The Writers Life

grey dolphin swimming in the blue ocean

At a literary lunch recently I overheard someone say:  ‘The thing to do is put the idea in your subconscious.  Your brain will do the work.’

It takes time for our experience to make its way through our consciousness.  For example, it is hard to write about a journey while you are still in the midst of the adventure.  We have no distance from what is happening to us.  The only things we seem to be able to say are ‘having a great time’, ‘the weather is good’, ‘wish you were here’.  It is also hard to write about a place we just moved to, we haven’t absorbed it yet.  We don’t really know where we are, even if we can walk to the train station without losing our way.  We haven’t experienced three scorching summers in this country or seen the dolphins migrating south along the  coast in the winter.

“Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.  I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast  (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964).

So we take in experience, but we need to let things make their way through our consciousness for a while and be absorbed by our whole selves.  We are bower birds, collecting experience, and from the thrown away apple skins, outer lettuce layers, tea leaves, and chicken bones of our minds come our ideas for stories and poems and songs.  But this does not come any time soon.  It takes a very long time (three to ten years in the case of literary fiction).  We need to keep picking through these scraps until some of the thoughts together form a pattern or can be organised around a central theme, something  we can shape into a narrative.  We mine our hidden thoughts for ideas.  But the ideas need time to percolate:  to slowly filter through.

Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, summed up what could be the creative process when he wrote ‘The Guest House’:

This being human is a guest house.

Each morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing and invite

them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Jalaluddin Rumi, in The Essential Rumi

Translated by Coleman Barks, 1999

Our work is to keep rummaging through the rubbish bins of our minds, exercising the writing muscle, in readiness to answer that knock at the door when it comes.

As the author Vivian Gornick said:  ‘The writers life is the pits.  You live alone and you work alone, every day I have to recreate myself.’  She paused and laughed.  ‘But when the work is going well there is nothing that compares.’

What about you? Are you ready to answer the knock at the door?  🙂

Header image: Creative Commons

Publication day!

 

The Crystal Ballroom red and black book cover

My second novel, The Crystal Ballroom is released today! If you’re in Australia you can order a copy from your favourite bricks and mortar bookseller or directly from Ginninderra Press. Print and ebook editions are also available from Amazon, Book Depository and other online booksellers.

‘Libby Sommer lays bare the foibles of human nature in her finely observed stories of love and loss in the singles dance scene. Brilliantly drawn with wit, compassion and poignancy, the characters you meet in The Crystal Ballroom are sure to remind you of someone—maybe even yourself.’ – Jan Cornall, Writer’s Journey.

 ‘Libby Sommer exposes the secret lives of the singles who dance at The Crystal Ballroom. Authentic and powerful, this unique book will be loved by the dancers and readers.’ Frida Kotlyar, ballroom, Latin and Argentine tango dancer.

 ‘Libby Sommer’s fiction has wit but is essentially serious with a subtle but strong underlying pathos, a wry humour and accomplished satirical tone.’ – Amanda Lohrey, Australian writer, and novelist. Patrick White Award winner.

‘Sommer’s existentialism is one of the best and most articulate voices of middle age angst ever.’ –Richard English, novelist and Visiting Lecturer, Brunel University London.

The book will be launched at Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne on 1 July. Details to follow. If you’re free, come along.

I hope you enjoy reading The Crystal Ballroom: stories of love and loss in the singles dance scene. I’m very excited that My Year With Sammy and The Crystal Ballroom are out there in the public arena – thrilled that my work has finally made it out into the world after all these years.

10 Topics to Warm Up the Writing Muscle

close up of pen clasped in writers hand over notebook on her denim lap

Sometimes we sit at our desks to write and can’t think of anything to write about.  We face the blank page.  We sit there until blood pours from our foreheads, as one famous author was heard to say.

Making a list can be good.  It makes you start noticing material for writing in your daily life, and your writing comes out of a relationship with your life in all its richness.

