  Since he never went in it, my husband didn’t comment about its tidiness or lack of same or the ways in which I stored and organized my projects there.  But I have clear memories of him going through the living room and rearranging ornaments so that they were militarily square with the edges of the surfaces they were on.  I remember quite clearly how that drove me quietly crazy.  I remember, too, that he once made an entire day’s discussion (lecture) over the fact that I had forgotten I already had gelatin and continued to buy packages of it until I had over 20 packages.  Of course he was right and I didn’t buy gelatin again throughout the course of our marriage (that’ll show him), but what irritated me is that he was spending his time going through MY kitchen cabinets.

Now, from his point of view, of course it was also his house and he had a perfect right to take an interest in it and make his stamp upon it.  (It should be noted, he had his own room that he called his dressing room that I didn’t enter except to clean, so there was a kind of parity.  It should also be noted that we had similar tastes (not, obviously, for gelatin).  Also, he was old-fashioned in some ways and thought that the decoration of the house was up to me.)  So I didn’t make an outsize fuss because I did know he had a right to live in our home just as I did.

But I have to admit that I didn’t miss living with him when we divorced.  How lovely to live in my own place where I could have as many packages of gelatin as I wanted in my cupboards.  (Oddly enough, I don’t buy it any longer, don’t seem to want to eat gelatin salads.)

Robert Frost's Farm

Robert Frost's Farm (Photo credit: StarrGazr)

So perhaps my concept of home, as is the writer’s first mentioned above, is doing what we want to do in our own space, whether that is cocooning (me) or spending most of the time outside of it (her).  There are a great many concepts of home, I think, ranging from my own utter sense of refuge and welcome and gladness to the home-as-prison feeling, where the home is just a house, just a place to put possessions and (occasionally) sleep.  Robert Frost once said, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  He was talking, I think, more about family than a physical space, and he has a good point.  When I was a little girl, we moved often, because Daddy changed jobs about every other year.  He always said that “home is where the heart is.”  Again, he wasn’t talking about a physical space, but an emotional place of welcome.  Until his death, I was always completely secure in that emotional loving space.  Later in my life, the specific house got more important, I admit, to my sense of being home, because the emotional center left when he died.

On the other hand, however, the concept of home can’t really be encompassed by four walls and a floor and a roof.  My sense of home now comes deeply because I have returned home, home to the mountains of Estes Park.  My home still is the refuge that shuts out the cold and snow and the demands of the outside world, but my home is also and always the mountains surrounding the Estes valley, the sense of peace and joy that coming back to the place I was raised always gives me.  When I lived in Los Angeles, my sense of home was truncated because I didn’t really like it there, and I kept trying to imagine the house that would make it all right.  That never worked.  My sense of home in Los Angeles became my friends, not the places they lived, but the connections among us that made living in a big city less lonely.  New York, well, Manhattan, was home immediately.  I fell in love with it and made my neighborhood my home (this was of course facilitated by the fact that New York apartments, unless one has pots of money or rent control (neither of which I had), are small, cramped and usually face north for some reason.  So my sense of home expanded to include my block and the public spaces I had the great good fortune to live next to (Central Park and  Lincoln Center).  But now, home is Colorado, or at least that part of it from Denver to the continental divide in which my small town nestles.

Cloudy Afternoon Over Central Park, New York City

Cloudy Afternoon Over Central Park, New York City (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

And one last comment.  Let’s face it, a home would be a prison, by definition, if we couldn’t leave it.  Which is what, I think, the writer I first mentioned above still felt after years as the mother, wife, housecleaner, “chief cook and bottle washer,” as my mother would have said.  Just let me out of here.  Come to think of it, I wouldn’t feel my great joy in coming home, in closing all the doors behind me and feeling safe and enclosed, if I hadn’t, after all, been out in the great world.  In all things, it is the contrast that points up the value.

The Secret to Writing

First, there is more than one.  But there are few.  So this should be a rather short post.

The primary secret to writing is to write.  A lot.  Many many words.  Often.  I think we have all known bright, interesting people who are convinced that the Great American Novel hides somewhere in their minds.  But unless the GAN actually makes the trip from inside the mind to on the page, it really doesn’t exist.  Writing is like any kind of performance, it requires talent, opportunity and rehearsal.  We may be intrigued by the possibility of competing on Dancing With the Stars or The Voice, taking a bow for an Oscar-winning role, appearing onstage at the Met or Carnegie Hall, receiving a standing ovation for a rendition of Mendelssohn‘s First Violin Concerto (or, for that matter, for a soulful solo of “At Last”).  (Or maybe that’s just me.)  But, let’s face it, without a combination of chance, ability and practice, the only thing any of us would be able to do if we found ourselves onstage at Carnegie Hall is to blush and sidle off stage right.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...

