Fuel the Imagination: Make Soup

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When the words won’t come.

A former high school student of mine, Kat Frost, posted a photo on Facebook of her working with her jewelry. She makes beaded necklaces, earrings and bracelets. She’s also a writer. In this specific post, she said she was working through writer’s block.

I understand. My response to her was of how I cook, specifically, I chop vegetables, when I’m working through a story.

Storytelling doesn’t stop when I shut off the laptop. The plot and characters continue to live in my head, but I may have lost sight of what to do with them.

I sit at my laptop or over my handwritten paper and wait to jar loose what the story needs, where it should go, who must talk or think or dream. Sometimes continuing to write shakes the ideas free and the story picks up its pace again.

When it’s time to walk away.

Then the time comes when I believe I’ve exhausted all options. I can’t think of one more possibility.

Time to shut down the writing equipment and walk away. At this point, I move to the kitchen.

It’s time to make soup.

Cooking does it for me.

I enjoy cooking. My mother cooked in country clubs and restaurants. Everything from contemporary American meals to traditional Slovak cuisine to leftovers, my mom created delicious meals. Maybe it’s in the DNA, but her children know how to cook as well.

I didn’t realize right away what I was doing whenever I decided to stop writing to make soup.

I thought I was chickening out, escaping the challenge of completing the story. Here I was getting up from the writing rather than sticking with it until I had worked out the flaws or gone beyond the white space.

Now I know that though I leave my desk, my story stays with me as I chop vegetables, dribble oil in a hot pan, drop in sliced onions and minced garlic.

I don’t run away from my story. It’s right there in my imagination. Working itself out.

Tricking the brain.

No science data here just a feeling.

The right brain is the creative side. It needs freedom to move around and express itself. The left side is about regimentation. It wants to work out the details, go over the arguments again and again, nag at me to eat, to sleep, to go do something.

When the left brain is so engaged, the right creative brain is weakened.

If I do something that the left side can dominate, it won’t pay attention to the right side making its way through its creative processes.

I trick my brain into thinking it’s making soup. By keeping it occupied doing physical, structured work, my creative side can do its own thing without interference.

When my story character is in a real jam. When the chapter fits on the outline but has no business in the story itself.  When any other situation has me staring at the page, writing and deleting the same lines. When I get stuck and the talk in my head isn’t story as much as it is brain talk. I stop.

My imagination has gone on a break. It’s taken a walk. Faded into the sunset.

While cooking, my brain’s preoccupied with food details. Its focused on peeling, slicing, cubing and mincing. It glories in knowing the oil must get hot enough before adding the first vegetable, then the second, then the next.

When my brain is otherwise engaged in the menial tasks of food preparation, the imagination runs freely. The elements of narrative, plot, conflict tumble around and around, shaking out details and possibilities.

The story figures itself out because nothing is stalling it. I’m not getting in the way of the creative process.

I go back to the writing with renewed ideas.

And, later, soup.

 

“I don’t sit around waiting for passion to strike me. I keep working steadily, because I believe it is our privilege as humans to keep making things. Most of all, I keep working because I trust that creativity is always trying to find me, even when I have lost sight of it.”  ~Elizabeth Gilbert

 

*All images are my own unless otherwise noted.

 

 

 

 

 

Ninja Cats

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My Charges: Sprite and Merlin.

One of my favorite opportunities to surround myself in my writing and the business of writing is when I house- and cat-sit for family. For the last eight days, I have been watching two identical brothers, Sprite and Merlin. It is the first time their people have left the kittens alone for more than a few hours.

I keep a brief journal for the cats’ people. Nothing fancy just when they eat, whether they played, if they did something memorable.

These two clowns, sweethearts, entertainment centers drew out of me a different sort of journal. From Day One to Day Eight, I marked their process of getting to know me. They still remain hesitant to eat while I am in the room, which, in the end, bothered me more than it bothered them.

They’d rather play Ninja.

Day 1: Our people have abandoned us.

10 am: All is quiet. We are exhausted in our abandonment.

1 pm: I, the bravest of the brothers, stand at the top of the stairs but within one small leap from my people’s bedroom door. I see her walk past the bottom of the steps as she enters the kitchen. I say nothing though she smiles at me. I dash back into my people’s room.

