2019-08-17T17:33:54-04:00

Mend the nets

This past week I had the pleasure of hearing from eight of the recipients of the Professional Artist Grant. While it was a little nerve-wracking to take time away from my own practice less than a month before our Emerging Artist exhibition, I felt it was important to learn from my peers in this setting.

Much as in last month’s event with my cohort, I left this panel discussion feeling inspired and motivated. I was particularly struck by a few comments I scribbled down from visual artist Gabriel Ramos.

“Studio practice is more than making. It’s supporting your colleagues by going to a show. It’s conducting research. It’s going to see a movie.” These activities around our work, not just in our work, inform our whole artistic self.

Prior to that in the discussion, he reminded us, “Creating original work takes time.” And “A lot of art making is trouble shooting. People see the finished product but they don’t see the struggle.”

I identified deeply with these statements Gabriel made. Along with a sense of gratitude to another artist for expressing these sentiments that are so often hidden under a culture and ideal of “hustling,” I felt a sense of relieve. “Thank goodness,” I thought. “As a writer who also works all day as a writer, I need to hear this more.”

My mentor, Gianna, has also advised me me that time away from my laptop or notebook is not necessarily wasted time. She told me about a Bible story that can be summarized in the lesson that “When fishermen are not fishing, they are mending their nets.” That’s to say, if the fishermen don’t tend to other tasks and duties of their career, they won’t be able to perform well when the time comes to catch those fish, as it were.

“You have to mend the nets,” Gianna sometimes reminds me. When I’m particularly stressed, she reminds me I need to rest, to reflect. That’s what mending the nets means for me: resting, reading, reflecting, working on the edges of my craft, not just the middle.

I have embraced this saying so much that I had it printed and stuck it in a frame where I can see the phrase often: on the wall next to my bed. Sometimes we just need a reminder we’re on the right path, whether from a mentor or a fellow artist. No matter how winding the path.

2019-08-12T20:27:33-04:00

On practice

I haven’t been to the gym in three weeks. And I think about it a lot.

The combination of preparing to go on a family vacation, being on vacation, and then coming back to reality after a vacation has left me choosing to cut out this important part of my routine. I won’t try to tell you I’m a star runner or weight lifter. Instead, I go to the gym looking for a way to clear my head, get an endorphin rush, and maintain some semblance of physical fitness. And when I don’t get to clear my head, get some fresh endorphins, and generally zone out while flailing my body about a public space, I get stressed. I stress about how stressed I am. I stress about how little I’m doing to relieve the stress.

Why am I using this blog as therapy for my gym habits? Well, because that stress is similar to the way I feel about writing.

If I was cutting out gym time during these past three weeks, do you think I made much time for writing? Both are important, and both are difficult practices to maintain within a schedule that includes a day job, a night job, volunteering, scrubbing the toilet occasionally, and communicating with my friends and family more than occasionally.

As I enter the last few weeks of my grant period, I’m doing a lot of not-writing. I have refined the same passage of text no fewer than three times with the help of my mentor. I’ve planned and collected video footage to use for my gallery installation, which will resemble a book trailer and provide an excerpt from my story. And beyond that gallery-ready multimedia piece, I’m also coming to realize that it’s time to wrap up the bits, bobs, and passages I’ve already written during my grant period. As I said to Gianna last week, “I’ve realized I have to stop writing further into the story, and shore up what I have.”

They say you become a stronger artist the more you practice. If you make yourself available for inspiration to strike by taking time to practice, you’ll be ready to honor it. It’s sort of like going to the gym. Some days, you jog slowly and recognize that you made the effort. Other days, you feel like you’re on top of the world after a great workout.

As I strive to make writing a more frequent routine—especially in light of this project and the opportunity my grant has provided—I know that suiting up and being ready to play is half the battle.

