Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Commonplace Book

As I mentioned yesterday, if you see me out in person, odds are you will find a notebook somewhere on me. I have them coming out of my ears (not literally, though a pair of earring notebooks would be interesting...), and I use them often. I keep them with me so I won't miss out on those important droplets of information that rain down so unpredictably. Sometimes it is a quote, sometimes an image, sometimes an idea. They're all things I want to keep, and I just don't trust my spongy gray-matter enough to hold onto it for me by itself. These notebooks are not quite journals, though they are certainly personal. They are my commonplace books.

Yes. They're all full. All.

Commonplace books have a long history, dating back to the 15th century Italy when they were known as "zibaldone", or "hodgepodge books." That's a good way of describing them--a commonplace book can hold a little bit of everything, and each is unique to its owner. Many great minds have used them to store their thoughts and information, including John Locke, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. For what it's worth, commonplace books also factored into the A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket, and that deserves as much distinction as anything.

One facet that separates a commonplace book from a diary or a journal, is that the content is not always intrinsically personal, and the pages are often indexed. John Locke is credited for popularizing an index system in which each page must be given a header to identify the content and how it will be used. Locke's system was aimed toward academics, but the foundation is useful in any context. There comes a sense of responsibility for what goes on the page once that header is on there, and I find it helps me maintain focus. (Read: I feel guilty for tangents. Then I make a new page for the tangent, but since it has a name, it is no longer a tangent. Lather, rinse, repeat.) 

Allow me to outline my incredibly complicated commonplace book indexing system. Every page of my commonplace book gets the topic of that page on the upper corner, and the right page (only, unless it is a top bound spiral notebook) gets a page number.

That's pretty much it.

When the book is full, and I do mean every-single-line full, I go back and fill out an index card with the labels and contents. I tape it to the back cover of the book, and then I grab up the next one to start all over again.

My commonplace book is a comfort. I know I always have a safe place to scribble down a thought or an image so I can save it for later when I'm going to "really" write. If I'm away from home and inspiration calls, I can do a little novel drafting and the index keeps me from losing the pages in the mix. These books also hold my idea stockpile. If I can't find something to write about, I can flip through them and find all kinds of inspiration. When I do find one of those rare free moments to write something down or read something back, I feel more intensely myself than any other time throughout my day. That's a pretty big gift for a tiny little pad of paper.

It might be a notebook to you, but it is more than a place to scribble a grocery list. My commonplace book is like a beating heart tucked into my purse or pocket, and I am better off for having it there.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Because I Am, Because I Must

Thank you to the lovely Ellen Morris Prewitt for tagging me at Creative Synthesis to share a slice of my writing life. Ellen is an incredible asset to the writing community in Memphis and at large. She is an award-winning story writer, novelist, and (near and dear to my heart) she facilitates a weekly writing group for people with a personal experience of homelessness. More than that, she is kind with her heart, generous with her time, and so very, very good with her words. You don't have to take my word for it: read her post Spinning Plates, or The Writing Life for a picture of how she makes it all happen. While you're at it, head over to Cain't Do Nothing With Love to listen to her collection of award-winning short stories. You will want to thank me later, but instead, donate to one of the worthy charities she has paired with each of her stories.

My Writing Process


The one on the left has a story to tell. I know it.
A friend once told me, "You could find significance in a paperclip." She was kidding me about my habit of philosophizing everything, but she had a point. Well, maybe not a paperclip exactly, but binders, peanut butter, and trips to the post office are fair game. The point is, I'm a thinky-type person, and it doesn't take much for me to get an idea. Having the time and energy to use them is another matter. As Neil Gaiman once said, "You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it." It is so true, and that is why I can never be caught without a notebook somewhere on my person. I never know when a provocative paperclip might cross my path, and I sure wouldn't want to miss it.

Those notebooks are a crucial part of the process in all my work. I've got more novels in progress than I can count on both hands (even with the help of a few toes), and every single one of them started with some tiny little germ of an idea that I chased around long enough to grow it into something worth reading. This is usually accomplished through a combination of guided daydreaming, good music, and miles of unusable meta-writing. I write in the notebook until I feel that I'm chasing my tail, and then I pull out the computer, fire up Scrivener, and start typing things in a more final form. My notebook is my palette for mixing colors and sketching, my computer is my canvas where it all comes together and starts to feel real. 