We must not be seen. We are now Ninja cats.

2:30 pm: I hear her moving about, throwing away the one can of food she’d divided for each of us, my brother and me. She put it in our bowls for breakfast but we have ignored her attempts to get us to come downstairs, even with food, even with bad singing.

8 pm: She’s replaced the afternoon morsels that we didn’t eat with a mere teaspoonful in each bowl. When she is out of the kitchen we eat it up. She leaves more food in our bowls before she quits for the night.

Day 2: We have her fooled.

8 am: We left one of our toys in the downstairs bathroom overnight. But she doesn’t know who did it. We also ate up the food she left in the bowls when she went to bed. We Ninja cats need our energy to play all night and hide all day.

5 pm: We stir and slip into the kitchen to eat what wet morsels remain in our bowls. Food is critical for our secret survival here in the house.

8:15 pm: She has spotted us at the top of the stairs. Wait! She’s going for the bench by the door. Oh, my feline goodness, Stick! Stick! The stick with the dangle string is our favorite toy! We are tempted when she waves it on the floor. But we are Ninja. We will not bend.

Okay, we will come down a few steps but only a few. We watch. We don’t engage.

8:20 pm: She has gone into the living room, taking Stick with her. We must not weaken.

8:30 pm: She sits on the couch. Stick and its string dangle over the coffee table.

We will pretend we are playing. We bat at the string and bite the plastic tip of Stick to make her think we are having fun–but we are not.

9 pm: We slip into the kitchen to eat the food in our bowls. Then we slip upstairs to our people’s bedroom where we play loudly the rest of the evening to make her think we are bowling.

Day 3: Not to be enticed.

8 am: We wait until she is out of the kitchen before we eat. But one of us, dazzled by something in the front yard, jumps on the stool and stares out the window. He lingers too long in the open. She barely says “hey there” and we are gone.

2 pm: We must see why she has the TV on. We want Stick but we’ve yet to conquer the bench seat lid. The braver of us goes to the couch where she sits, taps her knee and runs. She is smarter than we think. She releases Stick from the bench and waves it on the floor as we watch from the top of the stairs. We come down and play only until she stands up from her seat on the bench and we are gone.

6 pm: We needed our power naps. Now we are awake and we hear her music where she sits at the desk. From another room in the house, we make a noise as if we’ve tipped over a glass. But when she gets up to investigate, she sees nothing, including us.

She puts a small teaspoon of wet food in our bowls as if that will entice us to eat. We cannot be persuaded. She returns to her desk–none the wiser.

9 pm. She cleans out the dried up food from before and replaces it with fresh. Sometime in the night we eat.

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Day 4: Into the light and the carpet castle.

8 am: She has opened the front door. We are drawn to the sunshine but we do not stay long for she is working in the kitchen. It is daytime, which means we must disappear into our people’s bedroom.

2 pm: She is making a sandwich and will not see one of us as we climb to the top of the carpet castle in the living room in front of the back patio doors. I, the bravest one, play with the curtain as I lie on my back in the sunshine. I slip out when she comes into the room.

3:30 pm: The sun and our carpet castle are too much temptation. We miss them. We slip into the living room and I up onto my top perch. My brother loves the cave. We keep an eye out for her. When she walks into the room, we are gone.

4 pm: She sits on the couch. We enter the living room, but she rises and we run up the stairs. She picks up the garage door opener. Is she abandoning us, too? No, she walks the driveway. We are nowhere to be found when she comes back inside. But she must know we have been downstairs; some of the food that she has placed in our bowls in the morning is gone.

5 pm: She comes upstairs but she does not enter our people’s room but goes into her own sleeping quarters. While she is occupied, we slip to our bowls and see that she has thrown away the older food and replaced with fresh. We are Ninja cats and this is how we eat now.

6:30 pm: She is in the basement, cleaning our three litter boxes. We accept her servicing our area. To show our gratitude, I, the braver one, comes up to her to say hello and let her pet me. My brother stays beyond the litter box area and watches.

In the living room, we hang out on the carpet castle.

8:30 pm: She puts food out but we do not eat until she goes upstairs for the night.

Day 5, 6: We have fun.

8 am: I, the bravest of brothers, enter into her bedroom in the morning. I must be rubbed and scratched. She is good at it. I escort her downstairs. Though I stay in the kitchen while she puts food in our bowls, I don’t eat.