10 ideas for writing practice:

  • Begin with “I don’t remember”. If you get stumped, just repeat the words “I don’t remember” on the page again and keep going.
  • Tell about sound as it arises. Be aware of sounds from all directions as they arise:  sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below.  Notice any spaces between sounds.
  • Tell me about last evening. Dinner, sitting on the couch, preparing for bed.  Be as detailed as you can.  Take your time to locate the specifics and relive your evening on the page.
  • Tell me what boredom feels like.
  • See in your mind a place you’ve always loved. Visualise the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes.
  • Write about “saying goodbye”. Tackle it any way you like.  Write about your marriage breakup, leaving home, the death of a loved one.
  • What was your first job?
  • Write about the most scared you’ve ever been.
  • Write in cafes. Write what is going on around you.
  • Describe a parent or a child.
  • Some people have a jar full of words written on pieces of paper and select one piece of paper at random each day and write from that.  Others use a line of a poem to start them off.  Then every time they get stuck they rewrite that line and keep going.

Be honest.  Cut through the crap and get to the real heart of things.

Zen Buddhist, psychotherapist, writer and teacher, Gail Sher in her book One Continuous Mistake says the solution for her came via haiku (short unrhymed Japanese poems capturing the essence of a moment).

 “For several years I wrote one haiku a day and then spent hours polishing those I had written on previous days.  This tiny step proved increasingly satisfying,” Gail Sher.

She said it gradually dawned on her that it was not the haiku but the “one per day.”  Without even knowing it, she had developed a “practice.”  Every day, no matter what, she wrote one haiku.  In her mind she became the person who writes “a haiku a day.”  And that was the beginning of knowing who she was.

Gail Sher suggests writing on the same subject every day for two weeks.

“Revisiting the same subject day after day will force you to exhaust stale, inauthentic, spurious thought patterns and dare you to enter places of subtler, more ‘fringe’ knowing,” Gail Sher.

She writes in One Continuous Mistake that the Four Noble Truths for writers are:

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

So start coming up with your own list of ideas for practice writing.  Life happening around us is good grist-for-the-mill.

Header image:  Creative Commons

‘Painstaking Progress’ revisited

 

sunset over the ocean

‘Painstaking Progress’ is another of my stories, like ‘Art and the Mermaid’, that was first published in Quadrant Magazine. It shows the difficulties of the writing process for the narrator as she tries to make sense of  her family history and agonizes about the relationship with her young lover.

Painstaking Progress

by Libby Sommer

I’m imagining a cloudy autumn morning.  There’s a room.  Half office, half bedroom.  Not too large and not too small.  The windows of the room face east and look out towards the ocean across the expanse of a green gully.

I picture a woman sitting on a bed with pillows behind her back.  The windows are open.  Perhaps it is Saturday morning.  On the bedside table is a mug of tea and a photograph of the woman’s daughter on her wedding day.

The wind begins to stir the big trees outside and the morning haze is beginning to move and for a short moment the sun lightens the carpet and heavy dark wood furniture.  The shadows of the curtains’ curves darken the floor, almost invisible to the woman on the bed.   The morning sun lightens the CD player, the alarm clock, the piles of books stacked on the revolving Victorian bookcase.

She looks out at the water and at the triangle of beach.  Sometimes it seems that nothing much changes out there, although on some days the waves break close to shore and at other times further out to sea.  She can see it all from the bed, even at night time.  The bed faces the beach and the ocean, and so does the desk.  The room is like standing at the rail of a ship.

On the radio:  ‘Waves, to me, are a reason to live,’ says the surfer.  ‘When you see the roar, the jaws, there is nothing that touches it on the face of the earth.’

In June the twilight begins in the afternoon.  The days close in on me, here in

this room.  The infinite possibilities in the sky and the sea and the possibility of nothing.

What is this writing life?  It tears me to pieces every day.

Continue reading

Have made it to the top of the mountain

red and black book cover 'The Crystal Ballroom' by Libby Sommer

Have finally made it to the top of the second-book-publication mountain. Received pre-release copy of The Crystal Ballroom this week. Looking good. You can order copies now through the Ginninderra Press website . Also available as an ebook from Amazon, Book Depository and other online sellers.

‘Libby Sommer lays bare the foibles of human nature in her finely observed stories of love and loss in the singles dance scene. Brilliantly drawn with wit, compassion and poignancy, the characters you meet in The Crystal Ballroom are sure to remind you of someone—maybe even yourself.’ – Jan Cornall, Writer’s Journey.

 ‘Libby Sommer exposes the secret lives of the singles who dance at The Crystal Ballroom. Authentic and powerful, this unique book will be loved by the dancers and readers.’ Frida Kotlyar, ballroom, Latin and Argentine tango dancer.

 Happy happy me.

