by Lee Heffner

Why I Write

Why I Write

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” – George Orwell

Why I Write: If I answer truthfully, I don’t know why I write. Just as I don’t know why I breathe or water comes from the tap. City bred, it never occurred to me there were places water did not flow on demand. City bred libraries were scattered across neighborhoods. Words, ready for selection, were mere blocks away. A welcoming librarian smiled at the revolving stacks of books I placed before her. On rare occasions she might say, “Are you sure about that title? It might be a tad old for you.” I was never sure but I was always curious. The potential for escape lay between every binding.

Mr. Marks, my Sophomore English teacher, marked a spontaneous essay assignment with an A.  His comments written in red ink, first terrified then delighted me. He liked it. I was dumbfounded. That first positive comment regarding my writing niggled. No matter how many times my internal dialogue said, “maybe you can write,” my pragmatism retorted, “don’t be ridiculous”. Self-defeat reigned. 

Decades later a friend brought me Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She said, “You need to read this.” She offered no explanation. It rested on my night stand for months. Picked up to slay insomnia, I read through the remaining night. It gave me the courage to say I want to write. I set the task of 300 words a day. I had no plot, no plan; my only tools were a keyboard and MSWord.  I was compelled to write to learn how my story turned out.  All the outside fears of what others would think fell away. THEY didn’t have to know and THEY didn’t have to like what I wrote.

I still want to write and I do. Doing it both tortures and fulfills me. Well beyond 300 words a day, a veteran of several NANOWRIMOs and engaged in all aspects of writing and reading I still don’t know why. Like breathing and water writing is a necessity.

George Orwell wrote the following https://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw . It’s a lovely read.

Other writers I know have many reasons for why they continue. I will share their thoughts with future guest blogs. I’d love to hear what drives you.

Drafts, New Ideas, & Resistance

Drafts, New Ideas, & Resistance

Ideas can be new, a lusty temptation, a much-needed sledgehammer to break out of a plot corner, or a lethal form of resistance. Many are forgotten before pen, pencil, or paper scrap can be found.

Yikes, no pen, no paper.

Like you, I’m a writer. I’m in the middle of a draft. A challenging draft. It is especially tough because I’ve reached a plateau in my practice. I need to break through the current wall of resistance. I stepped away from the manuscript two weeks after a steady roll. Why? I had an idea. A good idea. A great idea (aren’t they all) for a new book. Writers have scads of ideas. They come over coffee, while driving, in the shower, or three a.m. Writers, hoarders of office supplies, are often without jotting basics when randomness hits.

New story ideas are exciting, like a second date, possibility without the tedium of attention or work. Sledgehammer ideas are gifts from the gods. They make the hero vulnerable, the villain likable, and the plot twists windy as a country road.

When’s the last time you dug under an idea to ask why this idea, now? If you are in the midst of a writing project, that you have committed to like marriage and a new idea pops up, resist the temptation. I know from sad experience. I must return to my current steady title . I must pocket my sexy new idea for another time, t and fulfill my commitment to write to finish.

Have you read Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art? If no, read it. If you’re not writing, if you claim to be blocked, if you think you’re writing is crap, or you don’t have the right inspiration — stop talking or actually listening to your corseted internal editor. READ IT NOW.

I don’t get a cent or an atta girl for recommending this book. I recommend it because it calls you, me, and every other writer out on the elaborate, inane, and blockage generating lengths we will indulge to interrupt our writing and complete something, anything. Drafts are meant to be written not perfect.

Library Love

When I enter a library for the first time reverence and joy washes over me. Regardless of the city, it is a homecoming. There are no strangers in libraries because they are populated by readers.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/growing-up-in-the-library

If you love libraries the above link to a New Yorker article written by Susan Orlean will delight you. It mirrors my memories of discovery and wonders experienced at each visit.