It is also worth noting my ongoing participation in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. This involves writing 50,000 words of an original novel in 30 days. I have participated and completed the challenge every November since 2007. I have done the challenge a couple of extra times as well, once with a friend in a random August, and I also took the challenge in the very first Camp NaNoWriMo. I'm not gonna lie, a lot of the stuff I have cranked out under that kind of pressure has been pretty crappy, but on the other hand, those challenges left me with some sizable lumps of clay with which to work. It's good for my discipline, but I'm starting to think I need a challenge to work on my discipline for finishing work rather than starting it.


What I'm Working On 


Currently, I have a few irons in the fire. Because of my habit of writing half a novel and then moving on to the next shiny-object idea, I always have plenty I could work on, either drafting, revising, rewriting, or submitting.

Right this minute, I'm working on my nine-thousandth rewrite/revision of one literary fiction novel, my first major revision on a YA novel, submitting one short story for publication, and completing two other short stories I've had outlined forever, but haven't finished. It sounds like a lot when it's out there like that, but I tend to work on things in spurts depending on what I'm feeling at the time.

The lit fic novel is my "kitchen sink" novel. I am working on turning it into a workable piece from a lot of fractured rewrites. There's not much to say about it at this point because it's still growing itself a backbone and is nowhere near taking its first steps.

The YA novel is called In My Place, and involves teenage boy who is killed in an accident and finds himself a ghost wandering around his old life. He ends up possessing the body of a classmate and must navigate the other boy's life, finding it very different from his own. This project began as one of my better NaNoWriMo efforts, but I never got the ending on it. I am tweaking the beginning (of course) so things will fit better with the end I have in mind. It is my goal to have a completed draft of this one before the year is out.

 Why I Write


I devour stories. Anybody's. I just love them, all shapes, all sizes, all flavors. Whether I'm sitting with you while you share some part of your life with me or I am reading my new book-of-the-month, I am already panning for gold in what you're telling me. Even something as simple as an unusual turn of phrase has a way of wriggling up in my mind and aggravating things. It keeps me thinking, and sometimes, when I'm lucky, it breaks my heart just a little bit. I like things that way.

Knowing this as I do, deep down in a place somewhere just to the right of my spleen, I realize that I must write. I want to be understood. I want to aggravate people's minds. I want to break their hearts just a little bit.

Just a little bit.

Tag! You're it!


Next week, please check out the next stop on this blog tour!

Kim Messer blogs at 40 Year Old Re-Virgin. Kim has vast experience as a professional editor and freelance writer, and she is basically just a wonderful person. Trust me. I wouldn't lie, because then Kim wouldn't like me and I'd be sad. Her blog is a brave one, full of heart and reality. Please spend some time getting to know her there. You will be so glad you did.

Jennifer Sudbury. You will never meet another Jennifer Sudbury, and that is just as well because the original is all you need. She is starting a new blog at The Other South and you should be happy about it. Read it, love it, but whatever you do, "don't bless her heart".

Stacey Gamble is my long suffering writing buddy and friend-at-large. She is one of the most creative people walking the planet, and you would know that if you had been reading her blog Searching for Wonderland. She splits her creative time across a number of endeavors, and I'm hoping she'll find a few spare minutes to share some thoughts on her writing life.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Ink Review - Diamine Apple Glory

It has been FOREVER since I've posted a Tools of the Trade review, and I have missed them! I love everything about writing, from picking apart pieces of my day in search of nuggets of inspiration and motivation for content and productivity, all the way to poring over the meta-writing experience to examine the act of writing itself, whether it be reviewing inks or obsessively changing the default font on my word processor so it is just right. I so enjoy doing reviews that may help others find more joy in their writing. More joy, more writing, more better.

So there.

I've been going through a dry spell in my own writing life, not so much because of writer's block, but more because of a severe lack of time and energy. These seasons of life come and go, and what is important is to always keep your goals in mind and to try to carve out little slivers of time for things you enjoy. Sometimes for me, that is as simple as finding an ink to write with that is in a better mood than I am. Very often, that ink is Diamine Apple Glory.

