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Jamie Jo Hoang - Author & World Traveler

Category: DoThings (page 1 of 3)

South Park, James Cameron, and Writing

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 5 years you’ve probably seen this video South Park made of James Cameron. They’re clearly making fun of the fact that he has to actually “do” the things he makes movies about and that he, in fact, does everything. Cameron has a thirst for adventure like no one else and the end result of that curiosity are his incredible movies.

My dad rarely ever goes to see a movie. Mostly because his grasp of the English language isn’t good enough for him to understand or catch all of the subtext or innuendo’s. But when I took him to see Avatar, he totally got it. Moreover, he really enjoyed the visuals. I think for someone who has known poverty, and lived through a war, he was blown away by the magic on screen. Afterwards, he kept asking me, “How do people get ideas to come up with things like that?” My snarky response was, “I don’t know Dad, if I did do you think I’d still be living here? Nope I’d be a millionaire exploring the seven seas on my yacht.” “What’s a yat?” he asked. I sighed, “A boat. I’d be on my own boat.” “Oh,” he says, “Well hurry up and figure it out.” Thanks Dad.

His question did pique my curiosity though and when I googled James Cameron I found that it wasn’t just that he had a more vivid imagination that I did, it was that he had explored so much more of the world than I had. In my quick google search of “James Cameron” I found the TED Talk he gave below. In his 17-minute talk I learned that he convinced the studios to make Titanic because he wanted to go deep sea diving. The love story and box office millions were an aside. As a diver myself, his exploration of the deep sea hit a nerve with me.

As writers, we create worlds that other’s get to live in, but our creative minds need fuel. A car doesn’t run without gasoline and we can’t write without inspiration. This is the fun part of our jobs! Yet, we’re made to feel like we’re undeserving of the “fun research” because what we do for research is what other people call “entertainment” or “vacation.” But here’s the thing. James Cameron could never have made Titanic the way he did without that deep sea dive. Nor do I think Avatar would have existed without his incessant need to explore the world.

Exploring the things that draw on our senses is what opens our imagination to creating worlds beyond what anyone thought possible. I think there’s a reason writers are usually slightly ahead of our technological time. We not only see things, we want to experience them for ourselves. I personally am fascinated with the passage of time. The lifespan of a seed becoming a flower is immensely interesting to me, and the details people seem to love so much in my writing comes from caring–albeit, a ridiculous amount–about the process.

So, I hereby give all writers–ok, you don’t have to be a writer–permission to: eat at that expensive restaurant, travel to an exotic location, zip-line through the Amazon, climb to the highest peak, dive to the deepest part of the ocean, and just do whatever. Say yes to everything and see where it takes you!

A Visit to Pablo Naruda’s House in Santiago, Chile

 

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La Chascona–Pablo Narudas house in Santiago, Chile. Fun fact: There are two identical doors at this house, one for him and one for his mistress.

 

A few months ago I went to a beautiful wedding in Uruguay (a story that still needs to be written). From Los Angeles I had a daunting 24-hour flight, which included two layovers before reaching my final destination. The first stop was a quick drop down in Lima, Peru where 70% of the passengers disembarked and new people took their place. Pretty uneventful. Next stop, Santiago. I had an 8-hour layover so I decided to go exploring. There was a bit of a rush in knowing I only had a few hours, was in foreign country where I could barely speak the language, and was risking missing my connecting flight–in other words, everything was awesome! Damn that Lego movie for having such a catchy tune.

Just after clearing customs I hesitated momentarily, then proceeded through the baggage claim area in search of a taxi company. After finding one, I tried to explain what I wanted (mostly with hand gestures and pointing): I needed a driver for 2 hours to take me to San Christobal Hill and Pablo Naruda’s House and then back to the airport. I showed the desk attendant google map printouts of the two places and drew stick figures of me and a taxi driver visiting each one then coming back to the airport. When she still didn’t understand, I cursed my 8th grade Spanish teacher. The poor desk attendant looked at me with a blank stare and just as I was about to call it quits and head back into the the airport, another girl approached saying she spoke ‘minimal’ English. “Well, we’re in luck because I speak minimal Spanish,” I said, and she laughed. I explained my situation again and this time was rewarded with an “Ah…” before she smiled and spoke in rapid Spanish to the attendant. A number was scribbled on a piece of paper: $12,000.

“TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLARS?” I exclaimed.

“Pesos,” she corrected me. Quickly, she calculated the conversion to US dollars and wrote $80 US on the paper. Okay! $80 I could manage. In fact, $80 for 3 hours in a cab seemed like a steal. (Side note: It’s not. My older sister, an obviously more seasoned traveler than I, would later tell me I was severely ripped off–no matter, I was on a high and having the time of my freaking life!)

When I met my driver, he never gave me his name, but for the sake of this story let’s call him Robert. Robert glanced at the 4 receipts I handed him and a look of confusion of crossed his face. Not again, I start to think. But he turned to me and said, “So you want to go to San Cristobal Hill, Pablo Naruda’s House, and then come back to the airport?”

“Yes!” I smiled. “You speak English?”

“So, so,” he said. “You speak Spanish?”

“Muy poquito. Very little,” I laughed.

It was about 7:45 a.m. local time and I was ready for the grand tour of Santiago, so imagine my surprise when we arrived at San Cristobal Hill only to find that they didn’t open until 8:30 a.m. Well crap. Robert told me it’s not a problem, we’ll just see Naruda’s house first. This sounded like a good plan until we arrived at the house, properly named La Chascona, and saw the sign that said, Open at 10:00 a.m. I was about 40 minutes into the trip and my wild solo excursion in a foreign country was turning out to be an epic fail.

“What do you want to do?” Robert asked me. I just paid $80 for his services so I hardly wanted him to just drive me back to the airport. I didn’t say anything for a while and racked my brain for a solution. A few minutes passed and I got the feeling he was becoming super annoyed with me but then he said, “I can take you to see the House of the President? And then probably San Cristobal will be open after.”

“Okay!” I shouted enthusiastically. There was a little guy in the back of my mind telling me he was about to charge me up the wazoo for this little detour, but I didn’t care. When else was I going to get the chance to explore Santiago? We hopped in the car and almost instantly Robert went from taxi driver to tour guide. He pointed out the national library, a famous cathedral, a huge indoor market–popular as a place to get a bite to eat after a heavy night of drinking. He told me if I ever came back I must be sure to check out a stall inside that sells the best crab in the world. Come to think of it, I was kind of hungry…but Robert had already gone above and beyond his duties so having him to pull over would’ve been asking to be abandoned in a foreign city. We pulled up to the President’s Palace, and he pointed out the guards surrounding the building and told me they were the most respected division of law enforcement. I told him they are were quite handsome and he laughed.

When I finally arrived at San Cristobal Hill he took me to the top, parked the car, and said he would a nap while I looked around. By this point, we had a pretty good rapport going so I was pretty sure he’s wasn’t going to leave me there; nevertheless, I looked for his car every time it was within view just to be safe. I hadn’t done a lot of research before coming to Santiago; to be honest, I wasn’t sure I had the guts to actually leave the airport until I did it. So all I knew was that San Cristobal Hill had the best view of the city and man, did it ever. Hundreds of thousands of buildings and roads all sprawled out in front of me. Behind me a staircase led further up the mountain and toward a large statue of Mary, complete with a mini chapel at the base of her feet. The main character in my novel, BLUE SUN, YELLOW SKY, visits Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, something I had yet to do, so as I stood beneath Mary I tried to imagine being in my character’s shoes. I could write an entire blog just about that experience so I’ll refrain from getting into it, but what I will say is this: as a first-time author it was affirming to know that my character’s experiences weren’t wrong.