2019-07-31T21:07:47-04:00

A change of perspective

Wonderful things happen when you drop everything (after much planning and anticipation) and go on a vacation. Especially when you make a point on that vacation to put as much space between you and your electronic devices. Anyone who’s done this will likely tell you it’s an invigorating experience to go through a few hours—or maybe a whole day–without a phone to check or email to answer. But for a writer, I’d venture that the discoveries beyond simple and glorious peace of mind go much further. Little epiphanies have come when I have leased expected them.

I’ve struggled with what to name the father in my story, and it hit me while sitting under a tent on the beach overhearing a mom shout for her young son in the sand. I’d been trying to think of a sort-of trendy name for the patriarch of this book that takes place in the near future. Hearing that name on the beach clicked in my brain.

Being on a barrier island (albeit in New Jersey instead of in Florida) and taking in the geography during long walks into town and on the sand have helped me work out some of the logistical details of my story. The way the town is set up. The way one character explains a situation to another. The way one character figures out a secret about another when they first meet. These elements will seem tiny in the grand scale of the book, but are essential for the reader’s understanding.

And there’s the reading! Since I’ve been with my family I’ve finished two books, one of them Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. It’s been years since I read this book and I chose it on purpose: to help determine whether I want to gear my story to a young-adult audience. I can’t say my story is nearly as action-packed as Collins’, but I’m now sure that I want to head in the YA direction.

Needless to say, I feel refreshed heading back into my draft!

2019-07-20T16:03:01-04:00

Music for writing

I have a hard time writing when there’s music playing that has lyrics. It’s something that’s changed as I’ve gotten older. In college I’d play my favorite CDs on repeat while I was working on a paper or studying for an exam. Now, if I’m working at my desk for my day job as a blogger or any sort of personal project, I can’t have lyrics. Instrumental? Great. White noise? Wonderful. The ambient sounds of a coffee shop or restaurant? You got it.

But that doesn’t mean that music doesn’t inspire my work. In fact, I keep a running collection of songs that spur bits of creativity within me to come together in the form of new passages or ideas. It’s a playlist specific to this project, and I’ve been adding songs as I decide I can’t live without them for about 10 months.

Something all the songs have in common is that they’re very emotionally wrought, either in their lyrics or the way the verses build into the chorus and the chorus into a bridge. And holy heck, sometimes a sax or guitar solo can just crack open my core.

Sometimes, a (wo)man-versus-nature theme is present in a song, and that’s what has landed it on repeat on my playlist. Lately “Swim” by Mating Ritual, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” by Alexa Melo and “Too Far” by Laurel have been in my head.

Take a listen and enjoy!

2019-07-20T16:04:00-04:00

In conversation

Lisa Rowan at Creative PinellasThis week I had the chance to get together with my cohort for a panel at the Creative Pinellas facility. It was my first time hearing about many of my fellow grantees’ artistic process and seeing their pieces in detail. What a treat!

Our grant administrator, curator Danny Olda, offered insightful questions about our careers and creativity, and the audience had thought-provoking questions as well. Here are a few commonalities that stood out within the group:

  1. You have to be ready for inspiration. Some of us have set times when we sit down to our work, and others adapt to their moods or changing work schedules to find time to create. But making time to be open to the creativity that flows is essential for creating a body of work that can grow and evolve. No one on the panel seemed to wait for inspiration to come before choosing to make a new piece–we choose to work, and if the inspiration comes, so be it.
  2. Everyone is hustling. Take Javier, who has a career as an aquatic therapist, or Linda, who has two little girls at home. Laura and I both have freelance gigs on top of our jobs, and Sondra has turned to pottery after a career in finance. If anyone in our cohort has a lick of spare time, I promise they use it for art, or to try catch up on sleep.
  3. This place is magical. We have a good mix in our group of people who are new to St. Pete and those who grew up in this region. It was clear throughout the group that there’s something special about the artistic community here, no matter how far entrenched you are in the “scene.” From being inspired by our natural resources, to being able to create in the outdoors, to being able to wear short sleeves to art openings all year round, the “come as you are” vibe in Pinellas County is an asset for local artists.

