Nov 22, 2011

Imagination


Imagination gets a bum rap.

The stuff of childhood play, imagination is often miscategorized as childish.  Ideas imagined are often mislabeled unreal or false.

Most of us go through a point in our growing-up years when we think it necessary to "put away childish things" including our imaginations and our imaginary friends.

Ridiculous.

I submit to you that imagination is key to creating meaning in our lives.

Does that mean that all meaning is illusion?  I suppose you could go there. I don't.  I think imagination is the root of all knowledge, the foundation for understanding everything truly important.

Before scientists can test a theory, they must imagine it. Before engineers can design complicated structures, they must imagine them. Some physicists would even argue that possibilities for reality are infinite until we observe and define---and how do we define anything without first imagining that meaning?

And yet, for all its importance, how many of us exercise our imaginations? When we really, absolutely, for-sure need to think differently and come up with answers to complicated problems, how many of us will be able to imagine those answers?

For writers, imagination is essential.

Great Aunt Marge might pat you on the head and take this to mean that you're so cute, writing your little stories and avoiding the real world. (In short, she treats you as a child because she sees imagination as the stuff of childhood.)

Great Aunt Marge is wrong.

Imagination is the most serious aspect of childhood. Through playing, kids define their identities and the shape of their communities. They see themselves as superheros or explorers or spies. They picture themselves in families or without families. They contemplate birth and death and marriage and divorce. In the worst situations, they come up with understandings both inspiring and frightening. In the best situations, they come up with understandings both inspiring and frightening. In play, they find the meaning of life. That meaning serves as the foundation for everything that comes after.

As writers, we're not just jotting down stories. We're exploring those primitive building blocks of imagination to create meaning.  We may approach our writing in the spirit of playfulness, but we're creating something profound.

One of my favorite parts of writing is getting to that point when my characters start editorializing my decisions. My hero might turn toward me and say, "Are you crazy? I'd never do that."  Or all the characters might gang up on me and insist on taking Path B when all along I planned for them to take Path A.  Or, my absolute favorite thing is when a brand new character wanders onto the page, refuses to leave, and steals the scene.

And this is where people get all mystical about the writing process, even though the experience isn't all that uncommon.  The stray character shows up and, against our better judgement, we let him stay. We don't know why. We just write the scene with him in it and then we move on.  Then, in the closing of the book, that character suddenly becomes critical to EVERYTHING. And we sit there, scene written, and we ask, "how did that happen?"

I don't know.  But then, I don't really understand how my heart beats either. That's pretty weird. And respiration?  Totally cool.

The difference, of course, is that we breathe all the time. Our heart goes all aflutter at the touch of a lover or calms in the presence of a waterfall. We're accustomed to some miracles more than others.

Imagination? Especially when we've put it away with childhood and it makes a startling return?  Imagination shakes us to the core.  It wows us.

I corrected my son the other day.  He wanted to watch television and we settled into our usual discussion.  This day his argument for expanding his screen time was, "but I was only playing anyway."  I told him play was important---essential even.

"But I do it all the time," he answered.

"But if you stop playing, you'll forget how to play."

He stared at me, wide-eyed.  "Seriously?"

"Adults forget all the time."

"But you use your imagination every day," he argued.  "You wouldn't be able to write without it."

"Yes. I had to train myself by writing every day. It didn't come back to me easily."

I didn't realize my younger daughter was listening. She squeezed between us and gave me a big hug, her eyes so sad.  "I'm sorry you lost your imagination," she said. Then she put hands on both my cheeks and nodded.  "I'm just glad it's back."

My son went off to play, my daughter joined him, and I sat in wonder.

Yes. I can find my way back to the very real world of my imagination, but I wish I'd kept the path open all along.

Happy

I am surprised by where I am in my writing career just now.

I've been writing every day for four years. I've written five novels and bunches of short stories, articles, and blog posts.  I've had some of the short stuff published---enough of it that my heart doesn't thump wildly about it anymore.

I'm a writer of my time, still learning my craft. I blog, I tweet, I facebook, and I tumble. I created the #amwriting hashtag where I hang out with other writers. I brave the occasional podcast and youtube video.  I have a circle of writer friends with whom I share my earliest drafts and I feel honored when they share theirs with me.  I'm a member of three professional writing groups. I attend meetings and workshops and conferences.  I can pitch my books in my sleep.

I signed with my agent almost a year ago, but it was not one of those OMG-Look-At-Her-Talent kind of signings. I met an agent at a conference. We hit it off.  I sent my book.  She gave it to her colleague.  The colleague gave me honest, detailed notes about why she couldn't represent it---and she offered to talk with me.  I jumped at the chance and we set up a phone call. I listened.  Her suggestions required a whole new approach to the story.

I kid you not. The amount of work she suggested should have broken me. The amount of things wrong with my story should have reduced me to a little pool of tears formerly known as writer. Instead? Something freakishly weird happened: her advice made my brain light up in new ways. She read my characters and she loved them and she knew what I could do to make them better.

Yes. I'd finally found someone who loved my story.

To be clear, loving a story does not mean gushing over all the details and finding no fault.  Loving the work means seeing the story as it is and feeling emotionally invested in making it all it can be.  Finding a professional who shared my vision changed everything.

