Writerhead Wednesday: Happy Summer Hiatus

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


Writerhead Wednesday is officially on summer hiatus. I promise, this feature will resume in a few weeks, but in the meantime, enjoy your own writerhead. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, bask in the buttery warmth of summer; if you’re in the southern hemisphere where it’s cold and blustery right now, I’m sorry for you.

Just kidding.

If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you can hunker down in writerhead just as easily as those of us who are warm and buttery. Probably much more easily, since you’re not being lured outside by lightning bugs and barbecues and sandy beaches.

So go, beautiful writers. Be in writerhead. Write.

And in the meantime, if you need a little inspiration, a writerhead fix, head over to the Writerhead Wednesday archives; there’s something there for everyone.

See you soon!

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Lydia Netzer

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


Here’s what I want to say about Lydia Netzer‘s debut novel Shine Shine Shine: It’s special. It’s one of those soul-changing, DNA-altering, oh-my-god-I-see-the-world-differently-since-reading-this-book kind of books. Lydia and Shine Shine Shine came to my attention via Sarah Reed Callender, and I’m forever grateful. (Thank you, Sarah!)

You know that quote by Franz Kafka? The one that goes like this: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” Well, Shine Shine Shine is an ice-axe that broke the sea frozen inside my soul.

Crack! Crash! Smash! Damn the frozen f’ing sea!

You should read Shine Shine Shine. As soon as possible. But first, read about Lydia’s writerhead. It’s as cool as the book.

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

Writerhead can happen anywhere: on my back porch, in my office, on someone’s mountain cabin’s kitchen island, as long as there is a computer there, and a rectangular screen where I can look at the words coming up. Place doesn’t matter much, but there are very specific rituals and routines that can be used to invoke writerhead, and draw the words out of the brain. Here are a few of mine:

A. Music

I like to put a song on endless, endless repeat until it melts away into nothing but a feeling. Often I endlessly repeat a song my iPod calls Luilak / Fiere Pinkster Bloem (http://www.amazon.com/Luilak-Fiere-Pinkster-Bloem/dp/B005EU16B8). I have no idea what language it’s in or what the words mean but I think it might be Bulgadavian and the song is probably about sheep or political oppression. The words sound like this:

Lilac, sometimes a brick,

Hatches up a lilac tit

Hatches up a lilac tit

And a brick, and a block, and a very bad block,

Is a head that wants to be softened!

Dogs have thumbs so lie like a dog

In a head that’s spun so often!

Okay, in the interest of accuracy, I just Googled Luilak and came up with this image (http://www.50plusser.nl/forum/userpix/50570_luilak_2012_tndt_copy_1.jpg) of Wilma Flintstone hovering over three kids in a bed, while Ringo Starr sweeps the floor and agitates a tiny man with no pants pooping into a case of Dr. Pepper and waving a white flag at Mrs. Garrett who is smoking a gigantic purple doobie. So you can see that I really do prefer a song with lyrics that are intensely relevant to my themes.

I also do well with Spicy McHaggis by The Dropkick Murphys, the Brahms violin concerto, Imogen Heap, and other obscure Bulgadavian folk music.

B. Clothing

Clothing can be crucial in drawing out writerhead—the wrong pants and you’re stumbling uphill, the right pants and you’re like a solar flare on the keyboard. I have these terrible brown cargo shorts with a very unattractive rip in the rear, a pilly black tank top and a chewed-on athletic hoodie: these are the best garments for engaging writerhead. Other cargo pants can be substituted but they must be a bilious green or noxious brown, other tank tops will suffice but they must be black, and as for replacing the hoodie, well I’m not sure I even want to speak those words aloud. If I whisper I can tell you that a replacement has been attempted, in the interest in not looking like a flipping lunatic in public, but the attempt was abandoned.

 C. Odors

When I pack for a writing retreat, I need certain smells: Crabtree & Evelyn “West Indian Lime,” Viktor & Rolf “Flowerbomb,” Thierry Mugler “Angel.” Also Vick’s Vapor Rub, grapefruit shampoo, and rosemary. When I was writing Shine Shine Shine, the smell of lavender evoked the character Emma for me, and bergamot helped me think about Sunny and Maxon’s burgeoning love affair. Some smells turn my brain off: stuff that’s too floral or bready or nice and virtuous like Ivory soap or lemons. Limes are for writing dark, interesting novels. Lemons are for washing dishes and being really cheerful. This is the difference between limes and lemons.