I jump up on the bench. She takes out Stick. We play. We have fun. My brother joins me.

Day 7, 8: We go wherever we want.

8 am: We miss our people but we jump on the bed in her room and say hello. We are petted. We play in her suitcase.

8:30 am: We eat the normal amount of food for breakfast. She seems fine that we do this.

We go wherever we want in the house. We take our naps in the carpet castle. She picks up a bunch of Kleenex we’ve scattered during one of our many romps and puts the box back on the shelf when she cleans our litter boxes in the basement. She props up the framed photos we let fall when we chased each other on the end tables. She readjusts the waste basket in the bathroom and picks up the toy under the unrolled toilet paper.

She wonders when we did all these things. Though we are friends with her now, we are still Ninja cats. We have our secrets.

8:30 pm: She puts the normal amount of wet food mixed with a little dry into our bowls. We eat as soon as she leaves the room.

 

“One small cat changes coming home to an empty house to coming home.”   ~Pam Brown

*Images are my own unless otherwise noted.

 

What Would You Write If You Had No Distractions?

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House sitting is a free writer’s retreat.

I have a wonderful brother who lives in the country and has two cats. When he is gone for an extended time and my calendar can be cleared, I move in. My asking price is a full refrigerator. If I don’t have to get in my car for any reason, all the better.

I’m not an overpacker when it comes to clothes. However, the amount of writing projects, unread writing magazines, even pencils, pens and tech gear makes it look like I’ll be here two months and not ten days.

Taking time to adjust.

The cats seem to be nocturnal. I see them for two hours in the late evening. The mail’s been stopped. No trash pick up. Wow. What freedom. Nevertheless, to be all by myself with no distractions takes a bit of adjusting. Maybe I need to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Maybe I need to text my friends.

I look at my to-do list and select items that don’t take as much of my imagination to accomplish. A list grows of possible literary agencies who may want to represent my fantasy novels. That’s something I can do while I ease into my new self-defined structure.

Proof is in the email.

When someone emails me “How’s it going?” at the end of the second day, I list what I’ve done. He responds, “That’s great.”

I look at my accomplishments. He’s right.

And so it goes.

Today, I am into writing, capturing words for a new story, completing this blog.

Five full days left, and I am in the groove.

 

 

“How can you hear your soul if everyone is talking?”

~Mary Doria Russell

 

*All images are of my own making unless otherwise stated.

 

 

 

Getting Back into the Running

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Floundering.

I admit that I’ve been feeling down.

Sure, writers have to have thick skins. This business is full of rejections, and I’ve received plenty of them this past year. For the most part, I’ve dealt with them well. Shook them off or buried them deep or swept them aside and tried again and again and again to get a short story accepted or get an agent for a novel.

But it has weighed on me.

I wondered about my committment. I wondered if I was good enough. All the same feelings talked about in a million writers’ sites, workshops, retreats and books. I’d like to say I knew how to rise above the slush pile rejection pit and move on.

But no, I’ve stayed a bit long in the blues.

All It Takes is One Good Story.

Then I wrote a short story a few weeks ago and finalized it today. Born out of an idea I had simmering in my imagination.

I shared the good draft of it with my writing critique group. They had valid reactions and smart suggestions.

I rewrote it a few times.

Now it sounds good. Now it reads well.

Submission Sites Ahead.

Time to call up the short story submission sites again. Adapt the story’s format to match the guidelines and send it off.

Will it be accepted? Rejected?

I can’t think about that.

I’ve got to keep on running, oblivious of what may come.

 

“Dance above the surface of the world. Let your thoughts lift you into creativity that is not hampered by opinion.”  ~Red Haircrow

 

*Images: All images are my own unless otherwise attributed.

 

 

 

Crystal Love

IMG-0515“Crystal Love” earned third place in the Dayton Daily News/Antioch Writers’ Workshop Short Story Contest in 2011.

At six, Jade knew the best things were over her head. Candy in the top cupboard. Cookies on the refrigerator. Tiniest toys on her closet shelf. Prettiest statues above the fireplace.

When she saw Grandpa’s step stool next to the armoire in his room, she had to have a climb.