I’m departing on a family vacation soon, so I won’t be spending much time on my project over the next week or two. But the creative wheels will still be turning, even while I’m away. See you soon!

2019-07-13T17:29:44-04:00

The power of mentorship

Gianna Russo photo

My mentor, Gianna Russo

Gianna Russo and I spend a lot of time talking about hurricanes. It wasn’t intended to be this way, I’m sure, when Creative Pinellas matched us as mentor and mentee. Gianna is a respected poet and small press editor who is rooted in Florida, from its history to its cultural crannies and quirks. She’s also a post-secondary writing teacher, after teaching at the high school level.

In our conversations, Gianna has the ability to build me up even when I don’t realize I need a boost. She asks me questions not only about how I’m writing, but also about what I’m writing. She wants to know my character’s names. She wants to know about my plans to work comedy and moments of levity into my otherwise action-packed plot. And, when I’m struggling to get any work done on my manuscript after long days at work and my after-work freelance gig, she understands. “These weeks happen,” she says. “You’ll get it done.”

And that’s what I’ve found most in these first two months of our mentoring experience. Since Gianna is a writer who juggles many professional duties along with personal ones–and has done so throughout a diverse creative career—she deeply understands many of the struggles I’ve expressed around finding time to write, building a routine, working through blocks and producing my best work.

But we also talk about hurricanes a lot, over wine or tacos or both (writers need fuel!). Because Gianna grew up in Florida and I am a newcomer, she is happy to tell me about the ways this state has changed alongside the ways it struggles to retain its identity during this climate crisis. Along the way, she shares her own experiences as a writer, both the joyous ones and the frustrating ones. Despite everything she’s doing for her own writing projects, she still finds energy to give to me in the form of encouragement, coaching and camaraderie. And that energy, in turn, goes toward my own writing.

2019-07-07T15:46:04-04:00

Draft one, draft two

One of my challenges in the drafting process has been worldbuilding, or, setting the scenes throughout the piece to make this fictional place and situation feel not only believable, but also familiar.

It is tempting to move from plot point to plot point and forget about these details that can not only introduce elements of a world much like, but so different from, our own. But beyond setting the scene, this worldbuilding can also build character backstory and help readers become invested in the characters.

Here’s a portion of a chapter that needed some worldbuilding:

This is how my father died.

On the last Monday of each month, he caught the 5:55 flight to Washington, D.C. When he arrived, a car would take him somewhere in the mountains of Virginia. Sometimes he would call us from the car if he couldn’t concentrate on work, he said, just to check in. He usually called my phone because Denny kept strange hours and was sometimes still up when he got in a private car on this side of the bridge to get on that first flight to Washington.

His driver up north hated when he would call because dad always called from his secure line that came up unlisted. An abuse of power, some would call it. We never talked about much, cutting off abruptly when reception would fuzz out somewhere at the base of the mountain. [what did they talk about that day?]

When the car delivered my father to work he went underground and wouldn’t resurface until Friday afternoon, when he would catch the 8:56 flight back to Florida and fall into bed. After a few days the color would return to his face and he seemed to become himself again. 

I have no idea what my father did deep within that mountain in Virginia all week once every month. I knew the internet was down there somewhere, in servers that spanned football-field length warehouses with fans struggling to keep that at the optimal temperature of ___.

He died on a Wednesday.

Here’s the second draft of that passage:

This is how my father died.

On the last Monday of each month, he caught the 5:55 flight to Washington, D.C. When he arrived, a car would take him somewhere in the mountains of Virginia. Sometimes he would call us from the car if he couldn’t concentrate on work, he said, just to check in. He usually called my phone because Denny kept strange hours and was sometimes still up when he got in a private car on this side of the bridge to get on that first flight to Washington.