I think I may be exposing myself as a superstitious nutjob.

When I was 20, I wrote with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other, and I used my irresponsible whims to do the typing while my reckless disregard for health and virtue was popping the pill bottle. So this is better. Nutjob perhaps, but now that I have children and a pot rack I need to replace the martini glass with something that looks better in church. Like a ripped up hoodie that smells like eucalyptus.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

The children do interrupt. And it always makes me feel like a terrible person. I remember one night, I was sitting in my office in the dark, writing a particularly horrible scene where someone died or was killed or killed themselves or something. My daughter opened the door, and stood there framed in the light: two years old and sweet and innocent as the dawn. “Mommy,” she said. I looked at what I had been writing, and looked at her, and as she crawled into my lap, I wanted to turn myself in as an unfit mother, and have my child re-homed with someone who lives on a farm and writes about the antics of goats or about how kindness is really nice.

(http://www.flickr.com/photos/lostcheerio/3593128093/in/set-72157615890062020/)This is why I can’t write sex scenes with my children in the same geographical region. All the sex scenes in Shine Shine Shine (there are four—would you like page numbers?) were written at the aforementioned mountain cabin, 600 miles away from my children. At home, I would always just allow the curtains to sweetly close. It took a full 24 hours of absolute separation to get me into a space where I could even get to PG-13.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Writerhead is like beating through walls with a sledgehammer. It’s not some easy bliss on the other side, that you have to beat through walls to get to—it is the beating and it is the walls.

When something’s not working, that’s hitting at the wall and your mallet is accidentally rubber, or the wall is actually granite, and it just makes a dull, thumping sound, and doesn’t even ricochet, just thuds.

Writerhead is when the walls get big, dark cracks in them and then your mallet turns to steel and with a whooshing sound the walls break open and you’re smashing through, climbing through, finding another wall, crashing through that, and on. It’s paragraph after paragraph of going somewhere, changing the landscape, opening up new air pockets, consuming those and opening more. And when you’re done, it’s a complete mess (that’s what edits are for!) but you’re standing in a new place, a place you couldn’t see from where you started. When I started writing Shine Shine Shine, I did not know where it was going. I don’t even remember, from where I ended up, what I thought was on the other side of that first wall. That’s what writing books is for me: trying to see what’s on the other side, hammer in my hand, smashing for all I’m worth.

BIO: Bio: Lydia Netzer lives in Virginia with her two homeschooled children and her math-making husband. She plays in a rock band, pulls weeds, and is afraid of bears. Her first novel—Shine Shine Shine—will be published by St. Martin’s Press on July 17, 2012.

If you want to connect with Lydia—and I’m quite sure you will; how could you not?—become her friend on Facebook, Tweet her on Twitter (@lostcheerio), visit her website, or read the first 50 pages of Shine Shine Shine for free here.

 

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Nichole Bernier

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


Today I’m delighted to welcome Nichole Bernier to Writerhead. She’s the author of the new novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D (you know, the one that’s getting all that wonderful buzz right now).

Having Nichole here is pretty special. I’ve “known” her virtually for years; we met on Twitter while I was still living in China. And I’ve been looking forward to sharing her book and her talent ever since learning that her novel was going to be published.

So please rise and give a big round of applause for Nichole. Then lean in close, listen up, and hear what she’s got to say about her writerhead. (And then, yep, go buy her book!)

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

For me the writerly mindset is the need to take a brace of thoughts and translate them into words, give them the structure of words. It happens anywhere, usually when I’m watching other people, and am tremendously moved to be witnessing a moment—some isolated episode of human connection or more often, human passing-in-the-night. But it doesn’t become a thing until I put it into words. That’s the way thoughts and ideas become real to me. It’s trying to force steam back into water.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

When I began writing my novel I had three children, and had never written fiction before. So I expect to be interrupted. It’s fantastic when I’m in an environment where I can open things up for hours, but that’s not the norm. What’s critical then is the way I lay breadcrumbs to find my way back, whenever that will be. If I’m in the middle of writing, I’ll scribble a fragmented sentence with bits of emotion or action or adjectives or dialogue. If I’m at an appointment it might be a scribble on the backside of paper, or if it’s in the middle of the night, there’s a pad in the nightstand drawer. On the soccer sidelines I’m known for taking a lot of pictures with my cellphone; it’s because I’ve become really good at holding it up for mock-shots and texting myself notes.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

There was once a tv show or movie—something slapstick—where the main character would find himself temporarily in the middle of frozen time, though he was still free to move about the cabin. Everyone and everything was stock-still while he tiptoed around doing whatever he liked, taking sodas out of people’s hands, knocking the baseball caps off their heads, etc. For me it feels like that.

