Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you get started? (12/15/08)



Featured writer: Lisa Romeo



Contributors this month:

Arlene L. Mandell
Betty Rodgers
Bree LeMaire
Charlene Bunas
Christine Falcone
David Hoag
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Susan Bono


How Do You Get Started?

by Lisa Romeo

Assignment: 500 words. Topic: getting started. You begin. Stop. Start. Stop. You remember Lorrie Moore*.

First, do something, anything else. Crochet. Sing. Sing while crocheting. Start something else - story, post, Tweet. Fail, miserably. Start a draft. Inner critic laughs, tears it (figuratively, metaphorically?) into a million pieces, shouts Lies! Critic is thinking of unwritten review due yesterday, stalled book proposal.

Think about beginnings. You start, in your head. Dismiss lines, words, syllables. Tell spouse you are writing about how writers get started; spouse laughs. Next day, you start. Tell your mother you are too busy writing to talk.

You start.

You write of keeping small notebooks everywhere - car, bathroom, gym bag - for thoughts, images, ideas. Of having a writing notebook, a three-subject 120-sheeter, where everything, anything happens. Of the time you misplaced it, and no one could start homework or eBay invoices or dinner until it surfaced.

You are warming up. You write about rituals, like fingering a bookmark with the George Elliot quote about never being too late to start. He-he. About centering your computer in the window, thoughtful writer framed in glass. Writing is lonely, you need illusion.

You explain: Don't answer the phone unless it's the school nurse. Only answer editor emails. Don't answer the door to your oldest friend carrying a bakery bag.

Later spouse asks how story/poem/article is going. Glare. Explain that "supporting" your writing precludes asking how it's going. Start again. Shut the door, turn on music, though you prefer silence. You send emails one flight down, indicating story/poem/essay is not going well so you cannot stop, or is going so well you cannot stop; you're unavailable for dinner prep, dinner. You start, re-start, continue to start.

Remind yourself this is the creative process. Always. Starting. Again.

Now, something is on the page. You are happy. You reread, seeing all you have written is a failure.

Start again.

Replace coffee with white wine, reserved for when you have started badly, or maybe too timidly.

There are other methods.

You read writers who matter. You read junk. You stop because another writing voice is too loud in your head. Anyway, while reading is important, vital, you must eventually stop. And start.

You wonder what you ought to write about. Not, what was the assignment? But, what do you care most to write? Limit these thoughts to five minutes or, risk anemia.

Do something, anything else -- day job, night job, weekend job. Jot down what you observe and overhear. You are not procrastinating, not in denial. You are paying rent, paying dues, paying attention.

Push loved ones away, pull them closer; you can't write with them here, with them gone. Eventually, you have a beginning or, beginnings. You read them. They are terrible. You reread them. They are fine, really fine. You start again. On revisions. Rewrites. Middles and endings. In endings you find, always, beginnings.

You cook, walk the dog, cat, guinea pig. Meet friends for coffee and one asks how writers get started, that blank screen, blank page. Is it hard?

Oh no, you say.

Oh, yes.