His driver up north hated when he would call because dad always called from his secure line that came up unlisted. An abuse of power, some would call it. We never talked about much, cutting off abruptly when reception would fuzz out somewhere at the base of the mountain. 

“Do you remember what the rain used to smell like?” He asked me that morning.

“Like honeysuckle, sometimes,” I said. Sometimes when it was raining you could open the door and it would just hit you: a summer smell that was impossible to replicate. It made the rain feel warm and inviting.

“Yeah,” he said, “Sweet like that. Your mother used to get so upset,” he said. She wasn’t upset at the smell of the rain but rather what we would do in it. When the street would flood during a big storm dad would take Denny and I out in it, let us play in the water. A normal storm would only send the water up around our calves, and we’d splash barefoot, carefree. Mom would stand on the porch with her arms crossed, shaking her head and pointing up at the inevitable lightning bolt that would strike us all down out there.

But it was not the lightning that would get us, but the water. The floods got deeper as we got older, trying to catch our knees as we grew. One night Denny came in after a storm with a rash up both her legs, and that was the end of the rain dances for us. We knew the flood water wasn’t exactly clean, but it got dirtier the higher the water got, as the pipes underground became stressed and strained from the weight of the flow. That rash kept Denny out of school for a week, covered in ointment as it turned to scabs.

“Denny got that rash,” I said. 

Dad laughed a little, like he knew he shouldn’t. “I gotta go, Jo,” he said. “Say hi to your sister for me.”

“Mmhmm. Bye dad.” I dropped my phone into my backpack, distracted by the rush of getting to school.

When the car delivered my father to work he went underground and wouldn’t resurface until Friday afternoon, when he would catch the 8:56 flight back to Florida and fall into bed. After a few days the color would return to his face and he seemed to become himself again. 

I have no idea what my father did deep within that mountain in Virginia all week once every month. I knew the internet was down there somewhere, in servers that spanned football-field length warehouses with fans thrumming to keep that at the optimal temperature of 64 degrees all the time. 

He died on a Wednesday.

I’m sure this passage will continue to evolve in a third, fourth and perhaps even fifth draft. But for now, it feels more confident, doesn’t it? More sure of its place. I may fix some details later, but for now, you have a better picture of who’s involved in this story, and perhaps why.

2019-06-30T15:04:58-04:00

Stranger than fiction

Do you know that old saying, “The truth is stranger than fiction?”

I think of it often when I’m doing research for my novel. I don’t always open news websites or magazines looking for elements to work into my fiction, but I find that the same themes reappear often, and sometimes in ways that inform my work.

Here are a few examples from the past month or so.

Illustration by Corey Brickley for The Verge

Bodies in Seats” by Casey Newton for The Verge

This is Newton’s second feature about how contractors who serve as Facebook content moderators struggle with graphic content and stressful working conditions. After the initial piece in February entitled “The Trauma Floor,” that takes place mostly in Arizona, Newton’s second piece focuses on events at a moderation contract site in Tampa.

While Facebook doesn’t appear by name in my story, one of my characters spends some time in a government facility where she’s made to moderate online content. Newton’s pieces have offered elements and emotions to work into those parts of my story.

 

Photo by Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

“Argentina’s Blackout and The Storm-Battered Future of The Grid” by Daniel Oberhaus at Wired

You might recall the Northeast blackout of 2003. In our distant memory, it may seem like just a blip. But that event was an indicator of a larger problem with America’s infrastructure. Oberhaus notes this event as he dissects the recent massive blackout in Argentina and parts of Chile and Uraguay. The article describes the conditions that have made the U.S. and various parts of the globe more susceptible to power outages, including the higher number and increased intensity of storms. For a story that hinges on natural disasters, this was a must-read for me.

 

Screenshot of Curbed/Vox video

“Will New York’s New Sea Wall Protect The City From Climate Change?” by Alissa Walker for Curbed and Vox

Here’s another climate change story that stuck with me: a video highlighting one option for protecting a neighborhood in Staten Island by building a five-mile sea wall. I’m always interested in tales of resiliency in American communities facing the first impacts of climate change, whether it be building barriers like this one or changing zoning rules.