BIO: Nichole Bernier is author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She received her master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and is one of the founders of the literary blog Beyond the Margins. Nichole lives west of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found through her website and on Twitter (@nicholebernier).

 

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers has been called many things: “Lucid and lovely” by The Wall Street Journal; “A fascinating debut…” by O Magazine; and “A moving and beautifully written portrayal of the frailty—and the hardness—of the human spirit” by The Daily Telegraph (UK).

Oh, so right!

Please give a hearty welcome to Vanessa Diffenbaugh.

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

I wrote The Language of Flowers in my office in Sacramento, California. Everyday at noon, my babies asleep in their cribs, I would tiptoe into my office, close the glass door, sit in my burgundy velvet chair, and flip open my laptop. Even now I miss the feeling of double-clicking the word document on my desktop, the rush of peace I felt as the title page opened before my eyes. I’d scroll down to the sentence where I left off—I tried to always stop in the middle of a sentence so that I wouldn’t have trouble remembering where I was—and start writing. When I am at my best, the feeling I get when I am writing most closely resembles reading. The story exists, and I am just moving forward into the story learning more and more with each passing moment.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

As a parent to a newborn, a one-year-old, and two teenagers, my entire life was interruptions. I became good at pausing my thoughts and taking them back up in another, quieter moment. I will say though, that occasionally my daughter would wake too early or in the middle of some big idea, and I would pull her into my lap and say: “Want to hear a story about Victoria?” I would read aloud to her the words I typed furiously out onto the page, trying desperately to finish a thought before she lost attention and demanded more of me.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

For me, writerhead is like high mountain air, making you feel slightly dizzy and almost painfully alive.

BIO: To write The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh found inspiration in her own experiences as a foster mother. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford University, Vanessa taught art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her first novel.

To tell Vanessa how much you love her book or to ask her a question about her writerhead, follow her Twitter (@VDiffenbaugh), visit her on Facebook, and, of course, check out her website.

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Keith Cronin

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


When I spoke about Writerhead last week at the PechaKucha event in Kennebunkport, Maine, I told folks in the audience that every writer’s writerhead was unique and that how every writer talks about her/his writerhead is unique.

This week, Keith Cronin—the fantastic author of Me Again—has proven me right. His take on writerhead is unique, hilarious, honest, and—though I’ve never met him—I suspect, very, very Keith.

Enjoy!

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

You might think of it as the ultimate backstage pass. As a professional musician, I’ve lived most of my adult life around rock stars. And as anybody who’s ever attempted to meet a rock star has learned, it’s all about access. You can’t get close to them without the right backstage pass (they come in gradations, from Peon to VIP), your name properly spelled on the guest list (a rare and miraculous occurrence), or a sudden covert text message from a roadie named Spike whom you befriended during your misspent youth, telling you at which gate in the arena to wait for him to slip you backstage to meet your idol. And only a very, very select few are blessed with one of those cool laminated passes that you hang around your neck on a lanyard, with those two ultimately empowering words on them: ALL ACCESS.

That’s what writerhead feels like—a highly anticipated but all-too-rare moment when you are granted passage beyond EVERY obstacle that stands between you and your goal: in this case, writing with the passion, grace and confidence of the awesome writer you know you can be (but are so rarely allowed to be).

My hat’s off to people who can get into that kind of zone or headspace at will. For me, the muse is both a powerful and elusive force. So I relish those moments when I’m granted access to the rushing literary waterfall that a good dose of writerhead can open up.

