Friday, June 24, 2011

On Writing

It occurs to me that I haven’t written about writing in awhile.

Partly, this is because the whole writing-about-writing thing can be a bit too meta unless you’re sitting in a graduate writing workshop surrounded by people who do nothing but write, too.

But mostly, it’s because for awhile now I have been too busy with the writing I do for a living to do much else (except mothering, which comes first, of course). Case in point: it is almost 10 pm on a Friday night and I’m taking a quick break from The Book but expect another hour or two of work before it’s a night. It’s glamorous, the writing life, no?

(And with Le Plague circa May 2011 forging a vengeful comeback, it’s even more glamorous. But I digress…)

It’s been awhile since I’ve been wrapped up this intensely in one project, since I’ve had this much focus. It’s much harder fought than the last time around, or when I was in graduate school, when I wasn’t a full-time lecturer or mother to an infant, so each moment I do carve out for writing is that much more precious.

It’s been good for me to step beyond the role of writing instructor and really dig into the writing process myself in such an all-encompassing way. I’ve re-learned some important things:

1. Know when to walk away: Last summer, when I tried to get as much done as I could before my health imploded and my baby arrived, I was stuck in the “I must write X amount of words per day” rut. This might be good for discipline, but it’s terrible for creativity and for development of ideas. Sometimes, I am really “on” and I can write several thousand words in one chunk of time. Other days, it’s hard going to get more than a few paragraphs. When that happens, when I am forcing each sentence and not saying what I want to say, the best thing to do is step away—sometimes for an early lunch, sometimes for a short walk, sometimes for a few hours. See, ideas need to marinate a little bit, and I need time to figure out what I want to say about what I’ve just written. Usually, it’s when I am walking with the baby or driving the car or making dinner that I solve the problem or make the connection I couldn’t do earlier.

2. Remember the audience: For real, I teach a whole class on writing for different audiences (in the health sciences) and talk about audience so much during the semester I tire of hearing the word. But with a project as big as the one I am working on now, I need to drill that into my brain as much as my students need to hear it. Nowhere is audience more important than in terms of scope—I am doing a ton of research and I always need to stop and ask myself how much context and background I can reasonably expect my audience to have; in class, we call this audience analysis. This dictates how much detail and backstory I fill in, and it is a constant negotiation, probably one of the most difficult parts of writing for me. I have so much information, now how can I organize it? Figuring out what my readers need to know is a huge step.

3. Tell a good story: From novels and short stories to memoirs and serious nonfiction projects, each genre of writing needs to meet this very basic but oh-so-important criterion. The writer needs to engage the readers, to entertain them and make them want to keep reading. This does not change if the subject matter is serious and the research is intense—every writer still needs to make it a good story. I know when I am getting glassy-eyed with what I am writing that it is time to switch gears (or walk away). You can be informative and still be interesting. It is not always an easy thing to balance, but if you’re genuinely interested in the subject matter, that will come through. I always tell my students to think carefully before committing to a research topic—if after a few weeks, they are bored with it and bored with writing it, I will be able to tell that from reading it.

This is an incomplete list, for sure, but it’s a start. Writers and bloggers out there, what can you add?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Five Things on a Friday

So, I blinked and weeks have passed since my last post. The usual spin cycle—mothering, writing, being sick, tending to a sick baby—is the culprit but we’re all on the mend and enjoying summer. (The parks! The playgrounds! The beach! So many new things for little eyes and hands to explore…)

(And, somehow, the chapters are slowly coming together. Time is not my friend these days, but such is life, right? There is nothing as clarifying as a deadline, there is nothing as clarifying as a deadline…)

With lots to write but scattered focus, here we go—five things I’m grateful for this Friday.

1.Friends. I know that might sound trite, because really I’m always grateful for my friends, but more specifically, I am grateful for the chance to see my friends. Between a hectic schedule, illness, and in a lot of cases, geography, I don’t get to see a lot of my long-time good friends as often as I’d like. Recently we all coordinated schedules and met up for a quick weekend in Washington, DC, home to our alma mater, Georgetown. Husbands came to help with babies, babies met friends from afar, and it was great. I’ve had to miss the majority of weddings, reunions, trips, and other events over the years because of being sick, and it was so nice to have everything work out this time. (Special thanks to T for being an amazing hostess!)

2.Flying. Again, let me be more specific—I am grateful I was able to fly. It has been years since I’ve been on a plane, between the usual illnesses, plus the high-risk pregnancy and germ lockdown, bed rest and then having a newborn and young infant with some health problems. And while I always come home from a plane trip sick, it was so worth it to get a brief change of pace. (Plus, Baby Girl’s first flight went so well—she smiled away and then slept the entire flight, both ways.)

3. Food. Specifically, feeding Baby Girl food. When she turned six months old, we started solid foods and a sippy cup, expecting both to take awhile to catch on. However, within a couple weeks, she was on to three solid meals a day and using the sippy cup exclusively, save for one bottle at bedtime. She had feeding problems as a newborn, has reflux, and has multiple food allergies and intolerances at this point (hoping she outgrows them all!) so it is amazing to see her enjoy eating so much and thriving. She is small for her age but one look at her chubby cheeks and thighs and it’s clear she is doing great. Everything we’ve tried with her she loves, from chickpeas, spinach, and broccoli pieces to steak, sweet potatoes, and rotisserie chicken (her favorite!) (Next up? Quinoa!) We’ve made all of her food from the start, which is super easy and a lot of fun, and since she’s been feeding herself with her pincer grasp for so long, she can pretty much try anything at this point. If she ends up with long-term food allergies or is celiac, I want her to know so many good foods exist and I don’t ever want her to feel hemmed in by dietary restrictions. While so much can change, for now she is an adventurous and happy eater, and I hope it lasts.

4. Flexibility. I admit, the spring semester kind of chewed me up and spit me out. There were too many major things to juggle, and my body paid the price. I love what I do and really enjoy my students, but I have never been more grateful for the summer break than I am this year. Working on my book full-time and having the flexibility with my daytime hours to do a lot more with my daughter is wonderful. It’s an iteration of the semester: if I am willing to do a lot of work late at night, early in the day, and any spare time, I get to do so much more with my girl—and while the book situation is pretty intense right now, we are having so much fun, and I am really looking forward to the rest of summer and watching her grow and discover new things.

5.Facebook. There are a lot of things I don’t like about FB and I have my personal page fairly limited in terms of access, but there is a lot I find valuable, too. My book page is a good way to connect with readers and have an ongoing conversation, which keeps things dynamic and relevant. I like the power of FB to harness people together for a cause, which is what has it on my bullet list today. My husband’s company, The Well Fed Dog, is supporting dogs/animals displaced by the recent tornadoes in our home state of Massachusetts. For every new FB member who joins/likes the Well Fed Dog Facebook page, we’re donating to the Dakin Valley Humane Society, which suffered significant damage in the storms. So if you’re on FB, click on the page and help the WFD assist these animals in need!

And, because it makes me smile and it’s Friday so why not smile, a recent pic of Baby Girl:

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