This collaboration between Curbed and parent company Vox made me recall Going Under: The Story of Tangier Island, a podcast about a small island in the Chesapeake Bay that’s essentially vanishing. I listened to that podcast on my drive to Penland in January. It certainly helped set the stage for that period of focused writing, as these articles and many others have continued to do.

2019-06-22T19:12:52-04:00

#1000WordsofSummer

I stumbled across novelist Jami Attenberg‘s #1000wordsofsummer challenge about 12 hours before it began on June 17. The challenge? Just as it’s named: to write 1000 words each day for a two week period. Attenberg first conducted this challenge last summer, first as an accountability pledge among writerly friends, then expanding it to include strangers from across the world wide web. Each day of the challenge, Attenberg sends a brief email to her mailing list with words of encouragement; this year, those daily emails include bonus guidance and encouragement from various other authors, including Celeste Ng.

It’s all just what I needed to get through a summer slump where I know what I need to do to work on my novel, but don’t always exactly know what to do next. #1000wordsofsummer makes it easy to decide what’s next on the writing to-do list: Write. Then keep writing. Then do it again tomorrow. (And if you want, chat about it on Twitter or Instagram as you go.)

Of course, I came down with a wretched summer cold on the first day of the challenge. But I have persevered. We’re seven days in as I write this blog post, and I’ve clocked 5847 fresh, new words. They aren’t all for my novel; instead of forcing my sick self to only focus on that one project, I’ve included things like a freewriting session about getting a roll of film developed and a draft I wrote of a conference session I’m presenting in September.

It doesn’t matter as much what I write with those words. The important thing is that I’m flexing my brain muscles and getting into the habit of writing a solid chunk of words each day, even after I’ve written hundreds for my day job writing about personal finance for a website. There’s no editing as I write these words, just movement forward. Onward to week two of the challenge. Oh, and I’m counting this blog post for 326 more words.

2019-06-16T17:47:02-04:00

Rainy season

The last time I sat down to give considerable time and effort to this particular writing project, it was the middle of North Carolina winter. I was doing my first residency, at the Penland School of Craft, which offers artists the chance to stay as long as a month between its programming semesters.

Every day looked like this:

Which, for a newer Florida resident who hasn’t spent much time “wintering,” was a bit of a shock. Every day was crisp, brisk, and sometimes actually freezing. There was zero humidity and on day three of my two-week visit, I rush to the grocery store in town to get more moisturizer for my face. The change in environment was invigorating, not only in my day-to-day travels around campus, but also as I explored nearby hiking trails and streams with my fellow residents.

Now, I’m spending weekend afternoons at coffee shops as I work on this same project. It’s a different experience altogether — truncated, hyper-focused instead of meandering and contemplative.

And the weather is different.

Last weekend, I sat in one of my favorite new cafes (Flatbread and Butter, which I love because it has coffee and wine) and watched a storm brew up and then drop a torrential downpour on the neighborhood shortly after. The ducks at Round Lake across the street were having the time of their lives, but the other patrons all had a cautious, contemplative eye on the storm (which involved a lot of rain going sideways).

As the clouds cleared and the humidity returned, I had a small but mighty epiphany for my work, which centers so much on the impact of water on a community: There has to be more water. Beyond rainstorm-related flooding and tropical disturbances, I need to provide greater indicators of the seriousness of the impact of water on this story. It’s not just a matter of world-building, of creating a reality that’s understandable and believable. It’s also foreshadowing. It’s a way to gently tap the reader on the shoulder and whisper, “You better get ready for what’s coming next.”

It’s that time of year when you can’t go more than a day without witnessing (but hopefully not getting caught in) a brief thunderstorm. Instead of waiting for them to be over and the sun to return, I’m embracing them as a means of inspiration.

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