Robert was in the driver seat playing a game on his phone when I returned to the car. At the sight of me, he shut off his phone with a smile and we headed back down the mountain to Pablo Naruda’s house. After paying a fee, I was handed a listening device that looked like a long skinny telephone before being ushered into a courtyard. There were about 14 stops on this tour of Naruda’s house, but I only had a few minutes before I risked missing my connecting flight so I decided halfway through the first description to skip to the next one. Big mistake. At the end of each section the narrator kindly tells you where to walk next. This left me wandering around the courtyard with a security guard eyeing me suspiciously. I turned down a wrong corridor and get scolded in Spanish, which ironically sounds a lot like a scolding in Vietnamese, but he pointed me in the direction I was supposed to go. I moved through the downstairs portion quickly, past the dining room, small bedroom, his mistresses’ quarters, and then finally I reached the place I came to see. Pablo Naruda’s study.

It wasn’t very large. In fact, it seemed quite small given Naruda’s notoriety and fame. There were wooden bookshelves lining the back wall, a desk, reading chairs, and lots of artifacts that reminded me of Native American relics. Maybe they were? If I’d had more time I probably could’ve listened to find out. His desk was clean with nothing more than a few pieces of paper, his glasses and a pen. It was also tiny, not much bigger than the desk I used at home. The room was brightly lit with tons of windows. I wanted really badly to sit down in one of the chairs and imagine being him; to look out over his garden and think about the words that would flow together into poetry.

For a writer, the 8-hour layover in Santiago was enlightening. I walked in the shoes of one of my own characters and sat in the house of one of the greatest writers in history. AND I did it all with time to spare, so after going back through security, I took a seat at the bar, ordered a Pisco Sour and toasted myself for a layover well spent.

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Thick Skin and Patience

When the time is right your egg will hatch.

When the time is right your egg will hatch.

Querying is a beast of a project. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal to have to write a cover letter and submit to agents, but let me tell you, it’s agonizing. First, I spent way too much time crafting the “perfect” query letter, which to be honest I’m not 100% thrilled with but it seems to be doing the job. Second, I had to research the agents. And third, I had to wait.

I’ve been querying for about a month now and the only real advice I have is to be patient and prepared for rejection. In my first round I hit up the top 50 agencies based on this list: Best Literary Agencies.

It’s not enough to just query the agency, I had to research each agent and decide which agent best suited for my material (Yes, this takes time). Once I checked off all of the appropriate agents on that list, I googled “upmarket women’s fiction agents” and added more agents to my query list. This is probably one of the most mundane but necessary processes of finding an agent. 

The first week I got 2 requests and 2 rejections. Not bad. A 50% response ratio was pretty good I was told. But isn’t that umm…an F?! I guess rejections are graded on a curve and the 50% mark shifts everything. The second week was the same 2 requests and 2 rejections. Okay, I thought, I can handle this. But then they stopped. As it turns out, being in the slush pile means most agents won’t even get to my measly query for at least a month. So…I was once again challenged to wait.

A lot of writer’s I spoke to broke their lists of agents up into three tiers: 1. Really want 2. Would be happy with 3. If no one else takes me it’s a start. Then they pick two or three from each category and query in batches. I didn’t do this. In this day-and-age of quick self-publishing I really didn’t want to spend years looking for an agent so I decided this: Query everyone once and in six months, if I get no love, I’ll put on my big girl pants and self-publish.

I work in entertainment and come from a family where the need for praise is seen as a weakness, so I thought the rejection process would be a piece of cake to get through, but boy was I wrong. It’s hard not to read too much into a rejection and instantly think that I may have chosen the wrong career path. 

“It’s all just par for the course,” I tell myself, but there is a devil on my shoulder who loves to taunt. And we creatives know just how little ammunition it takes to make the devil dance, so for the sake of my sanity I took a break. I met some friends at Bass Lake in Northern California and shut off all electronics. For two days I forced myself not to look at my phone every five minutes for an e-mail. And by the time I left I remembered that I began this creative journey knowing full well the difficulties that came with trying to get published and I wasn’t giving up until I saw my book in print.