But I do my part to facilitate these moments. I clear time during the part of the day when my creativity is at its sharpest; I surround myself with tools and gadgets to help me capture the inspiration, including a voice recorder, a NEO word processor that boots up in seconds, and even a scuba diver’s underwater writing slate (for capturing ideas in the shower, a brilliant idea I picked up from writer Tracy Hahn-Burkett). I also repeat the odd rituals that I’ve found have triggered writerhead in the past, such as going for a drive, taking a shower, etc. The driving thing is what works best for me: after noticing how often I’d get cool ideas while driving somewhere, I’ve started hopping in my car with no destination in mind, for the express purpose of prompting more ideas.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

Two things can interrupt writerhead: people and stuff.

Of the two, stuff is definitely the more challenging opponent. By this I mean things like having to go to work in order to earn a living, fixing the toilet (which seems to be set on a recurring semiannual auto-destruct sequence), or getting an emergency root canal. Let’s face it, these are all hard to avoid. So the best you can do is to plan some workarounds: get up early to write before work and/or set aside writing time on weekends; stock up on spare parts for the toilet; and only eat soft foods and keep ample amounts of Scotch on hand to serve as a dental anesthetic.

People-based interruptions are different, because they require something that is often in short supply when in the throes of writerhead—I’m talking about diplomacy. When you’re truly cranking on what might well be The Greatest Book Ever Written In All Of Human History, it’s hard to summon the strength and presence of mind to look up and utter a gentle, “What was that, honey?” to your interrupter (who is inevitably your romantic partner or a beloved child) without a certain undertone of annoyance. And trust me, your own annoyance never goes over well with others; indeed, it seems to only spark up a higher level of annoyance on the part of the interrupter, and then things really start to go south.

So I have taken to confronting such interruptions with a three-pronged response plan:

  1. The Look. The advantage of this approach is that you don’t say anything, which of course means that you don’t say anything stupid, which will only make your quality of life take a rapid plunge into the abyss. But be careful—there’s a lot of nuance involved. I recommend practicing The Look in front of the mirror, until you’ve mastered the fine distinction between the look that says “I’m a little busy right now, so maybe you might want to try me later, but don’t forget I love you more than anything on earth” and the one that says “How DARE you interrupt my moment of genius, and thus impede me from writing what might well be The Greatest Book Ever Written In All Of Human History, you insensitive baboon?!?” In situations where The Look is not successful, you will need to escalate your efforts, and go to the second stage:
  2. The Sigh. Now you’re bringing some audio into the equation, while still avoiding the risk involved in actually speaking. But again, nuance is important. You want to avoid too much Overt Exasperation, instead going for a blend of Charitably Patient and Mildly Distracted, with a soupçon of Tormented Genius gently drizzled on top. Again, you’ll want to spend some time practicing this to get the sonic recipe just right. But when this doesn’t work, it’s time to proceed to the third and final stage:
  3. The Surrender. This entails putting down what you’re writing, taking a deep cleansing breath (trying not to allow your exhalation to be interpreted as Yet Another Sigh), and realizing that right now, writerhead just ain’t gonna happen.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Three words: writerhead is Drano.*

And I’m not talking your garden-variety, everyday basic Drano. I’m talking the industrial-strength, shock-and-awe, super-mega-nuclear-foaming-action with lasers version, which can cut through anything in less than the time it takes to update your Facebook status.

Because that’s what writerhead does: it cuts through the barrier between me and the story I want to tell. I’ll see the thing in my head, and know how good it can be—or at least how good I want it to be. But there are always those nasty clogs preventing the flow, which only writerhead can drill and burrow through. I just wish bottles of writerhead were available in stores. I’d buy it by the gallon.

* Please note that the author is receiving no compensation—either in the form of financial remuneration, commercial endorsements, or invitations to exclusive parties with supermodels—from Drano® or any of SC Johnson’s other fine brands. But he wouldn’t say no to a lifetime supply of Ziploc bags, or perhaps some of those cool plug-in Glade air-freshener thingies (having always thought the “Alpine Mist” scent was particularly nice). Oh, and the whole partying-with-supermodels thing would be okay, too.

BIO: Author of the novel Me Again, published in 2011 by Five Star/Gale, Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith’s fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course, and he is a regular contributor at the literary blog Writer Unboxed. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele. Visit him online at www.keithcronin.com or Facebook. Though he’s not wildly active on Twitter, feel free to give him a yodel there and he’ll probably yodel back (@KeithCronin). You can also watch the book trailer for Me Again here on YouTube.