What’s stopping you?

two men trying to push truck out of mud

How many wonderful ideas have we had in our lives that never became anything more than ideas?  What stopped them from becoming reality?  Probably lack of drive, or fear, or both.

If the idea of writing a story, writing a memoir, or writing a blog lights a spark within you, sets off a signal, causes you to drool—or fills you with unspeakable anxiety—then you are ready to write.  What is holding you back is not lack of drive, but fear.  Unadulterated, stark fear.

  • Fear of what?
  • Fear of being unable to write well and being criticized by others?
  • Fear of being unable to stay on track long enough to get to an ending?
  • Fear that you just don’t have what it takes to maintain focus to tell a good story?

Research into the way the brain operates has revealed that there are two sides to the brain, left and right.  Much of our fear of writing comes from the way these two sides do or don’t work together.

“We might term the right brain ‘the creator,’ for apparently it allows us to do creative things—make connections, manifest ideas, imagine situations, see pictures of events.  The left side analyses, categorizes, recalls words, and performs its learning functions in a step-by-step manner,”  Bernard Selling, Writing From Within.

The analytic left brain has a compartment that houses the “critic.”  He or she is the person in us who says,

  • Watch out!
  • You can’t do that!
  • You’ll fail, so don’t even try.
  • You know you’re not good at that!

“If those two voices in you want to fight, let them fight.  Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place.  Unfortunately, those two fighters often come with you to your notebook since they are inside your head.  So you might have to give them five or ten minutes of voice in your notebook.  Let them carry on in writing.  It is amazing that when you give those voices writing space, their complaining quickly gets boring and you get sick of them,” Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

It’s just resistance.

Sometimes, the harder you try, the more you become stuck in your own negativity.  It can feel like car tyres spinning in a bog and you just can’t move forward with ‘the work’.  Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write.  That’s when you need to say ‘stop’ and put it aside for now.  Look for another outlet for your energy before starting again.  Take a break and read books by wonderful writers.  When I get stuck I turn to contemporary poetry for inspiration – thoughtful and passionate poems about living in the modern world.  Some of my favourite poets are:  Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Les Murray and Joanne Burns.

Sometimes I start another writing project before going back to the original one to get more perspective on things.  Other times I will study the beginning and endings of books to get inspiration for a new beginning or a new ending, or sometimes work backwards from the ending as a way to restart.

But don’t get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure.  When it is your time to write, write.  Put yourself out of your misery and just do it.

What about you? Any tips you’d like to share about overcoming the resistance to write?

Header image:  Creative Commons

Is it a short story or a novel?

white laptop,black and white notepad and pen, white mobile, on desk

Is a novel a short story that keeps going, or, is it a string of stories with connective tissue and padding, or, is it something else?  Essayist Greg Hollingshead believes that the primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene.

“It’s not baggy wordage that causes the diffusiveness of the novel.  It’s this long-distance haul of meaning.”  Greg Hollingshead

There is a widespread conviction among fiction writers that sooner or later one moves on from the short story to the novel.  When John Cheever described himself as the world’s oldest living short story writer, everyone knew what he meant.

Greg Hollingshead says that every once in a while, to the salvation of literary fiction, there appears a mature writer of short stories—someone like Chekhov, or Munro—whose handling of the form at its best is so undulled, so poised, so capacious, so intelligent, that the short in short story is once again revealed as the silly adjective it is, for suddenly there are simply stories, spiritual histories, narratives amazingly porous yet concentrated and undiffused.

When you decide you want to write in a particular form—a novel, short story, poem—read a lot of writing in that form.  Notice the rhythm. How does it begin?  What makes it complete?  When you read a lot in a particular form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit at your desk to write, you produce that same structure.  In reading novels your whole being absorbs the pace of the sentences, the setting of scenes, knowing the colour of the bedspread and how the writer gets her character to move down the hallway to the front door.

I sit at my desk thinking about form as a low-slung blanket of cloud blocks my view of the sky.  Through the fly screen I inhale the sweet smell of earth after rain as another day of possibility beckons.

We might write five novels before we write a good one.  I wrote five book-length manuscripts before one was finally accepted for publication. My skill was in the short form. I’d published dozens of short stories in prestigious literary journals. So it made sense that my first book, ‘My Year With Sammy’ (Ginninderra Press) is a novella –  a small book.

What about you? Is your skill in the short form or the marathon?

book cover My Year With Sammy

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