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Last week I spent my writing energy on preparing my portfolio for an application to the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at the University of New Mexico.  I had been shaken by my reawakened love for teaching.  After years of setting my sights on the writing life, I was distracted by the thought (again) that I need to be “practical.”  Practicality is a good thing.  How had I come back to the idea that pursuing my vision passion and were not practical?

I had gone through many iterations of the argument: I love being in the classroom, and feeling like I could just as well work on a Master’s Degree in Education.  That will undoubtedly require some writing!   Teaching 5th grade pays more than a teaching assistantship. Besides, if I need an MFA I can do it later.

But I felt so sad thinking that “practical” way.  It seemed sensible.  But I kept having dreams that disturbed me.  Romantic interests from my long lost past would appear, and I would give my life to return to them.  Night after night: the one I let go so we could become the good friends we are today; the crush I had at 14, who I thankfully never had so I didn’t need to let go.  I knew these dreams weren’t about romance.  I knew there was a message from my subconscious: Don’t give up your love.  When I connected it to my dream for an MFA everything fell into place.  I can apply.  I don’t know if I will be accepted.  I don’t know if I’ll be offered an assistantship.  And I haven’t even explored the option of continuing to teach 5th grade while I do my coursework.  So I put the application in.  I am not letting my love go.

And goodness knows I gaining a whole lot by learning from my students.  I already have volumes to write about from our time together.  I will share some of those experiences next time.  In the meantime, I’ll just bask in the glow of the knowledge that I haven’t given up on my dream.

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Does prayer work for parking?

Well, maybe He's not too busy...

So I’ve got this weird issue.  I love prayer.  I know it works.  I experienced plenty of confirmations that Someone out there cares about what happens to me.  But somehow, I’ve slipped into this attitude of, “I’m not talking to You right now!”  I can’t really pin point any reason to be angry at God.  With very few exceptions, my life is pretty great.  So what’s it all about?  Frankly, it feels petulant.  That’s embarrassing.  I mean, really.  This is God we’re talking about, that Unknowable Creator Who knows me better than I know my own self, the One Who made the whole universe just so we could learn how to be closer to Him.

Well, I’ve got some major life-decisions to make, so it’s about time I got over it.  To help me, I dug up a useful process for using prayer in decision making, attributed to Shoghi Effendi.  I thought I’d share it here:

“Step 1: Pray and meditate about it. Use the prayers of the Manifestations of God as they have the greatest power. Then remain in the silence of contemplation for a few minutes.

Step 2: Arrive at a decision and hold this. This decision is usually born during the contemplation. It may seem almost impossible of accomplishment but if it seems to be as answer to a prayer or a way of solving the problem, then immediately take the next step.

Step 3: Have determination to carry the decision through. Many fail here. The decision, budding into determination, is blighted and instead becomes a wish or a vague longing. When determination is born, immediately take the next step.

Step 4: Have faith and confidence that the power will flow through you, the right way will appear, the door will open, the right thought, the right message, the right principle or the right book will be given you. Have confidence, and the right thing will come to your need. Then, as you rise from prayer, take at once the fifth step.

Step 5: Then, he said, lastly, ACT; act as though it had all been answered. Then act with tireless, ceaseless energy. And as you act, you, yourself, will become a magnet, which will attract more power to your being, until you become an unobstructed channel for the Divine power to flow through you. Many pray but do not remain for the last half of the first step. Some who meditate arrive at a decision, but fail to hold it. Few have the determination to carry the decision through, still fewer have the confidence that the right thing will come to their need. But how many remember to act as though it had all been answered?

How true are those words – ‘Greater than the prayer is the spirit in which it is uttered’ and greater than the way it is uttered is the spirit in which it is carried out.”

When I first came across this passage, I was in a pretty bad state, post-divorce.  I thought, what the heck.  I’ll try out this prayer thing, see how it works.  I decided to practice with small but non-trivial stuff.  I lived in a sketchy neighborhood at the time, and would sometimes come home past mid-night.  My prayer experiment was simple.  Every time I came home after midnight, I said a short prayer that I would find a parking place on my block.  It wasn’t trivial.  I needed to be safe.  Once I said the prayer, I acted as though it had been answered.  Every time I found a spot near my apartment on my block.  This happened many times over the course of two years. On the north side of Chicago, that’s practically a miracle. And that “act as though” part was critical.  It wasn’t hope.  I projected confidence.  It was a fairly small thing, so I felt like I could manage that kind of confidence.  But I tell you, every other time I have used this process, for much larger things than parking, it also worked.  I’m not saying I got what I wanted when I asked for a car.  I’m saying that when I wanted clarity, I got it.  When I made a decision, and acted as though it had already been accomplished, doors did open, the right person or book or thought did appear.  So I’m going to give it a try again.  What have I got to loose?