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring John Colman Wood

Shhhh. I know it’s exciting to have John Colman Wood—author of The Names of Things—at Writerhead today, but you’re still expected to be quiet while we listen in on his writerhead. Don’t worry…there will be plenty of time for questions and rousing applause at the end.

So sit back. Pour yourself a cup of coffee. And enjoy.

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

Let me start with a disclaimer: anything I say about writerhead is bound to be nonsense. But I’m an academic, and the risk of uttering nonsense never stopped me. It’s a serious point, however, about nonsense.

First, writing about writing isn’t writing. Not really. It’s something else, like loving the idea of loving isn’t loving, or that imagining happiness isn’t happiness. Second, writing about writing requires a self consciousness that is, I believe, antithetical to the state of mind that occurs when one is lost in the act, which is what I think you mean by the term writerhead.

In other words, trying to adopt a writer’s state of mind is one way to make it go away. So I suppose “getting lost” comes closer to writer’s mind than anything else I can think of. More on that below.

In any case, it rarely happens to me. And when it does, it never lasts longer than a few seconds, a minute at most. When it happens, I am always caught up in something, so focused, so unselfconscious that I’m not thinking at all, just doing. Of course, as soon as that happens, and the right words are falling from the tree, I almost immediately think “Ah, this is great! Now I’m writing” and then puff, the moment vanishes, killed by a thought.

Ironically, this writerly state of mind seldom occurs when I am at a desk with pen, computer, or typewriter at hand. Rather, a word, an image, a sentence, a next paragraph, a turn of plot is more likely to fall from the sky when I’m out walking. Just walking. I am not very writerly when I am writing, and I do my best writing when I am not.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

When I am writing, my distractible mind looks something like this:

First I have to make coffee. It’s good for about ten or fifteen minutes of keyboard avoidance. The switch on the coffee maker is unreliable. The thing turns off in the middle of brewing. Since only half the water has filtered through, the coffee is twice as strong. That’s not bad if you like strong coffee, as I do, which is probably why I haven’t replaced the thing.

With a fresh cup of tar in hand, I turn to my desk and a story I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks. I like a clean desk. I mostly work on a laptop, which sits, half-cocked, front and center. There’s a lamp to the left, a couple of sharp pencils and a legal pad to the right, the coffee within easy reach beyond. That’s it. The world is now well ordered.

The story is about a girl I sat beside about forty years ago in seventh-grade English. My family had just moved to a big city from a small town. Everything was new and frightening.

The teacher’s name was Mr. Defoe. He had a bald head and wore a white shirt, striped tie, black trousers, and black wingtip shoes.

There’s a knock at the door. This is typical. There’s always a knock at the door. A driver from Fed-Ex offers me an envelope in exchange for a signature. He smiles, comments on the weather, thanks me, and skips back to the van like he’s done me a great favor. I sit at the desk and calculate that I’ve just paid fifteen bucks for the privilege of being interrupted. The coffee’s cold.

The school was generations old: dark wood, flaking paint, blackboard pitted and gouged so the chalk broke in Mr. Defoe’s hand. The tall windows were greasy from city air.

I tinker with the last sentence. The windows started out “fogged with city breath” but I had something dirtier in mind, so I changed “fog” to “grease” and decided not to personify the city but just give it dirty air.

I need to pee. I take along my cup to fill in the kitchen.

While I stand in front of the toilet I think of a writer who spoke years ago at the university where I was a graduate student. He was South Asian, a famous guy, and we all wanted to meet him. At the party afterward, I remember watching him talk with one of the professors. The famous writer had a glass in his hand, and as he listened he kept sipping from the glass though there wasn’t any more whiskey in it, just ice. He chewed on chunks of ice, spoke occasionally, and otherwise nodded at whatever was being said. His lips curled into an attentive frown as he chewed. It seemed such a human thing to do, his chewing on ice, and it surprised me because he was such an admired figure, hardly human at all.

Why I think of him now after so many years I don’t know, except maybe my stance in front of the toilet reminded me of his in front of that professor.

Back at my desk I pick up where I left off.

The girl, in contrast to Mr. Defoe, was blonde and small and sunny. She wore a skirt and blouse and penny loafers with shiny pennies in their eyes.