“Be careful,” said Grandpa. “And hand me that old light bulb.” He tossed it in the trash then sat on the bed, breathing heavily.

“Aw, Grandpa. You gotta dust up here,” Jade said. She sneezed a few times to show she was serious but giggled when she lifted an old framed snapshot of him and Grandma making angels in the snow.

“I make snow angels, too,” she said. “Is that you and Grandma? She’s just a girl.”

“She’s the best girl in the world, honey.” Grandpa stared at the tremor in his hands. “I would have given your Grandma the world if she’d let me. But we weren’t rich and never traveled far. Still, we laugh a lot and enjoy our time together.”

Grandpa pushed himself back toward his pillows and leaned against the headboard.

“We loved to take long walks together, especially in winter. Grandma always wishes she could hold winter forever in her hands. To her it is the most romantic time of the year.”

He shut his eyes and folded his hands across his stomach, waiting for his breathing to even out.

Jade put the photograph aside and reached for something else. It was larger than her little fists. And heavy. She knew she would drop it if she tried to carry it in her hands.

She got her fingers around its base and slid it to the armoire’s edge. It was a glass ball but so grimy she couldn’t see anything. She tilted it over and cradled it in her neck.

“Grandpa?”

“Jade!”

Grandpa hadn’t moved so fast in ages. He was off the bed and grabbing the globe from her.

“My god, child, you could have seriously hurt yourself. Now get down off of there. Go see what Grandma’s doing in the kitchen.”

Grandpa sat back on the bed and held the globe in the palms of his rough, steel mill factory hands.

“Grandpa, what is it?”

Balancing the globe on his lap, Grandpa reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a washed-out blue bandana. Like he was bathing a newborn baby, Grandpa cleaned the globe of its dusty film.

Jade waited.

Grandpa?” she whispered.

“Honey.” Grandpa lifted it up. “This is a snow globe. Grandma has loved this globe more than anything. She brought it with her when we moved in here after our wedding. She said her father gave it to her. She keeps it up on that armoire. Once in a while, I see her pick it up and shake it. She gets a little misty-eyed then puts it back.”

Grandpa turned it upside down and right side up again. “See?”

Jade leaned close and watched snow crystals sparkle as they settled over a bare tree and a bench. On a snowy pond, a boy and a girl, both in skates, stand close to each other, about to kiss.

“Who are the skaters, Grandpa?”

“Nobody in particular. Just two people in love. Grandma says it reminds her of us. We never had skates and I once asked her, ‘Do you want to go skating?’ But she just called me silly.”

Jade had better eyes than her grandpa. To her the skaters looked a lot like her grandparents. But she didn’t tell Grandpa that.

“Now, let me put it back.”

 

At ten, Jade stood in her grandpa’s room and stared at the snow globe.

Grandpa came in, drew her close and together they sat on the bed. “I miss her, too.”

He got down the snow globe and gave it a shake. “Look.”

The scene was the same except the girl skater was gone. The boy skater stood alone on the pond. His arms outstretched but no one to hold.

“Oh, Grandpa.”

 

At fifteen, Jade returned to her grandfather’s room.

“Jade?” Grandpa whispered from his bed. “That snow globe.”

No longer needing a stool, Jade reached over the top of the armoire and carefully pulled the heavy glass toward her. She wiped off the dust and shook it, waiting for the snowflakes to fall. The pond and tree were there, but the boy ice skater no longer stood on the pond. He sat on a bench, his chin in his hands.

She brought the globe to her grandfather’s bed.

“Take it” was all he could say.

 

At twenty, Jade unpacked the snow globe from a box. She gave it a shake before placing it in her first apartment.

The boy was gone. Two pairs of skates, their laces undone, leaned on their sides against the bench.

 

At twenty-five, Jade fell in love with Tony. When they moved into their home, Jade carried the snow globe up the stairs and into their bedroom.

Tony saw her give the ball a shake and watched with her as snow crystals floated around the two young lovers on skates.

“Where did you get this?”

“My grandfather gave it to me. It belonged to my grandmother.”

“Funny how they look a lot like us, Jade,” he said. He kissed his bride and left the room.

Jade’s eyes grew misty as she shook the snow globe one more time and gently placed it on the armoire.

“He’s the best, Grandpa. The best boy in the world.”