I think one key to it all is that I try not be selfish in my prayer.  For example, before I write, I ask God to make me ready to serve Him.  “If it be Thy pleasure, make me to grow as a tender herb in the meadows of Thy grace, that the gentle winds of Thy will may stir me up and bend me into conformity with Thy pleasure, in such wise that my movement and my stillness may be wholly directed by Thee.”  If I’m asking God to inspire me so that both the movement and stillness of my pen are directed by Him, then at least I’m starting out with good intentions.  Writing can be such an act of ego.  Writing selflessly is like walking on the edge of a sword.  I have to keep my service to the reader and the story at the forefront of my mind, or I’ll be shredded to bits.

How do you use prayer in your decision-making or in your creative process?

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This is a Wordle of this blog post

A Wordle is a very simple form of digital storytelling.

I have another blog focused on digital storytelling that still gets regular traffic, even though it has lain silent for some time now.  But I have recently been thinking about making some changes to the novel I’m working on, and realized that digital storytelling might help me flesh out these ideas a little more before I commit to making wholesale changes.

Digital storytelling is a powerful medium that helps people tell stories through voice, imagery and music using simple technologies available to most people with computers.  It was founded on the idea that everyone has a story to tell.  As writers, we live that every day.  At the end of 2010, I reviewed my favorite discoveries in digital storytelling for the year.  The examples tell both fiction and non-fiction stories.  And digital storytelling can also help you as a writer, both in the writing process and in building your platform.

To create a digital story, a person first develops a script 2 to 3 minutes long, then generates a storyboard to consider imagery that can illustrate the ideas of 15 to 20-second sections of the script.  After creating or finding the appropriate digital images, the storyteller digitally records the narrative.  Using free video-editing software available on most computers, the person creates a 2-to-3-minute video, and can include music and effects to complete the soundtrack.

Let’s take a look at the seven elements of effective digital storytelling developed by Joe Lambert at the Center for Digital Storytelling, and how they can help writers.  These elements were originally outlined in Lambert’s Digital Storytelling Cookbook.

1.  A Point of View –  Writers can use digital storytelling to try different perspectives using digital storytelling.  If your work-in-progress is written in third-person perspective, try creating a digital story in first-person.  The short length of the script and the visual nature of the medium can help you develop the character’s voice and physical characteristics, as well as develop plot points.  Digital storytelling is traditionally written in first-person, but if you want to try third-person to see how it feels, digital storytelling can give you a small enough canvas to experiment with.

2. A Dramatic Question – You probably already know the dramatic question of your work in progress.  Digital storytelling can help you develop the dramatic questions of scenes that lead to the climax and resolution of your greater story, or can provide a medium for you to present a synopsis of your work more creatively.  It can also help you develop subplot or back-story.  For both fiction and non-fiction work, it can help you process your research into a more meaningful and relevant story arc.

3. Emotional Content – If you’re finding that your work is lacking in emotional texture, digital storytelling can help you focus on creating the feelings you want.  Choosing digital imagery that helps you visualize your settings and characters is invaluable. Using descriptive language rather than explaining the emotions that a character feels or that a situation evokes is as important in a digital storytelling script as it is anywhere else in our work.  But combining it with imagery and music can really help us draw out the emotions we need to tap into as part of our creative process.

4. Economy – This element is what makes digital storytelling so useful to the writer.  Because the script is so short, (one double-spaced page of text for 2 to 3 minutes of narrative) the production time needed is manageable, and creates a product that your audience is willing to view in the time they have available.  It also helps you focus on what is essential to the story.

5. Pacing – Recording the narrative with effective pacing can help both you and your audience connect more deeply with your story.  Speeding up your narration in high tension/high action moments, pausing for dramatic effect and using different inflections for different characters’ voices add a lot of dimensions to a scene, and can really help you develop the tone and style you want to use in your larger work.