Inner-city Chicago miles from the culturally rich lakefront was not a mecca of reading. Our local public grammar school was more adept at processing children on a conveyor belt of mediocrity than instilling a love of reading. One astute teacher sent a note to my mother. Madame: Please allow your daughter to get a library card at the local branch of the Chicago Public Library. It is necessary for her to continue her studies.

She made the request to the mothers of three other students in the fourth-grade class of 42 students. She rightly guessed our mothers would grant permission because the note written on school stationery, mentioned a sanctioned city facility. Gratefully she was correct.

The Sherman Park Branch Library, named for the founder of the Chicago Stock Yards, not some far off general was added to the park in 1937. Perhaps it was built as a depression-era works project by some of the skilled immigrant artisans who populated the city and my neighborhood.

At age nine I lingered outside the imposing building afraid to go in. The librarian sat at a huge oak desk that faced the front door. She must have seen me as I paced the walk. She opened the door and I froze. The emerging woman said, “May I help you?”

I became a stutterer in the moment. Gradually, I calmed my voice and got the nerve to say, “My teacher says I have to have a library card.”

She extended her right hand toward me and said, “Welcome. My name is Lucy Ingram, and you are?”

I’d neither shaken hands nor had an adult introduce herself to me.

“Come in. Let’s see what kind of books you like.”

The generosity of the teacher who led me to a door and the librarian who opened it gave me the greatest gift of my life. Though our libraries are closed due to the Corona Virus, our tireless librarians strive to foster our communities. Zoom book club meetings, email chains, and shared resource links allow us to maintain our community, while in the background library staffs meet electronically to explore other ways to connect, develop wellness programming and seek grants for the betterment of our library experiences now and in the post lockdown future.

I hope to see you perusing the shelves soon.

The Alchemy of Place

Thursday, April 2, 2020, Lockdown continues until April 30, or beyond.

Think of the places you habitate in a day. You may be drawn to the kitchen by aromas, bread baking, chocolate in cookies or a roast as it nears completion. Each of those dishes is common or foreign to you. You might be vegan and wretch at the thought of what is in your world a dietary travesty. None the less kitchens are important whether you cook or store your shoes in the oven.

We spend more time in the bathroom than we like to admit. I’d say more than ever in lockdown.  With the advent of Zoom as an instrument of communication, my mirror time has increased. I hear Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. De Mille.”

My office, once a place of isolated sanctuary, is ignored. As a writer, I believed that I had to be in the right chair at my desk triggered by a never defined bio-rhythm. My office now reeks of further confinement. Lockdown has proven my iPad and any flat surface will do.

The bedroom has become a nest. Clean sheets every other day, fluffed pillows, a heated mattress pad, and stacks of books at the ready to fit the mood of the moment. It waits for me at the end of the day as eager as a lustful paramour.

Place in writing is as important as the protagonist. He or she is shaped by where they have been, where they are and where they want to be. Place adds depth, drama, and emotion. It incorporates all the senses. As a former Chicagoan, I exited my el stop each morning inundated by chocolate perfume, thanks to Blommer’s Chocolate Factory. I greedily inhaled its exhaust before continuing to work, the perfect start to my workday. Others at the same exit covered their noses in disgust describing the smell as overwhelming, cloying, gross. They never longed for the Golden Ticket on offer by Willy Wonka. They are fodder for different characters thanks to their contrasting emotions and triggers, protagonists perhaps? Same place plus different drivers equal diverse characters and opportunities for story.

Suffer from Writer’s Block? Place is the perfect Ninja to crack writer’s block. Have your character go to the kitchen. Why? Have him make a sandwich or get pissed off the milk is gone. Have her go to the bathroom and find his sock on the floor inches from the hamper. Emotion will spring up and the words will flow. Characters, like us, require moments of the mundane to be read as real. 

Inspiration Comes in Many Forms

Inspiration comes in many forms and is often missed for a lack of attention. I met Julia Cameron, in Seattle in 1995, at a Center for Creative Education event. I had no idea that a casual introduction and brief chat would change my life.