You reach for the small notebook you carry. You write something down.

~~~
* See Lorrie Moore's, "How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliché?" from her book Self Help (read it online http://tinyurl.com/g9tpk).

Lisa Romeo is a New Jersey writer, editor and writing coach. A former public relations specialist and equestrian journalist, she's now turned her attention to personal essay, nonfiction narrative, and memoir. Lisa's work has appeared in the New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, literary journals, websites, and anthologies. An essay is forthcoming in Feed Me! Writers Dish about Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image (Ballantine Books, Feb. 2009). At her blog, she interviews writers and editors, discusses the writing life, literary issues, the media and what happens after the MFA (which she earned recently, in creative nonfiction). E-Mail Lisa Romeo




Six weeks ago I sat with fingers on keyboard, ready to write. I had joined the 10th annual NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and was determined to reach the 50,000 word goal by November 30. I used as my guide, Chris Baty's book, No Plot? No Problem!.

I sat at the computer, ready to write. My brain was empty. Totally void of content. That was November 1, 2008.

And I began. What got me started? Deadline.

What kept me going? The realization that over 100,00 other writers were doing the same thing. We all postponed paying bills, making meals, keeping appointments. We all ignored phone calls and emails. We were a focused group....or so I told myself.

I had a bottle of champagne, chilling in the refrigerator and waiting for me to type the winning words. "The End" was echoed by the pop of the cork. Delicious victory.

My victory was shared with other writers from Northern California. Last Friday, we partied in San Francisco and wore our gold crowns, our printed tee-shirts and our buttons that declared us "winning authors."

Was it a good month? Did I learn a lot? Will I do it again?

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I start again. I now look to decorate the house, bake cookies, wrap presents, address holiday card envelopes and have a festive spirit ready for my next deadline: December 25.

Charlene Bunas lives and writes in Santa Rosa. She looks for deadlines to get her started.

But I Am Started!

  by Arlene L. Mandell

I've already started, and so have you. By logging on to Tiny Lights, you've found both comic and tragic tales which may trigger a story of your own, plus prompts such as this month's question. Answer the question!

If you're like me, you probably have dozens of photos stored in your digital camera, and a drawer full of unsorted, undated photos - a veritable treasure trove of material. Sift through them until one starts talking. Or flip through pages of an old journal. Stop and read compelling entries, then tell that story or one which updates it. Dig in and something, or many things, will demand to be written about.

Here's an example of journal + photo + trigger = short story: Last January I attended a three-day writing workshop at Esalen in Big Sur led by the inspiring poet Ellen Bass. Esalen, if you're not familiar with it, offers courses in yurt building and tantric meditation. Outside the self-serve dining hall were food and water dishes with a sign reading "Rumi," evidently a cat guru. Strolling the gardens there, I found and photographed another cat, a somber gray cat with yellow eyes. Then last month I rented an apartment in a 115-year-old New York City brownstone for a week.

Out of these disparate elements I've written "Inheriting Rumi," a story about a Jewish Buddhist woman living in a dilapidated apartment filled with inspirational books like The Seeds of Life. I added a gray cat named Rumi, but changed his eye color from yellow to emerald green to enhance the plot. I hope someday soon Susan will publish "Inheriting Rumi," so you can see how all this plays out.

Arlene L. Mandell has a white cat named Gatsby who sometimes sleeps between her monitor and her keyboard when he’s not disappearing into Annadel State Park.

The Power of "On"

  by Betty Rodgers

Picture the yellow Post-it note on my bathroom mirror. See the handwritten, "How do you get started?" It's been hanging there since I submitted last month's Searchlights piece.

This yellow 3x3" square has been displaced a few times...stuck on my closet door while we wipe dust particles, hairspray residue and toothpaste spatters from the mirror with Windex and Brawny paper towels. But then the note zooms right back to the eye-level space directly over the washbowl where I can't miss seeing it every day.

People who know me well know that the best creative-thought time of day for me is in the morning while I'm blow-drying my hair. Maybe it's the electricity swirling like a magic wand around my head. Perhaps it's the "ionic" fancy feature that promises no static. Could be it's because styling my hair is always a creative adventure as I try to shape it into a desired wave and lift that seldom materializes.

At any rate, these are the circumstances under which I've pondered how I get going as a writer. Day after day, the question has floated in that fecund arena between reflective glass and brain cells. Day after day I have tossed around ways to convey the relentless momentum of my life and the difficulty in setting the brakes and bracing myself for the metallic squeal of wheels against track as the freight train of the to-do list comes to a halt.

Then the quiet settles in. It is time to write, and all those hours of blue-ink-on-yellow-paper contemplation start flowing out through my fingertips, across the keyboard, and onto the screen.

Another electrical device. Maybe there is a pattern here.

In Boise, Idaho, Betty Rodgers celebrates the invention of the Post-it note and the hush of snowfall that invites a good night’s rest. She and husband Ken have recently rediscovered the joy of snowshoeing.