Those two sentences take all of half a minute to type. I read them over. Then a gurgling noise from the bathroom draws my attention. You must think me lavacentric, if that’s a word. I’m not. It’s just that the bathroom is near the study, and I use it often because of all the coffee I drink. I jiggle the handle and return to my desk.

She had slightly crooked front teeth—a tiny, distinctive flaw that made everything else about her perfect. She smiled almost all the time but was self-conscious of her teeth, so she’d smile and then wrap her upper lip around them in a bashful way, like she was trying to hide her smile.

I read that over. The work so far today has taken half an hour. It’s all descriptive. Straight forward. Nothing fancy. I like the bit about her smile. It’s the best of what I’ve written today, and it came by accident. I didn’t set out to write it, wasn’t thinking of her smile when I started.

Now the kid two doors north has begun to practice his drums. He would, wouldn’t he? It’s two-thirty in the afternoon, which seems early. But there he is. He’s beating away without rhythm. It sounds like a lot of stuff that’s been piled on shelves in their garage is crashing to the concrete floor, only it keeps crashing.

It’s time to take the dog for a walk.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

I think writerhead is a matter of getting lost. You need to set off in one direction and then, sometime later, find yourself somewhere else. In that sense writing is like walking.

It is pointless, while walking, to intend to get lost. The intention itself keeps track of where you are. I’ve tried to get lost. I write about place and space, and several times I’ve thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to get lost and see what that’s like, to find my way back. Can’t be done. I’ve been lost, of course, just not by intention. I think it’s just as pointless and for the same reasons to try to get lost while writing.

You can, however, let it happen. You can allow intention to lapse, just as you can wander into an unfamiliar forest and walk and walk, thinking about other things and, after a while, find yourself lost. It happens to people two or three times a year in the forests near where I live. They go in, lose track of where they are, and they’re lost.

I think it’s important to get lost while writing. At the risk of sounding Taoist, you can’t find your way unless at first you’re lost. The kind of writing I do is always a matter of finding my way. I seldom know where I am. And it is relatively easy to get lost while writing (without really trying) because, let’s face it, there’s so little at stake. We can always decide that what we’ve written while finding our way is nonsense, and then we can toss it in the trash.

BIO: John Colman Wood teaches at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His research with Gabra nomads of Northeast Africa has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His fiction has appeared in Anthropology and Humanism. He has twice won the Ethnographic Fiction Prize of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. He is the author of When Men Are Women: Manhood among Gabra Nomads of East Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999). Before becoming an anthropologist, Wood was a journalist.

To learn more, visit John’s blog Im/placed: Identities in space and place or his publisher’s site at Ashland Creek Press.

 

Mojo Monday: A Writing Mantra Word Scramble

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.


Prophecy: If you can unscramble one of my most effective writing mantras, you will have a good writing day.

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Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Ned Stuckey-French

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


Back in February, I featured fiction writer Elizabeth Stuckey-French here on Writerhead Wednesday. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome the other half of that brilliant writerly equation: Elizabeth’s husband, Ned Stuckey-French. I’ve been a fan of Ned’s work for a good while, but recently I’ve also become a fan of his insightful (and funny ha ha) commentary about nonfiction / creative nonfiction / essays / truth / etc. (You can often find him over at Brevity magazine…)

So kick back, my writerhead fans, and enjoy…because as I suspected, Ned’s description of his writerhead is like everything else he writes: addictive.

Now, shush!

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

When she answered this question for you, my wife, Elizabeth, said her writerhead never turned off. The same is true for me, but mine is different. Mine is less purely imaginative and more relentlessly interpretive. She’s a fiction writer; I’m a nonfiction writer, an essayist, and cultural historian. I’m also more of an analyzer and an arguer than she is. Which is not to say I don’t imagine. I do and much of what I love about the cultural history I write is that I get to spend long afternoons with Thurber and E. B. White in their little office at the New Yorker, smelling cigarette smoke and listening to the paper wads hit the metal trash can, or drinking with Dottie Parker and Bob Benchley at the Algonquin as we try to ignore the oogling tourists.

Much of the time, however, my writerhead is trying to think about what I really think, what I really believe. I am an essayist and so skepticism is where I live. I turn things over constantly. I am constantly watching myself, listening to myself. A part of me is always sitting in the press box of my own game, doing play-by-play and color commentary. It started when I was a kid shooting baskets in the driveway. 3 – 2 – 1… French stops, pops. It’s good!