So, while I wait for  the 5 agents who have requested to read my novel to get back to me, I will continue to send my queries out into the ether and patiently await responses; both the good and the bad.

Rise to the Top, then Humble Yourself

Mutual Respect

Mutual Respect

Situated on a street notorious for prostitution, crime, and drugs, is my parents’ small motel. The area is known to many as the “meth capital of the world”. Cops hardly want to enter. And most of society is simply glad it’s contained to six square miles. As you can imagine, working in an area like this has many challenges beginning with security and ending with a hardened outer appearance. To look weak in the neighborhood is to invite trouble.

When my parents first took over the business 10 years ago, I thought they were crazy. Running a motel was a 24-hour job and it was a notoriously rough neighborhood, but they were entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity and wanted to capitalize on it. I think my dad also saw it as a challenge, which he’ll deny enjoying but deep down he knows he likes.

The first two years were spent fixing it up. Everything from the asphalt to the roof needed mending and my parents set to work right away. They hired day laborers but also worked alongside them doing much of the heavy lifting. The third and fourth years were clean up. I remember coming home from college one summer and sitting outside with my parents as a cop rolled through on his regular patrol. He stopped to say hi to my parents and then turned to my older sister and me and said, “You should be really proud of your parents. Two years ago, we would not have driven through here.”

His words were anything but soothing. If even the cops are weary of entering what does that say about the neighborhood?

By year eight, my parents had settled in. They have learned to sleep with one eye open, neighborhood faces had become familiar, and when ABC News aired a live broadcast of a prostitution raid in 2012, our motel was one of the few left unscathed. How then, I wondered, did they do it?

If you ask them they will tell you it is luck. But I would say it is because of a mutual respect. When I work there on occasional weekends and during the summers, I notice my normal, friendly personality shift rather quickly into a hardened, unsympathetic business demeanor. Nine out of ten people who walk in the door have a sob story and maybe one of the nine isn’t lying about their situation. I can’t tell the difference so I treat everyone the same across the board. My parents, though, they still try to give everyone a chance and they feel guilty when they misjudge.

Every year, during the holidays, my parents set up benches in the parking lot and they cook a full meal with all the fixings for anyone in the neighborhood who’s hungry. To be completely honest, I thought this was a tactic to build goodwill among people who could easily wreak havoc on a motel LA-riot-style. But that wasn’t it at all. They are hyper aware of the fact that their income comes from the so-called “undesirable” residents of the area. “We can never think that we are better than them,” my dad says.

My dad’s English isn’t that great, but I believe what he means is: work hard, build something, and humble yourself as it grows, because you are only as important as those that you profit off of. I can only imagine how much better we would function as a society if our relationships with those above or below us on the social spectrum were founded on the grounds of mutual respect.

Playing Like Picasso

One of Picasso's first cubist Paintings - Les Demoiselles

One of Picasso’s first cubist Paintings – Les Demoiselles

Guest post by: Ryan Andrew

For the longest time, I used to startle awake in the middle of the night. I’d look around and not know where I was… I wouldn’t recognize the shapes of my apartment walls or furniture in the dark, and it would take me a moment to get my bearings. As I’d lay there looking up at the ceiling, suddenly my problems would flood around me like my bed had been floating in the ocean and was just now submerging and dipping under the surface. Things always seemed worse at night: if I was having problems at work, financially, or with a relationship, it was always magnified ten times at these late hours. 

When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was In the Night Kitchen. If I remember correctly, it was about a boy who floats out of his bed in the middle of the night, drifts out the window, and high over the city. He eventually drifts into a bakery and falls into a womb-like vat of dough, somehow losing all of his clothes in the process. I’m not sure why it suddenly popped into my mind while lying there in the dark at the age of 32, but I found myself thinking about it.