Mental Lockdown

  by Bree LeMaire

I need a mental hook that shatters my glass cage of empty thoughts,
created by the mundane nothingness in doing tasks that call for brainless attention,
routinely accompanied by T.V. or flapping lips that speak pastel words.

Current prompts to open that door.
~ My qualifications for being a lousy grandmother.
~ I cancelled Thanksgiving.
~ There's a way to read a book and not die in the trudge to the end.
~ My physical responses in writing a story, aka "embodiement".
~ The sex story of the man with long hair who paid more attention to his hair than his partner.
~ My fight with text messaging.

I send myself back into the kitchen, a castle for repetitive tasks to start my cycle,
all over again.

Bree LeMaire continues with her mystery story. This Thanksgiving she went to a restaurant in Novato for turkey and then took in Australia.
E-Mail Bree


Deadlines and Finish Lines

  by Charlene Bunas

Six weeks ago I sat with fingers on keyboard, ready to write. I had joined the 10th annual NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and was determined to reach the 50,000 word goal by November 30. I used as my guide, Chris Baty's book, No Plot? No Problem!.

I sat at the computer, ready to write. My brain was empty. Totally void of content. That was November 1, 2008.

And I began. What got me started? Deadline.

What kept me going? The realization that over 100,00 other writers were doing the same thing. We all postponed paying bills, making meals, keeping appointments. We all ignored phone calls and emails. We were a focused group....or so I told myself.

I had a bottle of champagne, chilling in the refrigerator and waiting for me to type the winning words. "The End" was echoed by the pop of the cork. Delicious victory.

My victory was shared with other writers from Northern California . Last Friday, we partied in San Francisco and wore our gold crowns, our printed tee-shirts and our buttons that declared us "winning authors."

Was it a good month? Did I learn a lot? Will I do it again?

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I start again. I now look to decorate the house, bake cookies, wrap presents, address holiday card envelopes and have a festive spirit ready for my next deadline: December 25.

Charlene Bunas lives and writes in Santa Rosa. She looks for deadlines to get her started.



How do you get started?

  by Christine Falcone

I think about putting myself in a runner's position, heels back in the blocks, points securely fastened to my feet. I picture the winged god, Hermes. I do all kinds of things to set the mood: light candles and incense, sometimes read a poem or two. Sometimes I read work from previous days. But mostly, I trick myself into writing by simply picking up a pen and paper. Then I find a comfortable chair in which I sit and just let myself go. But there can be no distractions, no interruptions. I'm either at my office or my writing desk at home once the decks have been cleared -- my daughter off to school; my husband off to work.

I sometimes go for a long hike or a run in the woods. Lately, I have rediscovered the value of silence. It's there, over those dusty trails, fallen leaves tessellating the footpath, a place where I can reach out a hand and touch the fingertips of my muse. I don't always see her, but I can hear her and feel her and know she's there somewhere, deep inside, waiting to surface.

Christine Falcone gets herself started in Novato, California.

How to Get Started?

  by David Hoag

Another question: What venture do we wish to start? An answer: Write a piece.

The word "started" connotes progress, movement into the future. But, I don't like the question. I rephrase it. After all, it's my start. "Begin" comes before start.

"Begin" presages "embark"—a readiness to set in motion. How do I begin to be ready? I embark with faith that precedes the concept of "getting started"—instigates the existentialist now, a notion of "here I stand," which evolves from the perception of "here I am."

"Here I am" appears three times in Genesis 22—-Abraham's story, Isaac's chronicle, our narrative. The altar is built, the wood is stacked ready to crackle, Isaac is bound, laid on the altar, and Abraham, our predecessor, holds the tool, "the knife to slay his son." How will it end?

End? Or, is there simply a new beginning?

And, now, here we stand, creative writers charged with epistemological tools. The hand carries this charge, holds the pen, the pencil, and transmits to the manuscript, "Here I am." The altar is then built by faith, framed with words strung together underneath—-stacked like cordwood strung left to right, cut wood waiting, ready to crackle when placed in the fire pit. And with the sizzle of putting words to a page, a reminiscence of loyalty to a predecessor,we have no choice but to begin.

At this moment, we begin and cannot know what the future will bring. But, we are loyal to our ancestor; and, with luck and persistence, the crackle will attract, and the future will hold up a fresh conversation with a new reader.

"The angel called, ‘Abraham, Abraham!' And Abraham answered, ‘Here am I.' "

And, so are we.

David Hoag is an Eagle, Idaho writer who detects the changing light off the patio near the 11th Green or from a cubicle in an East Boise office on West Main Street. E-Mail David Hoag

Cassowary Wary

  by David S. Johnson

There's a problem with the cassowaries in Australia. Actually it's only a problem from a human point of view; the cassowary finds the situation ideal. The cassowary - a large flightless bird related to the ostrich and with a dagger of a middle toe that can disembowel an unsuspecting tourist or zookeeper - has become comfortable approaching cars on the highway and taking food offered by people.

