Apr 26, 2011

What Inspires You To Write?

Last winter I started the first of two photography classes taught by Vivienne McMaster.  The focus of both classes:  self-portraiture!  It was the new year and I decided learning to take pictures of myself would be a good and daring challenge.  Readers want to see authors and get a sense of the writer behind the pages and I knew I needed to get over this fear.  So I held my breath and signed up.

What I found surprised me.  The assignments were playful and fun and the class members created a rich and supportive environment for one another. I enjoyed myself so much I signed up for a second class after the first one was over---and not because I thought it would be good for me.  I actually enjoyed it!

Not only did the daily photography work give me another creative outlet, but it challenged me to think of my creator-self in new ways.  Just when I was comfortable with my writing voice, I had someone asking me to describe my visual voice in photography!  We talked about how people move in the world and how we could capture those sensations in photographs and I started thinking about how I could describe many of those same things in my writing.  By observing my photographer self emerging, I learned things about my writer self.

One of Vivienne's first assignments was the photo walk.  Today in Vivienne's blog she describes working with a new class of students on that same assignment and she posts a photo walk of her own.

I had something else planned for this blog entry but, as soon as I saw Vivienne's blog, I knew I had to post a photo walk here. As an Idaho writer, my surroundings influence every word I choose, every metaphor, every local phrase.  I cannot imagine a richer place to begin and end my writing days.

Today I went on a photo walk with all of you in mind.  It was a typical spring day in Southwest Idaho, storms rolling in one minute and blue skies the next.  Here's what you find just outside my door if you wander around for an hour or so.  These things inspire me to write.  What inspires you?

Apr 13, 2011

What happened?

Finally, here it is: an explanation of The Great Sheep Incident and the mysterious elbow injury.

First an update on the elbow:  Yesterday my doctor said the elbow seemed okay, but she sent me down for an x-ray anyway.  Late in the day, a rush call came from the nurse, telling me the radiologist had some concerns.  So today I went in to see an orthopedist.  There are two fractures, one worse than the other. I'll have this brace on my arm for the next four weeks.

It's difficult to wrap my mind around how powerful a little sheep can be.  Apparently this has been difficult for others as well.

HusandWhat happened?

Me: I got tossed by a sheep.

Husband: You mean she knocked you down?

Me: Nope. She threw me.

Husband: You mean she butted you?

MeNope.  She tossed me up in the air. My feet were off the ground.  I landed on my elbow.

HusbandWhat happened?

Here's what happened:

A ewe gave birth early in the morning.   The lamb wandered among the rest of the flock, crying.  Her mama responded to her cries, but never remained close enough for the lamb to nurse.

I did what I normally do in that situation: I moved them both into a smaller pen and brought the ewe extra food.  Sometimes confinement does the trick. The lamb quits trying to bum milk from every available ewe and focuses on her mom. The mom stays close. It works itself out.

I waited and watched.  The lamb kept crying and the ewe kept side stepping.  I waited even longer. Still no progress.

Mama and baby needed an assist.  I've helped lambs and ewes in much worse situations.  This was nothing.

I planned to hold the ewe until the lamb started nursing. Usually ewes figure out pretty quickly that the pressure on the udder lessens and this is a good thing.

So I eased up next to the ewe, making soothing noises.  I planted my feet.  There should have been nothing very challenging about this. I was already close.  The ewe was relatively small. She had nowhere to run.

It never occurred to me she would bounce straight up.

In the split-second I was in the air, holding tight to wool, I remembered the time my dad tried to teach me to water ski. "Just hold on," he said.  And back then, when I fell, I did just that. I kept holding on while the boat dragged me along under water. My sheep revelation bubbled up just the same, a slow motion consideration of the possibility that hanging on might not actually be a good idea. Maybe I should let go.

Wool released, I slammed against the other side of the pen. All my weight came crashing down on my poor elbow. I cried and cursed and rolled around.  When I opened my eyes, the ewe stood over me, staring down at what she'd done. Hay spilling out one side of her mouth, she chewed and tipped her head, clearly confused.  And in that moment, when we both assessed each other, stunned? The lamb saw her chance, jumped in, and started to nurse.

Apr 12, 2011

Lambing and Writing

This is the time of year when my thoughts turn to the confluence of shepherding and writing.  It’s lambing season and I end up spending some of my prime writing time sitting with pregnant ewes or newborn lambs.  While I observe the sheep, my mind is on my characters.  I swear I have a whole book of essays on the things my flock teaches me about writing.

Last week I’d finished writing about two-thirds of my new young adult novel when my characters took a right turn when I expected them to take a left.  Even though I plan my novels well ahead of time, I usually accept that these turns happen organically.  My characters are complex and sometimes their actions surprise me.

My usual reaction to character independence is to go with the change.  My thought in doing so? For better or worse, this is my story. It wouldn’t be authentic for my characters to react any other way.  I’ve re-plotted entire endings after turns like these.

This time I worked the same way. At the heart of the matter:  I was infatuated with the decisions my characters made. They surprised me and impressed me.  They had courage and strength I never imagined.  Their actions brought out aspects of their personalities just below the surface. The outcome even changed the way I viewed the bad guys.  I was blown away.

Then my work came to a halt for lambing.  I sat outside with a ewe’s head in my hands, comforting her through a series of difficult contractions, and I realized something was wrong.  Her labor was moving forward, but it wasn’t going as planned.  She hadn’t progressed far enough for me to determine the problem, but I knew. Normally so much pressure would be opening things up.  Instead her possibilities seemed to narrow the more she pushed.

Waiting with her, my mind raced ahead through the next scenes in my novel.  My lovely characters dashed into uncharted territory and I re-plotted the book in my mind.  It was all so good and fresh and wonderful.

Then I saw the scene I never expected:  the last scene.  It came up on the horizon about 20,000 words earlier than expected.  If I followed the natural trajectory of the new scenes, I would lose the opportunity to write a huge chunk of my novel.  As enthusiastic as I felt about the recent turn of events, about the exciting new character dimensions, I couldn’t abandon those 20,000 words. I knew without doubt that those words not yet written contained much better stuff than the last 5,000 that made my heart flutter.

As I sat there that day, considering turning my novel into a novella because I loved the new ending so much, my ewe finally progressed enough for something to appear.  It was the tail of her first lamb.  No legs to go with it. No nose. No hoofs. Just the tail.

Back in the house, I scrubbed up and changed clothes and found supplies. There was no way around what had to be done.  The lamb had to go back inside far enough for the hind legs to come forward, then it had to be pulled quickly, so it would survive the sudden break of the umbilical cord.  I don’t enjoy this part of shepherding, but without it, the lambs and the ewe die.

Pulling that first lamb, seeing her breathing, that’s when I realized: organic character development is not reason enough to accept a story’s unplanned demise. Sometimes the natural progression of a thing takes us to the wrong place.  Sometimes, no matter how painful, we have to back up and find the path that creates the ending we desire.

Three lambs were born that day. They survived the birth. The ewe survived their birth. About them, I have more stories to tell.

I cried a lot. I always do.

Then, once they’d settled in the barn, I went inside and pushed my story back 5000 words.