6. The Gift of Your Voice – Some of the best-read books-on-tape are those read by their authors.  The author records the exact pitch, tone and inflection intended.  With digital storytelling, you don’t have to wait for Audible to purchase your story to convey what the story should sound like. It also helps your audience connect with you in a new way. Reading the text out-loud is an excellent editorial technique, and can help you make significant breakthroughs in what is missing or just isn’t quite right.

7.  Soundtrack – Many writers listen to certain kinds of music to get them in the mood for the writing they have to do.  Movies use music to underscore and enhance the emotional content of the story.  Why not music in your digital story to accomplish both ends?  Don’t forget, It is important consider copyright when you use music. Websites like the Creative Commons  offer music that can be used legally.

Whether you are working on fiction or non-fiction, digital storytelling can help you share your topic with your audience in a new way.  In a short amount of time, you can introduce characters to your audience, share important research you’ve done to help you develop your story and setting, or explore avenues that you haven’t gone down before to help resurrect a stalled manuscript. It can add a new dimension to your platform that draws in new audience and engages your current audience more deeply.

Have you used digital storytelling to develop aspects of your work-in-progress?  Share them here!  Do you have other thoughts about how it might be useful to your creative process or platform building?  I’d love to hear them.  If you’ve done digital storytelling as part of your writing process, contact me, and I’ll invite you to do a guest post to share your work.

I’m going to try creating a digital story with my novel’s main character, using first-person.  It may take a couple of weeks, but I really want to test the waters before I go diving it to a totally new revision of the second draft I’ve been working on.  Watch for it here!

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2011 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for my blog.  It’s useful for me to know how my readers are coming to it, and what they’re reading the most.  It even suggests some topics I might want to write more about, because readers responded well to those posts.  See if you agree, and let me know!  Thanks.  And Happy New Year!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 18 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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DUT City Institute

The main (and only) entrance to the teaching building. Those other things that look like doors are only for show.

Gates and building entrances drive me crazy.  Here in China, movement sometimes feels quite restricted.  I hear that voice in the back of my head, that one with an Upstate New York accent that tells me, “You can’t get theah from heah.”  For example, when I get off the bus at the stop in front of the college where I teach, there is a gate and a building right in front of the stop. But the gate, with its guardhouse empty, is closed, impassable.  And even if it were open, the front doors to the lab building are locked with bicycle chains.  There is no way to get to the teaching building right behind it.   I have to walk to the main gate a block down the road, and cross campus to get that building.  And the teaching building, which has a perfectly adequate number of doors at each end of the T-shaped building, has only one real entrance, because all those doors except the main entrance are locked with bicycle chains too.  God help us if there’s ever an emergency that requires a quick egress.

Plus, there are the guards.  These are the guys at the gate whose job it is to make sure that only the right kind of people get on campus.  Or if there happens to be an epidemic, they make sure only the right people get out.  During the H1N1 virus scare several years ago, they had thermometers and were supposedly checking everyone’s temperature before they left campus.  If you had a fever, you weren’t allowed off campus.  But they never checked the foreign teacher’s temperatures.  I actually had a bad cold with a fever at the time.  But I  later found out that I didn’t need to worry about that.  Their thermometers didn’t even work.

The guards also watch the main entrance to the teaching building.  That’s all they do, watch it.  Quite the sweet job, if you ask me.  And every housing compound, commercial building and public facility has a handy guard to sit and watch the door.  Do they know anything about the location of it’s occupants?  No.  That’s not their job.  Do they know how to find any particular office?  No. Hm.

My novel has been limping along recently because of hindrances like these.  I had no way to really enter a part of the story because of my ignorance.  A significant part of my story is about a legal proceeding that, until today, I knew little to nothing about.  I know where my main character is, I know where I want her to get to, but “You can’t get theah from heah.”

I found out how true that is today.  I interviewed an attorney about the legal procedures of this particular area of property law. I found out that the timing I had planned was all wrong! But something else happened.  That part of my story completely came alive for me.  There are elements of the process that are fraught with intrigue.  And the timelines for the procedures create some intense suspense.  It is a much faster process than I ever dreamed. I also gained a huge insight into the nature of this kind of law.  All this, courtesy of my dear source, an attorney who gave me his time and resources.  Yes, a lawyer gave me time.  For FREE!  And he’s willing to give me even more!  I love my job.

