Weekend Edition – On Risk vs. Responsibility Plus Writing Tips and Good Reads

The Truth About My Creative Life “Balance”

monkey tightropeI was driving home from my riding lesson with the slavering hounds of duty nipping at my back tires. Fly, fly they bayed at me, back to your desk and your deadlines. I knew that was the responsible thing to do. There were clients waiting on deliverables that were in various stages of almost done. But, despite the dogged insistence of my Type-A conscience, I took a left instead of a right and parked outside my favorite local coffee shop.

One chai, I thought, it won’t take long. The work will still be there – waiting – after I’ve taken a few minutes to clear my head and stretch my imagination. I found that the book I’d been reading was sitting on the passenger seat beside me. Some part of me must have premeditated this brief escape. Some quietly rebellious instinct was looking out for my creative self, creating an opportunity to step outside the day’s To Do list and indulge in a few minutes of play inside my head.

The only available seats were two table-less chairs tucked in a corner by the always-closed emergency exit. I sat and sighed into the luxury of a little time alone with my thoughts, but (as is often the case with these impromptu getaways) the Universe had something more in store for me – a serendipitous meeting with a friend. She was on her way somewhere and I only had a few minutes, but we stood at the end of the counter next to the homeless chairs and talked. And talked. She is a deeply empathetic and artistically talented photographer, and – like me – a single mom. We are both self-employed. We don’t see each other often enough. Perhaps that’s why we always skip the small talk.

Our conversation seemed less something that developed in that moment than something that had been hovering in that spot waiting for us to arrive. Hardly pausing after a quick embrace, we were soon finishing each other’s sentences as we grappled with the challenges of pursuing our art and taking risks while still upholding our very real responsibilities. Our exchange was peppered with words like shackled and fear and frustration, words that gnaw at you, taking bites so small you almost don’t notice. We circled around the tired truths that live large in our daily rounds: life is short, kids grow up fast, you only live once.

My friend and I have each faced tough times. We’ve each had moments when giving up the creative life seemed to be the most sensible, selfless thing to do. We talked, standing there in the overcrowded cafe, about the constant balancing act – what I envision as a small, defenseless animal walking a tightrope strung over a pit of hungry crocodiles. The crocodiles are always there. Sometimes – when things are good – they are almost invisible, gliding darkly beneath the surface of the water, and sometimes – when things are bad – they reach their long snouts up out of the water to leer with dripping, toothy smiles. And sometimes you wonder if maybe you’re supposed to step off the tightrope and plunge willingly into their writhing midst. Because, that’s the story you always hear – the story of the artist who had to hit rock bottom before she emerged, like a phoenix, to soar to new heights of success.

In the pause between spoken thoughts, we wondered silently about the possibility of crisis-as-catalyst.

But then, one of us noticed the time, and the other said she really had to get going. We embraced again and agreed that we really needed to do this more often. We promised.

What I’m Writing:

pen notebookIn the last meeting of our Fiction I class, we covered a smorgasbord of topics including the magic of modifiers, the importance of sentence rhythm, the wide range of productivity solutions, and the amorphous nature of endings. We also talked a bit about what comes next, how do we continue this journey? I’m already considering another class and am eager to continue work on my short story. I intend to start being more proactive about researching publications that might be a good fit for my work so that, once I have something ready, I’ll know where to submit it.

But, as glad as I am that this class has reminded be about these important, “big” steps, I’m even more grateful for my new sense of “micro capability.” Though I realize that, because of time constraints, this eight-week class only grazed the surface of the writing craft, I feel like I have been given some small superpowers. Through a series of mini epiphanies, I find that I’m suddenly able to “see” my writing more clearly. The bits and pieces of knowledge that I’ve gained make me a more critical reader, of my own work and of others’ work. It’s kind of like I’ve been given X-ray vision. I am better able to perceive the inner workings of a piece of writing. This helps me appreciate the work of others more deeply; and it certainly helps me to improve my own writing.

The key, I think, to keeping and building upon this new ability, is practice. I must keep what I’ve learned fresh in my mind and continue to exercise these new muscles each day – through writing and through reading. I’m already thinking about using “story breakdowns” to study how other writers have built their characters, settings, plots, and themes. Like an engineer who must take something apart before she understands how it works, I want to take other people’s stories apart so that I understand better how to put my own together.

I hope to share some of these explorations and studies with you in future posts, and I’d love to hear if any of you have come across or performed similar “dissections.”

What I’m Reading:

book watermelon kingI mentioned last week that I’d been to the library looking for Daniel Wallace’s novel, Big Fish. It wasn’t in, but I did find another of his books – The Watermelon King.  This novel, set in the small, southern town of Ashland, creates an atmosphere of fable and tall-tale that’s very similar to the one that imbues Big Fish with a sense of magic.

Though the beginning was something of a slow burner, I enjoyed the second half of the book very much and found myself shirking other duties in order to read the last few chapters. The cast of characters is both charming and unnerving. The ideas that Wallace plays with are ones that run deep – identify, family, tradition, sexuality. Despite the thematic gravity and sometimes very dark turns in the story, he handles the narrative with a light hand that keeps you, the reader, from feeling weighted down by the pain and grief that runs through the story.

Despite the many fanciful turns in the events of the novel, the characters seemed very real. Wallace’s characterization is subtle and stretched out over a series of brief encounters that make up the first half of the book as the protagonist, Thomas Rider, interviews citizens of Ashland, the place of his birth, about his mother. Though certainly not “normal” by most standards, you can almost believe that a place like Ashland might exist … and the Watermelon King, too.