I did not put myself through that grueling revision because I thought I'd secure representation from a brilliant agent (although I hoped with all my heart I would).  I revised because I saw clearly how my characters and my story could transcend that draft and become something better.

Revision, comments, another revision, lots of work, contract signing, and my book went out on a first round of subs. After a flurry of activity, we waited.  It took eight months to hear back from that first round of publishers. In the meantime?  I wrote another book.

The bad news: I don't have a sale yet.

The good news: we have enough interest for a second round of subs.  And? I received some great feedback from really smart editors.  And? My agent is willing to give me time to revise before we sub again.  And? I wrote another book.

Honestly, I hoped beyond reason that the new book would be ready to go out on sub while I was busy preparing for Book One, Round Two.  So I was disappointed when my agent wrote back and said it wasn't ready.

And then I read her comments.  And my brain started lighting up in new patterns.  Yes, it was the same thing again.  I knew how to make the book better, so I no longer wanted to submit it as it was.  But there was something more.  Those last comments, combined with the editor comments, illuminated a pattern in my writing that I had never noticed before.

The feedback I received on my last book changes my revision of the first and the editor feedback I'm receiving on the first changes my revision of the last.  The process is dynamic. One improvement makes way for another.

And that brings me back to where I started this post:  I am really surprised by where I am in my writing career.  I'm four years in. I've written five novels. None of them have been published yet.  And I'm happy.

When people talk about writers paying their dues, learning their craft, putting in their years without getting paid, they never mention the thrill of forward progress.  I know the external publishing world moves slowly, but the rate my brain cells light up matters more.

This happiness surprises me and the journey surprises me.  I really love being a writer.

Nov 8, 2011

Can you still see the moon?

Last spring, on the night of the supermoon, I decided we should have our first campfire of the season.  I was in a rush, gathering my camera and tripod, responding to the excitement of the kids, hoping we had the ingredients for a decent hotdog roast, hoping I'd be ready to snap a photo the moment the moon popped out of the cloud cover.  It was supposed to be simple and calming, this night outside with the family.

I was called upon to start the fire because I am The Fire Starter.  Others may try their hand at starting a fire, but they will be mocked when they fail (just as I was once mocked when I failed). I am the one who knows the proper arrangement of wood and paper and kindling that requires the use of only one match to create a magnificent blaze.  I am magic.

Okay, so usually I am magic. That night of the supermoon, I could do nothing right.  When my first attempts failed, I started over, arranging the ingredients based on knowledge and past experience.  I felt so much confidence in my methods that I took my tripod and walked away from the fire pit, sure I'd return to perfect flames.  Instead, Littlest came to find me, tugged on my coat, and whispered, "I'm hungry."

The longer I worked on that fire, the less logical I became.  The moon came out of cloud cover and went back in, but I couldn't see it through the smoke. Someone politely suggested putting the hotdogs in a pan of boiling water and I took it as a personal insult.  I could do it.  I knew I could do it.  I was The Fire Starter.  I was also in a downward spiral.  I was changing everything, trying to make a spark.

I finally did get a fire started---mostly by placing burning material around the recalcitrant logs.  By that time, my family was inside, eating over the sink, watching me out the kitchen window.

I sat back and stared.  I'd completely forgotten about the supermoon.  I just sat there, watching the dead center of the fire, thinking perhaps the logs rose from Hell to challenge me personally to a duel. It was kind of a Devil-Went-Down-To-Georgia thing, but without Georgia. And without fiddles. And the Devil really did nothing but transform himself into logs and refuse to burn, which was really not very devil-like, what with the flames of Hell and all. Other than that, it was just like it.  At any rate, they weren't proper logs.  Proper logs burned.

I mumbled my thoughts:  "Where did these logs come from?"

Not aware my family had returned, I startled when one of my kids answered:  "They were in the fire pit already."

Wait.  What?  In the fire pit?  The fire pit that sat out in the open and collected snow?  The fire pit that had to be dumped because it was full of spring rain?

When I started laughing, my loved ones scooched away from me.  I'm sure they thought I'd entered the final stages of my breakdown.  I laughed harder at their reaction.

Yes.  While I was trying to set up my camera, the kids dumped the fire pit and there, under all that water, were some logs.  And really, why go all the way to the barn for wood when there was plenty already, right there in the pit?  They didn't know it wouldn't start because their mother, The Fire Starter, had never bothered to share her fire-starting knowledge.

If you're at all willing to consider an analogy from the same mind that brought you the devil log, I'd suggest that today's publishing scene is a wet fire pit.

The ingredients that caught fire a season ago may never spark again.  We can use the same tried-and-true methods and they won't catch. We can rant.  We can obsess.  We can build sparks and flames around the old, but the old material will not catch.  No matter how personal this feels, no matter how much your identity as The Fire Starter (or The Writer) is threatened, the devil probably did not show up as a wet log to personally ruin your life.

Sometimes there's nothing left to do but laugh and reassess.  What was the point? Why were you out there in the first place?  What were your objectives?  How did your ego get in the way? Did you ask the right questions? Were you open to new solutions? Were you able to share your knowledge and collaborate without feeling threatened?  Could you still see the moon through the smoke?