Her message, own your creativity, resonated like nothing before.
She became my pied piper. I did morning pages with verve, set ritual artist’s dates for myself and created personal radar to identify and repel the destructive shadow artists in my life.

Morning Pages

At our meeting, I asked, “MS. Cameron do you offer classes on The Artist’s Way or can you recommend a teacher in Seattle?”

            “No, why?”

            “I love this book and I’d like to develop a class around it.”

            “Then do.”

Her ease and graciousness shocked me. As an aside, she wore a hand-painted dress by a Taos artist that I coveted. The dress flowed with the same grace as her answer. In that moment I learned to share my creativity not to hug it to my chest. I took her at her word and offered classes based on her book and its principles.

Teaching became a love. But after multiple cross country moves and many class sessions, I realized I had become a shadow artist as an acolyte of Julia Cameron. My desire was to write. I knew I had a book in me. When asked, on occasion, as I changed jobs and locales, “What do you plan to do next?”

            My cavalier response was, “I’m going to write a book.”

In retrospect, I realize it was an uninformed declaration. As uninformed as when several decades earlier I said, “I want a baby.”

Just as I knew nothing about babies or the speed they turn into self-actualized teens, I had no idea what it took to put one word after another to form a sentence or to compile sentences into a paragraph. Sure, I knew the mechanics. I had written hundreds of business letters and managed multiple product documentation teams but I had not allowed myself to write creatively.

Time to put up or shut up. I bought the perfect desk, placed it in the ideal spot and acquired two drawers full of pens, pencils, highlighters, and multi-hued and sized post-it notes. I used my working knowledge of MSWord to create a chapter and version number scheme. I added three jump drives to my supply collection to ensure sufficient space for regular backup of my masterworks.

50words

I also had multiple blank legal pads, notebooks bound in leather, composition books and a mound of scattered thoughts on scraps of paper.  My despicable computer display reflected every attempt as imperfection.  I needed inspiration.

I didn’t want some words or some sentences, I wanted perfection, the lightning bolt idea crafted into a gold star publication. I was ready. I had the tools of my chosen art.

Where does one find inspiration? I have no idea. True, there are writers who have lived through extraordinary adventures or who have had an idea that nags until writing, medication or insanity are the plausible cures. Based on the thousand plus writers I have worked with, the inspired are a rare breed.

For most of us, books come from work, not blinding inspiration. We must face the demon of the blank page or screen. We must set goals and we must do the work. No one else can tell your story. If not now, when?

  • montegufoni
  • panforte
  • Art-in-residence

Recipes and Novels: Panforte – an Italian Love Story

My friends need nothing. They’ve worked, traveled and imbibed. Holidays are a challenge. I want to remember them but refuse to add to anyone else’s clutter. Halloween is the season to comb well-loved recipes for the unique. Sundry files are combed for sweets or savories to share over the looming post trick or treat season. I sort, categorize and make gift and shopping lists. It is the only time of the year I plot an outcome. As in writing, I find outlines and lists confining concrete-like limitations. Neither allows for mood, weather or whim. My stack of 20-25 gets whittled to 8-10. Annual favorites are the Grammercy Tavern Gingerbread, Jameson laced Irish Cream, Southern Living Peanut Brittle and Worcestershire Sauce, a mélange of 16 ingredients that requires 3 full weeks of steeping. My personal favorite is Panforte first experienced in Siena, Italy. The ingredients always make the list but I don’t bake it because it’s for me not others. Stupid.

Enter COVID19. I want to bake and write. After a morning of Twitter prompt responses the pantry calls. Chocolate powdered almonds, hazelnuts, cocoa, honey and a follies like array of dried fruits line the baking shelf. Yes, I have a baking shelf.