 

Images. All images are my own unless otherwise attributed here.

 

 

 

 

 

Winter: My Favorite Writing Season

IMG_0110January: Refocus. Move within.

Holidays are as chaotic as they are blissful. December is almost a writing washout for me as days are filled with making lists, checking them twice, fulfilling the merry expectations I’ve set for myself and responding to the ones asked of me by others.

When the last party invitation is met, final batch of treats baked and eaten, when the decorations return to storage, I go to my desk and sigh.

Winter is my favorite season.

The more snowy the weather, the angrier the skies, the better I write and the longer I write.

Why not Good Weather?

In good weather, the days in my neighborhood are filled with walkers, dogs with walkers, bikers, lawn mowers, etc. Cars are off to the grocery, church, wherever. I feel that scurrying.

My best writing accomplishments come when I look up and realize hours have passed when it felt like moments.

Bright sun, dry skies, active creatures can be intrusive. I become a clock watcher, forcing the words to come, anxious for a break. Making up excuses for a break.

Siren Songs.

I’ve come to believe that what is distracting me during good weather seasons is the energy people and critters give off.

Even if I see no one. Windows closed. Blinds shut. The energy waves come through the house and over my desk. Subconsciously, maybe, these energy waves are as distracting as if two people were playing ball in my room.

Siren songs calling me away.

Why Nighttime Works for Many Artists.

During the night, most people quiet down, head for sleep. It’s a time when many writers and other artists do their best work. Undistracted. Using my theory, outside energy waves are tamped, silenced.

Solitude is easier to achieve. Focus is easier to maintain at night.

The same happens to me, but I am not a night owl. Not most of the time. But the idea is the same.

Winter is My Nighttime.

Winter sunlight is cooler, darker.

Even without snow or ice, people are more apt are to be inside, settled into quieter activities from January through early March.

In winter, from morning to noon to evening, my ideas hatch faster. My stories grow quicker. My writing time increases.

My most productive writing season is winter.

 

 

“There is an instinctive withdrawal for the sake of preservation, a closure that assumes the order of completion. Winter is a season unto itself.”                     ~Haruki Murakami

 

 

 

Rejection: The Hard, Cold Emotion

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What Can I Say That Hasn’t Been Said?

It doesn’t take long in the writing business to see what a tsunami of good writers are out there, every one hoping for the same submission approval and/or agent acceptance as I am.

With equal size and volume are the rejections. 

“Thank you for submitting, … ” is the usual opening line of a rejection notice. I see those first four words before I even click open the email. The fifth word is inevitably “however.”

I know what will follow. I know how I’m going to feel.

Bad.

The key is what happens next?

Dealing With the Aftermath.

The first time I heard her advice, I knew it would work for me.

Kristina McBride, author of books for teens with her fourth book The Bakersville Dozen recently out in August 2017, showed her workshop session a stack of papers, about three inches thick. All held together by a very big, heavy paperclip.

What were they? The rejection slips for her first novel.

It looked like at least a hundred rejection notices to me.

And what did she do when each one arrived in her mail? She let herself wallow in self pity.

Within a restricted time limit.

After a day or two of “woe is me,” she went back at it again and again and again.

Feel Bad. Then Move On.

When my work gets turned down, I feel awful. I make up reasons why “they’ didn’t accept it. I argue with myself as to why I keep writing.

I move through the rest of the day knowing how subjective the writing world is and allowing myself to feel bad about being rejected by it.

I take it personally. But only for so long.

No later than a day afterward, I am searching through my list of submission sites and agents. I am sending my stories out again.

If I didn’t, how else will someone have the opportunity of accepting my work?

A Side Bar to Rejection.

I don’t always maintain a steady flow of submitting the same story or manuscript, mindless of the rejections.

After a certain number of “thank you but no thank you,” I pause and reevaluate my novel or short story. Maybe I do need to improve something within the text.

Once I am satisfied with how the story or manuscript sounds and feels, I send it out to more people.

One of my submissions will receive an acceptance.

One of these days, I will be riding the tsunami.

 

“When you’re following your inner voice, doors tend to eventually open for you, even if they mostly slam at first.”  ~Kelly Cutrone. If You Have to Cry, Go Outside: And Other Things Your Mother Never Told You.