I imagined myself floating out the window and rising up, high over the city. The streets would be empty around my building, and as I climbed higher and higher, the street lamps would turn into a grid of pinpoints. The moon was full, and its blue light illuminated much of the city, but beyond that… darkness. I could see east and north from Los Angeles, and it was nothing but desert, empty, barren and dark.

This was the best my imagination could muster? This was me “playing” as an adult? When I was a child, I loved the idea of floating around like the boy in In the Night Kitchen, drifting into a bakery, meeting three jovial bakers… It seemed like an adventure. Now I shot up into the sky like a rocket, looked out over hundreds of miles… and saw nothing.

Picasso was quoted as saying that he spent the better part of his career learning to paint like a child again. I have spent the better part of my life learning how to play again. Society subtly removes play from our lives in incremental stages: we have recess up to a certain point (usually middle school), and then we just sit around during lunch and talk. Many of us play sports, usually through high school or college, and then once we get jobs and life gets in the way, we’re relegated to sitting on couches or in bars and watching others play sports on TV. We are shadows of our former selves.

Last summer, I took a business trip to Indianapolis for the premiere of a film I had edited. My boss, the director, invited me over for a yearly basketball game he played with his friends. It was the beginning of July– about as hot as it gets– and about 30 seconds into the game I felt like I was going to pass out. I was so winded and dehydrated, and I could see fingers of electricity crawling in at the corners of my eyes with the impending threat that I was going to black out. I was thankful when my turn was up, and I collapsed in the chair on the sidelines, soaked in sweat. My boss turned to me and said, “You know what’s funny? Every time you go up for a layup, you’re grinning ear to ear.” I doubted the validity of that statement… I was so exhausted, I felt like I could possibly have been smiling… But then I realized what it was: it was a fossilized remnant of my childhood, like a mosquito caught in an amber rock or a giant ribcage bone from a wooly mammoth. But it wasn’t some prehistoric creature– it was my ability to get lost in the moment, to have fun, and play.

In a flash, it was gone. The weekend passed by in the blink of an eye, faster than you can snap your fingers (those summer weekends always do)… and I’m back in Los Angeles. I’m jerked awake in the middle of the night again, and it takes me a moment, but I catch my breath and remember where I am. It’s cold outside– early fall– and I can feel the chilly air drifting in through the open window.

I lie back in bed and stare back up at the ceiling. I reminisce about that summer and I am touched by a moment of sadness. Life is passing by too damn fast. I used to have entire summers full of those moments, but they are now few and far between.

But then, something gently grabs ahold of me. I feel my self lift out of bed, but instead of flying out the window and high up into the sky where I see nothing but desert and darkness, I drift over to my computer. I take off all my clothes until I am completely naked, just like the character of In the Night Kitchen. Instead of falling into a vat of dough, I open a blank document and fall into my imagination. I let go.

I have never written a blog entry just for the sake of writing it. The words aren’t premeditated, there is no outline, and I have no idea what it’s for, or why I’m doing it, but I do it. Because it’s fun.

That’s how I played tonight.

Giving Characters Freedom To Be Wrong

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Aubrey Johnson, the protagonist in my manuscript Blue Sun, Yellow Sky, is a painter who discovers that in six to eight weeks she’ll be completely blind. I myself couldn’t paint a flower to save my life, but I was fascinated with the idea of someone in her late twenties losing the identity she spent her life cultivating. Ideas are fickle that way; sometimes they emerge but require a great deal of research.

To get into the mind of a painter, I spent a lot of time in art galleries and museums. Not being a painter myself, I had to read a lot about painting technique, color mixing, shadow and light composition and historical context. But I also needed my character to be relatable and feel real, so she couldn’t just spit facts out here and there about art. She needed to have a unique perspective.

As the writer, I needed to readers to first believe that she was a painter and then accept the quirky facets I attached to her personality. I was very self-conscious that readers wouldn’t connect with my character or think of her as a real painter if I didn’t adhere to certain artistic standards. So, at first, I pulled facts and ideas from books I read about certain art pieces and I tossed the phrases into her vernacular every chance I could. But when she started to feel like an art history major I knew something had to change.