Roads, strange and seemingly unproductive habitats in terms of food, have now become excellent foraging habitats for a very clever bird being fed by some not-so-clever humans. Because the birds can become aggressive and eviscerating, the Australian government has called upon the Queensland Park and Wildlife Service to initiate a delicate and complicated process of "Human Aversion Therapy."

Once a ‘problem' bird is reported, park officials charge at it while waving PVC pipes over their heads. The bird, possibly curious about this new delivery system of food, isn't afraid at first. Then the therapy begins. Whack! The bird is startled. Whack! Whack! Hey, the bird thinks, WTF? Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! More yelling and more whacking until the cassowary is human-wary and runs off. The officials high-five each other and jump in the truck to find more birds to whack.

This approach seems one-sided and doesn't consider all points of view, mainly the cassowary's. What if whenever a family of four stops to feed the beautiful bird, they hear the screech of tires and pipe-wielding men jump out of a SUV and yank Mum and Dad out of their minivan by their shirt collars and wallop them senseless on the side of the road while the kids scream helplessly in their carseats? That would certainly make more sense because it's surely the humans who have the bad behavior, not the bird.

The link between the craft of smarting birds and the art of crafting words does seem admittedly weak, but there is a connection. I'm not suggesting that thwacking birds with pipes is a good idea (though judiciously applied to editors it might be), but for the Australians it's a place to start predicated on what they know: birds don't like to be hit.

As a writer, the blank page is my cassowary and though my tack is less barbaric, I too start with what I know: familiar stories, common themes, and recent memories - all from my point of view. My solution gets results, but like the cassowary solution it can be quite one-dimensional. But how else can I write a personal essay from any point of view or experience other than my own? Perhaps it's worthy to delve into an unfamiliar topic and make it relevant or try another point of view from the characters in my narrative. Say, from a cassowary point of view.

While it's easy to pluck a story from a flock of memories, every once and a while it may be worth the while of the reader for a gifted penman to dip his beak into something unfamiliar yet interesting. Maybe a story about bird-bruising Aussies beating hungry, flightless birds? Certainly it would take a quite a gifted writer to get that turkey to fly.

David Samuel Johnson enjoys his flights of fancy in Baton Rouge, LA. Fly over to his website:
http://impeccablepeccadillo.wordpress.com/


Danielle’s, Ernest’s and Murphy’s starting techniques

  by Don Edgers

I find it interesting how different writers get psyched to initiate their craft. Hemingway started many writing sessions by sharpening and lining up a certain number of pencils. Danielle Trussoni (Falling Through the Earth) lights a scented candle and plays emotionally appropriate music.

Several years ago I had a gas-powered lawn mower I named Murphy. Even though I had the machine for many years, it never failed to start IF I gave it a shot of starting fluid. I considered junking it after one of the front wheels fell off with part of the mowing deck, but since starting fluid's cheaper than a power mower —.

I don't use Hemingway's method (I use one mechanical pencil) nor do I acquiesce to Trussoni's scented candles, however, I do sometimes use background music. I adhere to Murphy's starting fluid technique. My starting fluid - coffee.


Don Edgers starts his days in Port Orchard, WA.
Don Edger's Website



Gimme Twenty

  by Susan Bono

Last month, after running out of steam halfway though yet another miserable excuse for an essay, I was ready to give up writing and take up permanent residence in that place where the signpost up ahead reads, "Why bother?"

Fortunately, I happened across an article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled "Late Bloomers" in the October 20 issue of The New Yorker. His research on the nature of genius did not convince me I am one, or even that I am a late bloomer—a slowly maturing Cezanne, say, as opposed to an instant prodigy like Picasso. What Gladwell did give me was the notion that there are two ways of getting started on a project. Artists like Picasso are launched by a vision which demands expression, while the Cezannes of this world stumble headlong into murky uncertainty and go from there.

In other words, you don't always have to know what you're doing.

Well, that's me all over, starting and stopping an essay a dozen times, and in recent years, abandoning it entirely because, well, obviously, I don't know what the hell I'm doing.

Suddenly, Gladwell has legitimized my confusion, made it okay to be in the dark about things. He even has an impressive name for those of us who grope around testing ideas until the right ones appear: experimental innovators. Try using that as your comeback the next time someone accuses you of being clueless.

This theory also finally explains why I need to stop waiting to be seized by inspiration before I start writing. My muse isn't the type to jolt me awake at 3 a.m. and start dictating. I'm better off making a regular appointment with the blank page, forcing myself to show up and mess around, trusting that after a million false leads, an idea worth following will reveal itself. Not every writer is guided by the light of her dazzling talent. As Gladwell says, "Sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it's just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table."

Here's to the next twenty years!

Susan Bono hopes to bloom sometime soon in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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