As I mentioned in my Noodler's Firefly review, I collect the Lamy Safari limited edition fountain pens, so every year I get a nice, bright new color of pen and I always go searching out an ink to match. In 2012, it was the Apple Green Safari, which I paired with one of the only green inks I had on hand at the time, Private Reserve Sherwood Green (which is a lovely ink, but no real match for the pen at all). I didn't think much about it again until Vanness Pens ran a discount for the 30ml bottles of Diamine inks at the Arkansas Pen show. I pawed through their stash and snagged a bottle of Diamine Apple Glory, thinking it would be a good "sometimes ink."

I paired it up with my Apple Green Safari and settled in to write a few lines in an ink I figured would be too bright for everyday use, but might be fun for art or occasional writing.

I was wrong. The ink was such a perfect match for the pen, with a subtle hint of blue mixed in with the yellow-green, which gives it a sort of "heft" on the page. It is not only legible, it makes words look as if they're floating above the page itself. Very cool.

This is a pretty straightforward ink, and I haven't noticed any particular behavioral concerns. I haven't had any staining, it behaves well on most papers (maybe some slight feathering on cheaper papers, but nothing out of the ordinary), and it flows well. The only real caveat is that it is very susceptible to water, so though it may beckon you to do so, I wouldn't sit and write about the beauty of a gentle summer rain while actually in a gentle summer rain.

I'm sorry for the quality of the scan--it's actually a photo because my scanner doesn't handle these light and bright colors too well. Even though the white balance is off (the paper is actually very bright white), the general character of the color is present. Honestly, it is so much nicer in person, you should really just stop reading this review and go get a bottle of this ink.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

If you're still not convinced, feast your apple-loving eyes on my handwritten review. I guarantee this happy green ink is in a better mood than you are. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Inspiration Monday: Dashboard Confessions

Sometimes, when the problems of the world get a little too large, I go for a drive.

When I am alone in my car, I am in my own little pod and whatever is going on with me and my day is isolated there. The other motorists on the road need only be concerned with my driving, and my person-hood is my own. For me personally, it is a time for prayer, deliberation, solitude, creativity, and wholeness.

Sometimes, when I have a client with whom it is difficult to build a relationship, I find a reason to drive them somewhere. I don't know if it is because of the inherent trust of riding in a car someone else is driving, maybe because my eyes are locked on the road and I'm not looking at them, or maybe just because it feels safe, but I find it tends to get people talking about what's on their mind. I jokingly call it "Dashboard Therapy." You won't find it in any psychology textbook, but it works.

A great deal of the miles on my car have been banked directly into the pages of my manuscripts. When I just can't seem to work out what I'm thinking or feeling about a writing project, I go for a drive. I put on some music that fits the mood, or sometimes I just leave the radio off. I drive around and look at things, trying to see them as a character would. I test out dialogue--there's no better way to do it than saying it out loud, (and no more embarrassing way either)--and search for unbidden inspiration.

My dashboard has absorbed so many of my prayers, thoughts, and confessions, it must be a holy relic by now. Who cares that it has cracked in the sun and needs a good wipe down. It has become an integral part of my creative life and of my desperate need for solitude. It may not be exactly poetic, but there's something to it.

Take a ride today. Whatever it is you're working on, whether it be part of your creative life or just hurdles you're jumping in the real world, and dump them in the passenger seat. Talk it out, sing it out, pray it out, whatever it is you need to do, but speak it out loud and saturate your vehicle in the fullness of your mind and heart. If you've got a character you just can't wrap your head around, picture him or her doing this exact exercise--what is it they think about when they're driving a lonely highway with no one to judge them and only the dashboard to listen?

There's no rule that says the same person who enters any room must be the same person when he or she leaves it. I figure the same must go for cars (and probably even trucks. Probably).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Every Inch is a Mile to Someone

It feels like a month has passed since Monday.

Month and a half, tops.

Lately I've been wearing an extra hat (or five) at work, and I think it's catching up with me. At least, it is catching up with my back, and where my back goes, unfortunately the rest of me must follow. It has gotten to the point that the last two days my dinner has consisted of Doritos and ibuprofen--and I didn't even mind.

My to-do list is piling up like a sky-high stack of dishes in a restaurant sink. Every one I wash is quickly replaced by another, even grosser dish.