Hal Jacobs of the Atlanta Journal, Constitution said it well.

“In The Watermelon King, Wallace hits all the right notes of magical realism, creating a world where the supernatural fits alongside the ordinary, where storytellers stretch the plausible, and terror, fear and violence lurk below the surface.”

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

Instead of a quote, this week I’d like to share this video of Ursula K Le Guin giving her acceptance speech at the recent National Book Awards. Le Guin was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Her speech is wonderful for so many reasons, but mostly – I think – for its fighting spirit and unabashed respect for story and writers and the power of the worlds that spring from our imaginations.

Thanks, as always, for being here – balancing alongside me on the tightrope and grinning down at the crocodiles. Happy reading, happy writing, and I’ll see you on the other side. 

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally –  trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Monkey on a Tightrope Photo Credit: The hills are alive* via Compfight cc
Pen & Notebook Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

22 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – On Risk vs. Responsibility Plus Writing Tips and Good Reads

  1. Hi Jamie. I’m so happy you are finding things in your class. I’m always amazed at the things I didn’t know I didn’t know, if that makes any sense?

    Thank you so much for the links, as I always look forward to opening each little treasure. Dan Blank’s blog brought tears to my eyes.

    And I watched the video of Ursula, wishing she could have talked for hours and hours. I wanted to stand up and yell, “Power to the writers.” Because, we are the ones creating. Where is the rest of the machinery without us?


    • Morning, Silent.
      I also got a little choked up over Dan Blank’s post. Something about that moment seemed very raw and vulnerable. Palmer has that effect on people. She has become the contemporary embodiment of breaking down barriers between humans.

      And – YES! – Le Guin is amazing and I could listen to her speak for hours. She has written some wonderful pieces of commentary on the publishing industry as well as some fabulous essays on writing scifi and fantasy. I have just added Language of the Night to my wish list. 🙂

      Enjoy the rest of your weekend! Thanks for visiting.

  2. I think you’re right about breaking down a story to understand how it was built. I took one very rigorous Spanish literary analysis course in college (which I got a C or D in), but I learned a lot. I think analysis is a wonderful tool alongside lots of practice. A friend of mine who got his MFA in fiction advised me to just read and write in equal parts. I always analyze when I read, that’s the easy part. The hard part is the writing.

    • I’m kind of excited to start doing some in-depth analysis. I feel like I’m on the verge of learning some new magic. 😉

  3. Only recently have I become a critical reader, taking apart as you say or untangling other people’s stories to see how they were constructed. I like to think this has made me a better writer 🙂 Great post as usual Jamie. Ursula Le Guin is a personal favourite.

    • Thanks, Yolanda.
      I’m also a big fan of Le Guin, though I haven’t read her in a while. Maybe it’s time for a return trip to Earthsea.

      Love the idea of “untangling” other people’s stories. That sounds so much nicer than “dissecting.’ 😉

    • Thank you, Tee. Thanks for visiting.
      Life changes do redefine our idea of “balance” and our expectations for finding or achieving it. I like the saying that balance isn’t a noun, but a verb – it’s an active way of existing … never in stasis. Makes me feel better. 🙂

  4. Jamie, i love your Saturday posts, always, but somehow today’s seems remarkable. Your description of ducking off to the cafe for a secret read of a book that had somehow made its way to the car, to meeting your friend at the cafe, where you skip the small talk and step straight into a conversation that seemed to be waiting for you…oh, wondrous, descriptive words that describe the everything. The creative life balanced with our responsible life, the child and the adult…yes. It’s a balance, a juggle, but one we have to make. We have to. Great links and speech by Ursula. Isn’t she wonderful?

    • Thank you so much, Sara. It’s always a pleasure to see you here. I’m particularly touched that this piece felt special to you. It felt that way to me, too. Thanks for being with me in that space.

      And – yes, oh, yes – Le Guin is wonderful. I wish I could find some of her essays on writing and publishing. Her nonfiction commentary is a perfect blend of rebel passion and articulate explanation.

      Here’s to skipping the small talk and finding a creative balance. Somehow.

  5. In one college writing course I took, we had to give group presentations on the books on our syllabus. My group had “The Wasp Eater” by William Lychack, and my task was to discuss the book’s structure, which I at first felt was a pretty boring job. However, when I started working on this, I made the exciting discovery that there was an extremely deliberate structure to the book. It was basically split into two sections, and each section mirrored the another so closely, down to the number of pages spent on various mirroring experiences the character was having. When my group shared this with the class, everyone was pretty excited.

    One of the major benefits of this exercise for me was imaging how the author had laid out the whole structure ahead of the writing, and how this structure basically chunked the book into 10 page sections. This made the idea of writing “A Whole Book” seem incredibly achievable, whereas before it loomed as nearly impossible in my mind. It showed that there can be some science and discipline behind the writing process (which democratizes it, to me), rather than being some manic expression of raw and rare genius (which immediately give my inner critic the upper hand).

    And that’s the long way of saying, yes, I think dissecting other works is a great exercise! 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing this story, Jean. That’s such an interesting discovery & I love the way you “translated” what you learned into a practical lesson on how to create your own works. I’m actually working on a post right now about the beauty of breaking the story down in the planning phase. Like you, I had a bit of an epiphany about just how helpful that can be to tackling the Big Project. 🙂

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