In my research, I came across a TED talk by Tracy Chevalier about finding the story inside the painting. At the beginning of her talk, she boldly admits that when she walks into an art gallery or museum, many of the paintings simply do not strike a chord with her. This might be pretty universal but not many people talk about it, and that kind of raw honestly about art’s subjectivity was what released me from the chains of “authenticity” and moved me towards creating a unique character with a distinct voice. Characters, like people, are most interesting when they’re flawed, so unbinding her from the idea she had to know everything about every painter and style of painting was freeing.

Unless I’m writing a historical piece my character can be whoever she wants to be. Restricting her tastes to what is commonly considered to be the highbrow tastes of artists limits my ability to create my own character. By allowing Aubrey to sometimes like things that might be considered lowbrow among art enthusiasts, I avoided the pitfall of creating a clichéd character. After all, who wants to read about a character that never surprises them?

I’m not saying not to do the research. Without a basic understanding of the medium it is impossible to build on or strip away an identity. What I’m suggesting is do the research and then give your characters the freedom to choose whether or not they accept or reject those ideas. Then watch as your characters’ personalities open up and they start to come alive.

 

Winter’s for Writing

           desk-rain

           When I used to work a regular nine-to-five job (two of them actually), I found it really hard to write at night. There were so many things going on after work, from happy hour to birthdays, that by the time I sat down at my computer to write, my brain was exhausted and my eyes already drooping. Summertime is by far the worst season to write—people are jovial, they want to go lay out at the pool or beach and every day seems like a party you don’t want to miss. Winter, however, is a different story.

            From the moment winter arrives we know it because it’s cloudy all day, making it feel as if the sun ceased to come up at all—the party stops. Mornings blend into afternoons as the gray sky takes the place of sunlight rays and bright summer colors are tucked away in exchange for muted solids and thick down coats. This is the perfect time to write. It’s quiet outside, the coffee shop atmosphere shifts from a bustling, dealmaking center to a place where people go for caffeine and solitude, and we’re given a long stretch of time to work uninterrupted.

            Consider the last quarter of the year to be a writing retreat for the evenings. Get out of the house and go to a coffee shop where you don’t know anyone and open up that creative corner you’ve pushed to the back of your mind. If an entire novel or screenplay seems too daunting, write a short story, write a diary entry, write a letter to a friend; writing is muscle that needs to be constantly exercised.

            That first week or two of seasonal limbo, where the sun peaks out accidentally and people are conned into thinking fall was given an extension, should be used to brainstorm. If you already know what you want to write then start mapping out your character traits, plots, story arcs etc., and if you’ve got that pinned down then think about your opening paragraph. Should you be a regular social butterfly like me, take this time to start planting the seed in your friends’ heads that you’ll be MIA for the season.

            I tell people a couple of weeks in advance I’m going to into hibernation and will emerge when the sun does. People will respect the boundaries you create, even if they try to influence you to do otherwise, and when you emerge with a screenplay or manuscript they’ll welcome you back with a toast and round of shots that will drop you in right where you left off.

            Novels, screenplays, poems, and short stories take time to manifest themselves into completed, comprehensive masterpieces, but they always start with a first draft. And when it’s cold outside and my imagination is given a blank sheet of paper and no distractions, I tend to come up with my best material. I write fast and with fervor, expecting that most of it will be crap and always surprised at the story that surfaces.

          So what are you waiting for? Pull out your laptop, heat up some coffee, get cozy, and free your creative genius! Winter is here and it’s time to write.

Waiting on Inspiration

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A couple weeks ago, I finished the umpteenth draft of the Untitled Novel I’ve spent the last two years writing. I should’ve felt accomplished, proud, or, at the very least, relieved. I didn’t. The novel wasn’t finished.