Research can do that for our writing, bring it alive, and get our story moving to where it needs to go.  We may start out thinking our characters need to go straight from point A to point B.  But through our research, we find the twists and turns that enrich and liven the plot, and make it more real and meaningful.

I need to be more grateful to those guards sitting at the gate, and to the restrictions that prevent me from going directly from point A to point B.  It’s hard.  It seems so stupid to me.  It adds almost ten minutes to my commute.  But I could look at it as extra time to exercise and to contemplate the intricacies of and contradictions in Chinese culture.  I could use those extra ten minutes of podcast Chinese lessons.  Or, hey, I could use the time think about how to get my main character to win her court case!

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Chinese "squatty potty"

When you've gotta go, you've gotta go

I had to go to the bathroom this morning, so I left my office and walked down the hall.  When I walked into the ladies’ room a blast of frigid air greeted me.  The windows were wide open.  It’s late November in northeastern China.  Whose idea was this?  Everyone’s, apparently.  All the windows were open in the bathrooms throughout the building.  Perhaps I should appreciate the “fresh” air.  If they weren’t open, that special sewage scent might be more noticeable. All the toilets at the college are the “squatty-potty” variety, with two places for one’s feet on either side of a long basin-like bowl.  It’s essentially a fancy hole in the ground.  And plumbing in China apparently hasn’t advanced the “u-bend” stage of piping.  Consequently, the out-gassing from everything that gets flushed makes its way back up the pipes and into my nostrils.  But the thing is, I had coffee this morning. And you know how it is.  When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.

Deadlines are like that.  They force action.  Rita Mae Brown once said, “A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.”  I was thinking about that earlier this morning as I checked my students’ homework.  They had to do some internet research in English, and find three tips on time management.  As I reviewed what they had written, I was reminded of my former life as an office manager, when I had studied Stephen Covey’s principles, and clung to my Franklin planner as if it were my blankie.  I was working for a small but busy environmental law firm in Austin, and found that if I didn’t organize and prioritize, I felt constantly overwhelmed, and often dropped one of the many balls I juggled – professional, personal and community responsibilities to which I felt deeply committed.  But as I reviewed my students’ work, I realized I hadn’t used a planner in five years.

Coming to China has changed my life dramatically. I now live in a place where I am essentially illiterate, deaf and mute because I can’t read most of what’s around me, can’t understand what most people are talking about, and can’t express myself effectively in their language.  I teach at a local college and write.  I have domestic help, so my household responsibilities have been drastically reduced.  Both my children are in school.  And as for community responsibilities, well, they have shifted from mostly administrative tasks to building friendships and a stronger sense of community in this culture that is so very strange to me.  Still, I am very committed to these responsibilities.  But every one of them is now relationship-oriented rather than task-oriented.  Instead of having to manage budgets, equipment and staff, I teach.  Instead of procedures and memos, I write essays, memoir and a novel.  Instead of changing diapers and feeding babies, I talk with my children about their school days.  Instead of planning and attending meetings, I meet with my friends and we talk about how to make the world a better place, and how we can become better people.  We support and encourage each other in our troubles, and revel in the good times.

But I think it’s time to return to time management, especially because I feel I’m loosing sight of my writing goals.  My intention was to begin posting weekly on this blog, both to build a community and to increase the amount I write.  But I set no deadlines.  I also wanted to get into the habit of submitting my work for publication at least once a month, and keep the work circulating.  I haven’t submitted anything since September. I was supposed to get a writers’ group formed to generate support and some sense of deadline, but I’ve only sent one text message out into the world to get that to happen, and not followed up.  It’s about time to tighten the belt and get serious.

So I turned to my writing resources to dig up what I can find about setting self-imposed deadlines.  I found a fine blog post by Patrick Ross, which includes five tips to help make sure I meet those deadlines.  He suggests setting realistic goals, breaking down those goals in to bite-sized pieces, celebrating accomplishments and creating and accepting the consequences of failure.  One suggestion I find very helpful is: “if you track progress digitally, you should have an easily visible physical representation of it, so you have both the satisfaction of drawing a line to mark your progress, and reminders of your progress every time you walk by the display.”  My current time-management tool keeps everything hidden in my little iTouch.  Even though there are pop-up reminders, they are not as demanding a reminder as something that is in your face, and frequently reviewed.  Ross also mentions that he “changes [his] project tracking lines every few days so it simply looks different, even if the goals/deadlines haven’t changed.” This helps prevent the familiar sight from becoming invisible. The comment discussion that follows adds to the helpful insights and  practical tips.