But if am skeptical and questioning, I am also hopeful. I’m a very political person and believe in possibility of progress. Elizabeth teases me constantly about how earnest I am. I am the son of Stevensonian Democrats. My family vacationed in Concord and Lexington, Valley Forge, and DC. We saw Sunrise at Campobello at the drive-in movie. My mom was a poll watcher for the League of Women Voters and as a toddler I sat with her on Election Day and colored pictures. Later, I was a Student Council nerd, shook Bobby Kennedy’s hand a month before he was shot, and then, transformed by the Sixties, became a communist trade union organizer for ten years. So, in my writerhead, I’m constantly refining my position, questioning myself, and others, and trying to figure out what makes sense and is convincing. Is that fair? Is this what I think? I am always, always turning such questions over in my head. They are my version of Montaigne’s Que sais-je?, or What do I know?

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

Life is all interruptions, or as John Lennon so nicely put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Life is about adjustment and so is writing. Or maybe revision is the better word. You make a plan and head off this way and then you’re interrupted by a grammatical error, some faulty logic, a limp and silly adjective, and you want to fix it. But, you’ve got to keep going to the end, knowing all the while that your first draft is mostly potholes and speed bumps. But, if you’ve got to keep the editor out of the room till you get a first draft (which Anne Lamott has so helpfully reminded us is always shitty), you must eventually let them back in. I’ve got two editors, by the way, a male and a female. She looks like a 7th grade English teacher. Her hair is up in a bun, where she keeps an extra pencil. He wears a green visor and looks like Bartleby. And while both are scolds, they are also part of my writerhead team.

So, writing is writing, but it is also revision. Montaigne did three editions of his essays, never cutting, only adding. An essay is a conversation, with your reader and yourself. It’s a fireside chat, a late night bull session that solves the world’s problems. In this conversation, you say something, then interrupt yourself or ask a question and then follow that digression. The talk eddies and curls and maybe it circles back and maybe it doesn’t, but it always keeps rollin’ along.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Well, I guess I’ve already offered a few—time travel, press box and game, conversation with self, river—but here’s another. Borges said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Writerhead is Paradise. It’s where I like to be, and it’s kind of a library where I’m a kid again. I wander the aisles looking for one book, another catches my eye, I pull it down and begin reading, and soon find myself somewhere else, perhaps back at the Algonquin where everyone is a writer and so I start writing too.

BIO: Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is book review editor of Fourth Genre. He is the author of The American Essay in the American Century (Missouri, 2011), co-editor (with Carl Klaus) of Essayists on the Essay: Four Centuries of Commentary (Iowa, 2012), and coauthor (with Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Longman, 8th edition). His articles and essays have appeared in journals and magazines such as In These Times, Missouri Review, Iowa Review, culturefront, Pinch, and Guernica, and have been listed three times among the notable essays of the year in Best American Essays.

To learn more, visit Ned’s website. You can also give him a nod at his Facebook page or the Facebook page for his most recent book The American Essay in the American Century.

Mojo Monday: “Sh*t New Authors Say”

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.


After all the words are on the page,

we gotta be able to chuckle at ourselves…

Expat Sat: Thin Places

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


As I move into writing my new novel (which mostly takes place in Shanghai), I think a lot about why China affects me so deeply. Why it’s become such an integral part of my being. Why I can’t shake it. Why when I’d never planned to love it–and when it pisses me off in a lot of ways–I do.

Last week in the New York Times, Eric Weiner wrote a piece about “thin places.”

I know, huh? What the heck are “thin places”?

Weiner describes “thin places” like this:

“They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.”

And then:

“A thin place is not necessarily a tranquil place, or a fun one, or even a beautiful one, though it may be all of those things too. Disney World is not a thin place. Nor is Cancún. Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

And there it is.

Quite unexpectedly, in China, I became my more essential self.

This piece–and this idea of “thin places”–has given me some real insight into this next novel of mine. So thank you, Eric Weiner.

And to all you expats/nomads/wanderers out there, what’s one of your “thin places”? Where have you become your more essential self?

_____

Image: thepathtraveler / FreeDigitalPhotos.net