When I started this unnumbered draft, I felt pretty confident in the viability, marketability, and overall concept of the story. I’d tested the idea on a handful of friends who fit the targeted demographic, and they all thought it was interesting to varying degrees. My friends are awesome. They’re super-supportive and wonderful liars. So I could tell when a worried furrow creased their brow at the same time they smiled with feigned interest. The fact that they had finished the book meant the idea held their interest, but I could tell I hadn’t hit a home run. The ending was unsatisfying.

To be fair, before I even sent them copies, I knew this was true. That annoying creature that sits on every writer’s shoulder and nags us to press our fingers to the keyboard day after day when all we want to do is go have a drink with friends…it told me so. But I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to acknowledge I needed yet another extension on my self-imposed deadline. I take deadlines very seriously. I have to– otherwise, I’d never accomplish anything. The art of procrastination was a specialty of mine, but Pride also guided many of my actions, and Pride would not let me miss a deadline.

Guilt and shame rushed through me and I started to panic. How much longer could I keep my friends at bay and hide out in this writer’s bunker in the middle of nowhere before I went crazy? Better yet, was this book even worth all the personal sacrifices I’d made?

I had an incredible network of friends who supported me, literally, with meals and offers of free places to stay while I finished my book. But to be quite honest, coasting along for the past few years on the backs of others was embarrassing. They loved me, my friends, and if I never made a dime as a writer, they would still support me… but two years was enough. It was time to publish this book.

But I couldn’t. It wasn’t done. The ending was flat. The conclusion lacked a soul. I knew it needed something, but I had no idea what that something was. So for the last three weeks, I had ruminated. I thought of different ways the book could end– plot stuff– but that wasn’t what I needed. The ending required something I couldn’t just create. I had to wait for it. I knew I would recognize it when it showed up and that I’d have to be ready with a pen and paper when it came, so I sat around in coffee shops, parks, and the beach ready to jot down notes at a moment’s notice.

It wasn’t coming though, so I left on a short weekend trip to NY with my family and then it happened. The idea struck me as I was walking down Madison Ave window-shopping with friends and without a pen and paper in hand. I whipped out my iPhone and furiously began to record the idea in my “Notes”. It came out as a jumble of specific images and broad tonal instruction, which I quickly translated into shorthand notes I hoped would make sense later.

Elizabeth Gilbert best describes the struggle with creatively in her TED talk on nurturing creativity. But I’d like to take that notion a step further and explore the idea that if something isn’t coming to you…be patient. Go to a museum, park, mountaintop, observatory, your backyard, or wherever inspires you, and just be on alert because it will come eventually.

Tomorrow I’ll start the rewrite of Chapter 24.

Overpasses

One minute over the 5

Photo taken by Chris Collins

I hate to run, but I love to walk. The sheer thought of walking sends calm, reassuring messages to my normally anxious body. If I’m walking, even with no particular destination in mind, I can convince myself I am accomplishing something with that time. The same cannot be said for running on a treadmill or any other likewise piece of gym equipment.

So the other day, as I was wandering toward downtown Burbank, I came across a freeway overpass. It was late, maybe 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., so the sky was a dark blue and the cars whizzing by were nothing more than streaks of light. As I stood there watching the world speed past, I felt hypnotized. The universe had somehow found a way to show me what I had been feeling for so many months.

As writers, we dive into story so deep sometimes that we forget we still have to live in the realm of reality. Sometimes when I’m able to venture so far into the minds of my characters–think Being John Malkovich–that I get lost in my story, I may not speak to anyone for 48 hours. Tapping into that inner creativity is like being on some sort of drug: it’s addictive because it’s euphoric. But the feeling doesn’t last long; in fact, most days are plagued with “writer’s block”, which is like a mental prison without a judicial system or public defender to bail me out.

Those moments, the ones where I feel like I’m stuck in a kind of purgatory of thought, are like standing on that freeway overpass. Everyone below seems to be going somewhere–home from work, to a movie, out to dinner–and their lives are shifting so fast that by the time I register their existence, they’ve already vanished into a streak of red taillights.