Carnegie Hall--Image via Wikipedia

Native talent is something that we can do little about–it either exists in us or not.  (Although I believe we each of us have more talent, more talents, than we have ever explored or will ever have time to explore.  And there is something to be said for the notion that talent may be another word for desire, for love of the thing.  So it’s not something to worry about.)

Opportunity can be iffy.  If you want to be an astronaut, apart from the training and the scientific and physical abilities you must demonstrate, you have to realize how few slots open up each year.  That’s simply a given.

But rehearsal?  Now, that’s something we all can do, each in our various areas of desire.  All the time.  Every day, in some way.  Keep a journal, start a blog, Write poetry, songs, short stories, novels, words on a screen, as many as you can.  To be a writer, write.

The second secret to writing is to read.  In my friend’s blog, Sharon Sings and Writes, she tells us the many ways in which she organizes her life to make it possible for her to read what she wants and needs to read to help her enhance her writing.  I do many of the same things, skimming through articles, discarding those that aren’t ‘speaking’ to me, choosing books and magazines carefully.  But I read almost to the point of addiction (oh, well, actually, far past that point) every day.  I read when I’m eating (alone), when I’m watching TV (except for Downton Abbey and The Good Wife), when I’m taking a bath (I wish they’d create waterproof books–far too many of mine have wavy edges after an unexpected dip in the tub), when I’m doing chores, and sometimes while I’m writing (this is not easy).  I read the newspaper, magazines, articles on the web, books (books for research, books for enjoyment, books for knowledge, and novels, novels, novels).  I hope you love to read.  Very few writers who love to write hate to read.  And, by the way, if you are writing without loving it, there is very little point.

The third secret to writing is to learn how.  Writing practice and reading as much as you can are key here, but there is also formal learning.  Learn the structure of our language, learn how to write a sentence, a paragraph, an essay.  Read books on writing, such as “Bird by Bird” and “On Writing”. Learn syntax and grammar, punctuation (a fun way to do this is to read “Eats Shoots and Leaves“), and spelling.  Yes, even in a Spellcheck world, you need to know how to spell.  Spellcheck does not pick up everything.  Take classes in composition as well as in creative writing.  Constructing a non-fiction article requires using detail and evidence rather differently than you do in fiction, essays or poetry.  Learn how to touch type.  Unless you are Anthony Trollope, you will probably do your writing on a computer.  While Hildy Johnson in “My Gal Friday” managed quite well using two fingers, touch typing is a lot faster.  And you don’t want the mechanics of getting the words out to interfere with the flow inside your mind.  Learn formats.  In other words, learn the rules of your trade.  You may then break those rules at your pleasure, but you can’t break rules unless you know what they are.  Remember, Picasso knew how to draw.

The fourth secret to writing is to figure out what you want to write, why you want to write, and how.  Not everybody wants to write for publication.  If you wish to write for your own enjoyment, have at it!  And find a writing group specifically designed for expression.  But if you do want to write for publication, first, learn to cope with criticism.  Hopefully you will receive the kind known as ‘constructive criticism,’ that only hurts when you breathe.  But you will have to deal with criticism in one way or the other even if the only person who ever reads your work is your mother. Second, find out what markets there are for what you want to write.  Writer’s Digest can help you here; it is an invaluable resource for the writer for publication.  This magazine will help you learn how to find the market, how to present your work, and how to handle the business end of being a writer.  It will also help you improve your writing with prompts, contests, and articles about specific writing issues.  I can recommend it wholeheartedly.  And if you want to write screenplays, realize that nobody, NOBODY, will read your work if it isn’t in proper format.  This is as the laws of the Medes and the Persians.  Even if you’re the brother of the producer’s nephew’s girlfriend’s nanny, which is as close as most of get to nepotism in a most nepotistic Industry, you won’t get it read unless it looks like a screenplay, reads like a screenplay, is as long as a screenplay should be, and uses camera directions properly.

Summer reading, 2011.

Summer reading, 2011. (Photo credit: revbean)

The fifth secret to writing I may have mentioned.  Write.

And, finally, note I did not entitle this blog post “The Secret to Publishing.”  My list of published writings is so slim that if you blink while reading them, you’ll miss them.  And none of them would you find on Amazon.com.  Ahem.  So that’s a secret I’ve yet to crack.  Anybody out there who’s figured that one out, please do not hesitate to let us all know.  Happy writing.

The Great American Novel -

The Great American Novel - (Photo credit: unprose)

A Study in Sherlock

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...