A writing retreat attended long ago pops into my head. Three glorious weeks at the Castello Montegufoni, south of Florence, on sun-drenched patios, glorious meals, side trips, and shared writing. Mid trip I wandered the car free streets of Siena darting in and out of cave like shops. A bakery case held an unattractive disk labeled Panforte. Remember, don’t judge a book by its cover or Panforte by its dusting of flour. The clerk offered a sample of the spicy, chocolate infused fruit and nut laden cake. You’re imagining the fruit cake we use as doorstops in the States, and you’re so wrong. In the intervening twenty-five years, I’ve made it twice and savored every bite.

A quick check ensures that cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg are on hand. What better way to distance a virus and self-care than with the spices of the orient mixed with human ingenuity and extended shelf life? Stories of Hannibal and Marco Polo echo. Each bite linked in memory with a favorite Italian set book – Passion by Jeanette Winterson. It’s surprising how quickly it comes together. The recipe more a concept than a formula. The currants have crystalized and smell of Moscato. I have no edible rice paper but a parchment cut out will serve. The cook time is 50 minutes but in 5 the smell of chocolate spice is redolent. If it could be bottled I’d dab it behind my ears.

From the baking shelf:

Variety of nuts

Array of dried fruits

Cocoa

Flour

Honey

Sugar

Ginger, Cinnamon & Nutmeg

Happy, baking, eating, writing and reading.

Recipes and Novels or Novel Recipes

A good recipe has the same characteristics as a good novel. And cooks like novelists are pantsers or plotters. Social isolation is the test of both. I am a self-acknowledged pantser. I was raised in a southern, struggling to make ends meet, kitchen. That’s code for making do with what you have. Boom or bust my pantry staples include grits, cornmeal, peas, and beans. Every kind of peas – crowder, field and black-eyed. Every kind of dried bean – navy, red, black, and pinto. In their native form, none sound appetizing but like a writing inspiration, it is the possibility of each. My travels sometimes on limited funds lead to other pantry staples, soy, pesto, capers, yuppie tuna, and ramen. My career opened doors to savories I had not known existed. Today’s pantry is a mélange of days good and bad and the sum being greater the parts.

I read recipes like I read novels. I want a sense of place, culture, character, and accessibility. Nothing like a plot twist, the expected ratcheted up a notch by the unexpected.

When I deviate from my nature I shop with a list of ingredients for recipes I imagine I will cook someday like novels I think I will write. This has led to a pantry, freezer and corner cabinet filled with the esoteric. Before the advent of COVID19, many items were threatened or doomed by an advancing shelf-safe date. Lists are a luxury unaffordable in a pandemic. My kitchen has become a lab of reverse engineering.

A week ago I bought a ham at the local butcher. Yesterday two cans of butter beans became visible with a roulette spin of the lazy Susan. Voila. The plot soup. The characters – the antagonist ham dying to be used while still viable, beans the protagonist, use me before I’m thrown on the heap. Subplots include spices and savories. Accessibility the trigger of all five senses heightened by anticipation, memory, and comfort. Reward gratification of accomplishment and leftovers on shelf or in freezer for re-reads.

My sense of possibility housed in my sense memory is not unlike the rules of grammar. Both are meant to be revered and broken on the altar of creativity.

What’s in the pot?

Diced Ham

Onion

Garlic

Red Pepper Flakes

Bay Leaf

Pinch of Ground Cloves

Canned Butter Beans               

Chicken Broth

Play with the flavors and the proportions, taste, edit, revise and serve.

Too many Rules — Too Little Confidence

Too many Rules — Too Little Confidence

Pick an author who has had publishing success and you will find an article or post with his or her 5, 7, 8, or 10 rules of writing. A few showoffs go for 10 or 12. Each post is the holy grail of the current silver bullet to writing success. Margaret Atwood takes a no-nonsense slant: No excuses –leave no words behind.

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick…

The list continues to point 10 as a practical guide to help you, writer, to stay out of your own way.

Hilary Mantel’s rules open with, “Hire an accountant.”Cheeky but good advice because at its core it implies believe in yourself and your success and you will need an accountant.