I’ve spent two years on this book idly paying attention to the events happening around me (marriage, babies, graduate school, job promotions). Life seemed to move at the same speed as my fictional characters. Both seemed to develop and move forward, while I stood in-between the two worlds, unable to fully join either side. This is what being a novice writer feels like (and maybe a professional too, but I cannot vouch for them), and it’s terrifying.

But as I stood on that freeway overpass looking down on hundreds of cars as they flashed by, I realized I felt fortunate to be not moving, at least for the moment. I got be the girl standing at the top of that overpass, concocting theories about the lives they led in funny and interesting ways. I might even be the story someone re-told later that day. Someone below, for example, might see me and be inspired to write a thriller about a kick-ass girl getting ready to leap over the overpass railing and onto a moving car. To inspire a spark of creativity simply by being part of the world is the kind of cosmic karma that we both put out and wait to receive. Writing is about standing still as much as it is about chasing a story. Because we writer’s are the mere vessels through which creativity passes and sometimes not moving is how we find the great narratives.

On the Subject of Writing

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“Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” — Gene Fowler

I took a photo of that quote for Instagram and blasted it out to my followers, not thinking much more about it. But, as I wake up every morning to a pile of edits for the 128th draft of my first novel, the quote nags at me. Writing is hard. No one will blame you if you just give up. The devil is always sitting on my shoulder.

Writing is an exercise, and every day I have to remind myself of that. I read books– lots of them. When I fly through them in two days, I always think, Man, will I ever be this good? But writing is like running a marathon: no one starts out running one mile the first day and 26.1 the next. A typical training schedule consists of 16 weeks of 3-5 runs per week. Sometimes a 10 mile run will be followed by a two mile run. Writing is the same way. I write like a madwoman for two days, hit writer’s block, spend four hours with a blinking cursor on the screen, and I backslide to the beginning. I am not a marathon runner, but I feel their plight.

For me, reading is like watching others cross the finish line far off on the distance and wondering how long it will be before I pass through any kind of checkered flag of my own.

I read two books last month, Shantaram and The Fault in Our Stars. They were two completely different books for two completely different audiences–each considered to be a masterpiece of its genre. Shantaram is hard to put down because, for the vast majority of us who have never been to prison, Lin’s life and exploits are so different from our own. In 900 pages of fast-paced, vulgar writing, he gives us a glimpse into the life of a fugitive within the framework of a fictional story. For two weeks, I read at night after long days of editing and lamented on all the things his book had that mine didn’t.

In general, I have a rule that when I write I do not read. (Unfortunately, another rule I live by is to break rules as often as possible.) There were, and are, so many problems with my book–from story structure to character development–that it seemed pointless to continuing chipping away at it. So, I downloaded The Fault in Our Stars. The author, John Green, is part of this Nerdfighter online presence and his book is very clearly marketed to the Young Adult population. I thought that this book would be a confidence booster. Wrong.

Green’s audience may be young, but he doles out some serious and heavy medicine in The Fault in our Stars, and in two days of non-stop reading (clocked in as “research” for my writing), I completed this audacious and witty “Juno”-style book about two teenagers living with the knowledge that they will die too soon. Like I said, heavy. The story is fictional, as Green mentions in his prologue and again in his Special Thanks, but it gives a voice to a small niche of the population who are told that death will be a landmark before many others. “You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence,” Hazel, the main character, reflects–wise beyond her years. I finished the book at 2:00 a.m. last night.

At 9:00 a.m. this morning, I stared at a blank screen, with a stack of notes 400 pages deep, and waited for the blood to form on my forehead. I waited for it to exude through the pores of my skin in profuse quantities as fear gripped me and I began the day as I always do: with a blank screen and the vague hope that hundreds of words strung together in fierce combinations will make their way onto the screen and into my own fictional novel.

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