Image via WikipediaImage via Wikipedia

Not precisely as writing avoidance, but certainly as a part of my, ahem, research into writing, I have been re-reading the entire Sherlock Holmes canon.  The one by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that is.  To round out the experience, my local (Denver) PBS station is very kindly re-broadcasting last season’s “Sherlock,” an update of Holmes’ adventures set in 21st Century London and starring, wait for it, Benedict Cumberbatch (a name I keep wanting to recite, somehow, as “Bumbershoot,” which I think is an English appellation for “umbrella”), who does make a particularly nifty Sherlock.  I am also reading (us compulsive readers never read merely one book at a time) Laurie R. King‘s latest in her series on Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes, entitled “Pirate King”.  I also plan to see the new Robert Downey movie in which he plays Sherlock and I always record and later watch the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, also on PBS.  Here are images of Mr. Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett.  I found a picture of Sir Arthur, but could not, apparently, upload it.

Sherlock Holmes

Image by twm1340 via FlickrImage via Wikipedia

I am relishing all of these excursions into Sherlockia, as I believe it is called, and I’m exploring, today, just why.  Reading the original stories would seem to be an exercise in nostalgia, with stories that were original when they were written, but that seem quite familiar now.   Even so, they are good stories, set well within the characters of Lestrade, Holmes and Watson, and with twists that seem organic and yet rather astonishing (if you, like me, have a tendency to forget plots over time, you have the pleasure of reading a “new” story each time you open a book, no matter if you’ve read it before).

Certainly the setting appeals — London in the smoke, the sound of horse-drawn cabs, men in frock coats and top hats, women in sweeping skirts, rain, fog and gaslight.  Somehow in the new Cumberbatch series (if I use his name long enough, I’ll remember it and NOT Bumbershoot), they have managed to get across the “now” of London, truly a world-class, brilliant city, and yet evoke the original setting of the stories, for which I salute them.  So that’s another reason.

But I think it’s the character of Sherlock Holmes that is so compelling.  No matter how it is interpreted, from the original stories to Basil Rathbone, to Brett, Downey, and Cumberbatch, the character is sui generis — the world’s first and only consulting detective.  And of course it is not only his excellences that appeal, but also his more problematic traits.  The interpretation of those traits make the character of Holmes endlessly interesting, as if he were a real person.  Is he a misogynist?  Well, perhaps Irene Adler would not agree, and Laurie R. King has married him off to her creation, Mary Russell, so something else seems to be going on here.  Is he an addict?  Even Dr. Watson was not sure of that, but was sure — and this seems likely — that the thrill of the chase was Sherlock’s addiction, much more than cocaine.  But just imagine these days, as a writer, creating a series character, one’s hero, with a substance abuse problem.  It is done, of course, but then the book ends up being about the substance abuse.  For Doyle, it was a concern, yes, but a sidebar.  Sherlock’s skills overcome all such problems.  I have read that Doyle, as a medical student, had a teacher who used — actually created — all the techniques Doyle later ascribed to Sherlock and who was the inspiration for the character.  Perhaps somebody reading this knows the name of that man and can let me know it.

What does this have to do with writing, or any other possible focus for this journal?  Just this:  for me as a writer, the importance of Sherlockia, apart from the sheer enjoyment of watching and reading, is that the creation of an original, fascinating, intriguing character is paramount.  I don’t know whether there are only seven basic plots, as some have stated, or 36, which others tell me, but the characters a writer creates can be limitless even while they are bound by the realities of human nature, as limitless (and as bound) as each human being on the planet.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character in Sherlock Holmes that will live as long as people read or watch filmed entertainment.  Something to aspire to.

Oh, and on another topic entirely, here in Estes Park, we are all quite giddy — the wind has dropped.  After what feels like weeks, even months, the wind has died down.  Calloo callay!

Random Thoughts on Writing

Faced with a blank screen, I’m reminded of all the frustrated thoughts writers have about the process of writing; or as so often happens, the process of not writing.  Entire books have been written about this. I often think that, no matter what a writer may be blocked from writing, he or she can always think of things to say about not writing.

I have loved words in a row since I can remember and I can’t actually remember ever learning to read them.  By the time my memory formed well enough to give me some continuity, I simply read, anything and everything my parents provided and anything I could manage without their knowledge or (sometimes) permission.  I have always spent as much time reading as the world would allow me, even at times holding a book with one hand while I cooked or made the bed or did other chores with the other.  As a character says in a Robert Heinlein novel, “The Number of the Beast“, I would “read when I’m sleeping if I could keep my eyes open.”  Only one exception exists — while I can read in airplanes and trains, I cannot read in an automobile.  I get carsick.  Very carsick.  I think it has something to do with the horizon line, but in any event it used to be so bad I couldn’t actually read a billboard (remember them?) while the car was moving.  Better now, or perhaps there are just fewer billboards.  I will read almost anything, although I am embarrassed to admit that my pleasure in what is considered “good” literature is pretty minimal.  Still haven’t gotten past the third page of “Ulysses” or the second page of “War and Peace“, but I’ve read every novel John D. MacDonald ever wrote.  Twice.