Once I have some self-imposed deadlines set, I will create a calendar of submission deadlines for contests and requests for submissions.  Then I’m going to have to brush the dust off my Franklin planner and remember how to prioritize and set weekly and daily goals.  I hope it’s like riding a bike.  I have a feeling it’s not.  I have a feeling it’s more like forcing myself to go to the bathroom when I know there is a freezing wind waiting for my exposed tush.  But I have to do it.  I have a lot of ideas that need to get out there into the world.  And you know how it is.  When you’ve gotta write, you’ve gotta write.

What do you do to manage you writing life/time?

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Crime Scene Chalk Line

Writer commits Murder in Fictional Oak Hills: Beloved character will be missed

I had to kill someone last week.  I dreaded it as much as I looked forward to it.  I wasn’t sure how to do it.  I only had vague ideas…with a candle-stick in the library?  I pondered the options.  Whatever I did, what was more important was the reason I had to kill her.  She had become too important, but not important enough.  Oh, the contradictions we  create when we write!  I knew the only way for this person to become important enough was for her to die.  So in the end she got it with a heart attack beneath the wisteria.

Writing the death scene was much simpler than I thought it would be.  I did my research, and learned the symptoms of a female heart attack (which can be significantly different from typical male symptoms).  I re-read what I had written about my character’s situation in the preceding scenes and was surprised to find the warning signs already there, before I had even decided on how to kill her.  This tells me I should trust my subconscious.  Long ago, I thought perhaps she would need to die in the story, but changed my mind.  Apparently, this bug never let go.  It became obvious that she needed to die.  She was a crutch, making life too easy for my main character, Suzanne. When I finally started to imagine this character dead, I began to see how her death would propel Suzanne, and the story, forward.  Indeed, writing the following scene, where she learns of the death of this person, my writing came alive like it hadn’t in a long time.  Suzanne did things I never expected, but it was fresh and alive and real.

A few other things surprised me, and taught me how to write the scene, and Suzanne’s reaction to it:

1.  From the beginning of the piece, write as if this character is going to live to the end.  Develop the character well, and make sure the relationship between her and the main character is strong and clear.

2.   If you have developed the character and her relationship to the MC well, details from the character’s life should come out more than the details of the death. Draw out the emotional reaction of the characters to those details.

3.  Avoid cheesy exposition.  Death often comes as a surprise.  Keep the description of the death spare, and let yourself be surprised by what happens as you write.

4. The reason for the death is usually more important than the death itself.  Focusing on build up (when the character’s death is expected) and/or follow-up (when it is unexpected) will help readers connect with that reason.  The reactions of the other characters to the death should be catalysts for moving the story forward.  For excellent examples of this, see J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which is replete with unexpected deaths followed with brilliant reaction and plot movement.

5.  Write to good “death” music.  Choose a playlist or a long piece that gets you into the right emotional space of the scene for that character.  The suicide death of a teenager in angst (think Everybody Hurts by REM) needs decidedly different music than a mother who is loosing a long fight with cancer (think Albinoni’s Adagio in G).  But really, use whatever works to get you feeling while you write.  I used music from the American Beauty soundtrack.  That story has nothing to do with my story, but the music was perfect for my scene – quiet, somewhat sleepy, private, with a definite tension.

It is ironic that I found so much life in my writing and my process while working on this death scene and its follow-up.  Perhaps that is another lesson.  Writing is often about touching the center of life, plugging into that electric Source that feeds us, creates us, and helps us create.  Death is one of the most profound ways we discover and interact with that Source.  I absolutely loved writing this stuff.  Maybe that’s why J.K. Rowling wrote so much death in her books.  She mentioned in an interview with Oprah that the writing of the series  helped her process her mother’s death.  And though my characters’ experiences and reactions are not similar to my reactions to loss, the writing of it has given me a new way to consider those losses. It has been cathartic!  I laughed.  I cried.  I’m sure my colleagues with whom I share an office think I’m nuts!

This is the first “murder” I’ve ever committed.  I sure hope it isn’t the last!  I love being a writer.

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