Yesterday, I found myself between "dishes" and I decided to finish up a simple, piddling task I had been putting off. All I had to do was thread a label into the plastic spine of a binder. Easy, no?


If I had to guess, I would say this binder was forged by the fires of Mt. Doom and protected by an unbreakable curse that could have netted the world an extra Harry Potter book. The first label I printed only made it about an inch into the plastic before it tore. I printed another one and tried as hard as I could to cram it in there until it was all mangled up like a used tissue. I tried folding it to make it stronger, but then it was too thick. Unfolded, it stood no chance.

What should have taken seconds was racking up minutes, and I didn't have any minutes to give to such a small thing. There were too many big things looming over me, waggling their fingers and taking swats at my tender conscience.

Since every other attempt at force hadn't worked, I did the only thing left: I slowed down. I thought small. I moved it in such tiny increments I could barely make out my own progress until I saw that the crumples and tears from my previous attempts were sliding slowly under the plastic. "This is ridiculous," I said to myself and chewed on my molars. It was working, but not nearly fast enough to suit me. The progress was just too small for the time I had allotted for the task. "This wouldn't be fast enough to suit an ant," I grumbled.

But it would have been. The more I thought about it, I realized I was looking at things all wrong. I was looming over the project like a time-crunched grizzly bear, when I should have been looking up at it like a persistent ant. If I was as small as an ant and I saw the progress I was making, suddenly it wouldn't seem like such a tiny amount. I would look at the ground I had gained in those too-fast seconds, and I would be proud. I would see those inches, and they would become miles.

After that crossed my mind, I realized how silly I was being, getting frustrated over a task I hadn't even dignified as a legitimate undertaking. I had wasted more energy being frustrated than I had time in slowing down.

This should not have been any new epiphany to me. I have been working for years with a population of people whose small victories I celebrate as often as I can. I never waste an opportunity to tell a person when I see good in them, or when I am proud for them, and that includes when one particular client remembers to use a napkin to clean a spill, or when someone says "no" when every fiber of his being tells him to say "yes," and he hands me the $20 bill to keep safe for him because he can't trust himself to stay clean with money in his pocket. Those might be inches to some people, but I see it through their eyes--they have traveled miles.

Sometimes I forget. I get busy, tired, frustrated, and worn down to my achy bones, and I forget that an ant can carry more weight in proportion to its body than any grizzly bear can. Small success, slow victory--they aren't second class. Any success--whether it be conquering The One Binder or recovering from an addiction--deserves to be seen for the milestone it is. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Inspiration Monday: Start Where You Are

When life gets busy, finding time to write is hard. Finding the energy, motivation, or inspiration to write when you do find the time can be even harder.

Trust me. I know.

The longer I sit and try to make things work, the harder it gets. I can't find my way to get back into whatever it was I was writing before life stalled me out. I can't find the voice, momentum, motivation, or character, or purpose.

This weekend I spent some time--a few slivers at best--staring at pages I've written and looking for the door. I remembered writing some of it, and some of it was like reading someone else's work. Some brought back the struggle, and some I remembered writing as my pen skated happily along, full of fun and imagination. I could look in the rear-view mirror and see where I had been, but nothing on that page really told me where I need to go.

The problem isn't plot or outline. I wish it was that simple. I know what needs to happen. My problem is that I can't seem to push myself hard enough to just throw it on the page. I think I've found my problem though: it's that darn rear-view mirror.

Looking backward can tell you a lot of things about where you've been, but it doesn't do anything for you when it comes to looking where you're going. When I think about beginning work on my projects, I knew so much less about what I was doing and where I was going than I do now, and yet the writing came easier. That was probably because I wasn't trying to live up to my own ideas, I was just writing my way through it. There was nothing in the mirror, only the road ahead.

I'm going to write today. I don't know what it will be or how it will turn out. The voice of my characters may not match what I wrote a month ago, but that's okay. In another month, I won't match the person I am today, and when I read back over it, those things will be easy to fix. The important part is to pry my eyes away from what was and focus on what will be.

If you're like me and have a habit of getting caught in quicksand, I encourage to you pick up your pen with me today and start again. Don't look back, don't look too far ahead, just start right where you are. Here's hoping we can meet on the finish line.