Writers who are trying to spread their wings seek advice. Why? Comfort. Growth. Validation. There are as many reasons as writers. There is a lot of advice that does not bear consideration. But how do you know? Do the rules begin with the word Don’t? Avoid them in 75% of occurrences. Better yet understand the DON”T; become comfortable with it and confident enough through your practice to question and break the rule.

What do I mean? I have four words for you Elmore Leonard & Good Writing. Leonard famously wrote 10 Rules of Good Writing:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why are his nevers and don’ts acceptable? Easy, read the full text, not the bullets. He wisely gives examples of writers who broke each rule and succeeded. How? They understood the dont’s and nevers with enough depth and confidence to break them when necessary, and to advantage.

If you need more convincing I suggest you read the excellent post from Anne R. Allen in 2016.

12 Stupid Writing Rules Currently Making the Rounds

Sadly, they are as current as ever. Another consideration for another time is how rules can become a form of resistance.

 

Happy Writing

In Memory of Carrie Fisher

In Memory of Carrie Fisher

We remember Carrie Fisher, not Princess Leia. Be aware, if you are interested in ear buns, diaphanous white column dresses or assault weapons, this is not the remembrance for you. Carrie Fisher was soul connected to writers, artists, and those of us whose moods are managed by psychotropic drugs to function in the realm of normal.

She held her truth close to her heart and fed her pen with its blood. The truth: ugly and funny, humiliating and enlightening, unvarnished and finished was on the page, in the interview, and on the screen. Her truth was contradictory and yet, still true. Her mother drove her crazy and was her favorite person. Her father broke her heart and yet she cared for him. She hated that she was forever diminished to Leia and yet returned again and again to the role and the screen set family.

Most importantly, she refused to be minimized by her mental health issues. In her self-championship for better health, she became a champion for others paralyzed by depression or accelerated to high mania due to unforgiving brain chemistry. In spite of self-medication, bad love choices and the opinions of countless trolls she triumphed in art, love, and family.

 

Book Lists

Pick a genre, era, or topic there is a book list. As a writer I’m addicted to book lists, they are opioids for my reading addiction. I seek them out in libraries, online, and in news feeds. I share the lists I find with fellow readers and writers. If by chance a shared list choice becomes a book club title, a mutual read discovered in conversation or a pass along to a fellow traveler all the better. The hours of reading are enhanced by pooled thoughts Reading of new and loved authors also serve as a tutorial for readers who are also writers. Prose enchantment can lead to a hangover composed of how did she or he do that? The hangover can only be cured by writer analysis.

The holidays offer up a plethora of possibilities. Tis the season of Book Lists. 2018 lists are long — The New York Times Notable 100; nominees for prizes — The Man Booker Shortlist;  short — The Ten Best Books of 2018; funny – The Best Comedy Books That Can Save Us From 2018, classical – The Guardian’s List of the Top 100 Books of All Time.

Some titles are put through an annual final four style tournament. Books are pitted against each other in an online popularity vote until one remains as the Tournament of Books winner for the New Year.

Book lists are great. Right? Yes, to a point. There are also lists that stratify types of writers. Books by Women, Books by African Americans, Books by Natives, Books by LGBTQ authors, you get the gist. The lists like all lists are interesting and somewhat addictive when searching for new voices. Such lists shine a light on authors that might not be included in more established lists. There is a downside. Lists stratified by race, gender or geographical identity also imply that these authors are indeed writers of a sort but they have not earned the unqualified identification of AUTHOR (white male).

Stratification hints that books written by women of any color are for females, LGBTQ authors write for the rainbow community, African American writers serve a population of color and thus all are somewhat less than books written by the ages-old cadre of male writers.

Books are a collaboration between writer and reader. Pages written are learned and shared experiences when the meld is successful. All that matters is the writing that creates touchstones by an author of any color, origin, or historical background. When that connection is made societal pigeon holes become irrelevant. Read a book because it appeals to not because it has been blessed by a list. Happy reading.

© 2021 Lee Heffner – Author