What this has to do with writing is obvious — a lot of compulsive readers turn to writing sooner or later.  Sometimes it’s as simple as “gee, I can do that,” sometimes it’s more along the lines of “well, I could do better than that with one hand tied behind me,” and sometimes it’s just that one thinks one is going to run out of reading material unless one creates one’s own.  In my case, I suppose it was a combination of all three, mostly the first and the third.  Although another impetus was all the non-fiction writing I’ve done in schools over the years.  (It used to be my boast that I could do a 30-page research paper, with quotes, footnotes, and a coherent narrative, from a standing start in a little over 24 hours, using only materials I could find in a two-hour search in the library.  And that was before Wikipedia, of course!)  And after working for lawyers, legalese simply pours from my fingers onto the screen without in any way engaging my brain (or anybody else’s, undoubtedly).  So words on a page is easy.

What isn’t easy is words on a page that make sense, lead somewhere, create interesting characters doing interesting things for interesting reasons, that have a point and that keep people reading not because it’s just Gail maundering on again, but because the narrative is so compelling.  That’s hard.  And unlike some blessed writers (whom I’m sure have their own difficulties), in order to approximate this I must rewrite and not just once or twice and not just to catch typos.  I must plan and outline, I must know where my hero is going before she does (or he), or she’ll never get there.  So sometimes looking at a blank screen makes me think about all the reasons for not writing.

Some of them are outside the writing process itself.  There is absolutely nothing like being faced with writing work to do to make cleaning the oven or sorting the pantry or doing the laundry intensely attractive — and this for a person whose primary claim to domesticity is that I was born here (that’s a quote, by the way, from my writing partner and friend Sharon Goldstein).  I have even gone so far in times past to avoid writing that I would more or less come to and discover that the silver was newly polished and that everything in the Welsh dresser had been washed.  Now this is world-class writing avoidance.

But there are more insidious methods to avoid writing, methods that take place while you are supposedly actually writing, but you’re actually not.  The best and most defensible way to do this is to “edit.”  This means going over past work to “edit” or “copyedit” or “improve” it.  It means placing commas, putting brackets around things to deal with later, rewording sentences that aren’t quite just exactly right, going back and removing the editing you’ve just done.  Every writer, even the occasional writer of a presentation or a school paper, will recognize these ploys and many others.  You can spend several hours “not writing” in this fashion and still feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Another favorite ploy, which works especially well when you haven’t yet written down a word of your great American novel, is “research.”  If you do it right, you can make “research” substitute for actual writing for weeks at a time.  After all, if you’re going to write a book about, say, the Arapahoe tribe’s use of Estes Park as a summer hunting ground, why, then, you’ll have to make a pilgrimage to the Estes Park Historical Museum, to the Estes Park Public Library, and then, just to be thorough, you should undoubtedly hike in the areas where the Arapahoe roamed, as it were.  Of course, for those of us like, uh, me, who live in Estes Park, “research” would be better writing avoidance if it were undertaken in some other spot, such as, say, Rome or Paris, or London.  Which is probably why I, for one, have a tendency to write about Rome or Paris or London (especially London).

Another means of not writing is to plan and outline and then tinker with the plan and the outline.  I find that I can do this for, too, for weeks at a time.  And if, later, as usually happens, my outline falls apart under the weight of the words in a row I finally, all excuses exhausted, get down to writing, then obviously I have to redo the outline.  This dance can take care of actual months of writing time.

But the final writing avoidance takes place during the period I laughingly call “rewrite” during which I realize nothing I’ve written except odd bits of dialogue would interest anybody, even somebody in solitary confinement given only my book to read for the rest of his or her incarceration; when I realize that every bit of it has to be redone from scratch.  This is depressing, of course.  (It also is not objectively true — any writer contemplating their own work bounces inexorably from “this is the best thing I’ve ever written” to “this is the worst piece of something or other (words to be supplied by reader) that has ever been written by anybody.”  There is no middle ground, by the way.)  But the depressing part of it is true, and usually leads to putting away the novel for a while, which is the ultimate writing avoidance.

I’m not doing that at this moment, I’m merely trying to get a running start on this blog, so my not reading through and making notes on the latest draft of “World Enough and Time”, written by Sharon and me, with an absolutely vital plot assist from Joe Bays, Sharon’s husband, is defensible for about the next, perhaps fifteen minutes before I’d better get down to it.

Two more random thoughts on writing for today:  One, that the Brightweavings website kept for Guy Gavriel Kay often has posts by the author that are quite illuminating about the process of writing and what the writer’s life is like (he also writes really good alternative universe fiction).  I recommend the site for all readers and writers.

And, finally, one of the great accessories a writer should have are pets, in my case and I recommend them, cats.  Not only are they accustomed to strange behavior on the part of their humans, they are wonderful means of writing avoidance in themselves.  Here are pictures of my two: