Just Say No – Redux

NoI have a weekly commitment to write and do certain writing-related reading for a minimum of twenty hours a week.  I’ve had this commitment for several years, and it’s been the making of me as a writer.

Yes, it may be mechanical–the same way walking to the park is if you want to play.

Yes, I track my time.  For me, it’s the only way to stay honest and on task.

The amount of time a person commits to his/her art/craft isn’t nearly so important as making it a bit of a stretch, yet generally doable.  I don’t flog myself if I fall short.

I also don’t find time to write.  I make it.

My husband’s recent cancer surgery and multiple round trips to Tucson, where he was hospitalized, cut into my writing time for a while.  (He’s recovering very nicely, thank you.)  As of last week, I was back on track:  twenty hours.

A few months ago, English and creative writing instructor–and published writer–Leslie Clark reminded me that the way to make time is to say no to the many demands and invitations that can eat up our time.  Demands are, if not infinite, at least numerous.  Time is limited, so setting priorities is important.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that my step-daughter makes time for her college course load by asking her three children (two with special needs) if anyone’s hair is on fire, or if there’s blood.  If not, she asks them to hold the thought.  They’ve become amazingly patient.

*Here* is a study about saying no that came about as the unexpected result of a researcher’s queries to creative people.

If you choose not to read it because you have higher priorities, I won’t be the least bit offended.

A Taxing Question

A twisted red pencil

Image courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writing inspiration is everywhere–and you never know where your writing talents will be useful. As proof, I offer something I just ran across from the H & R Block tax preparation class I took in 2002.

The assignment was to create a squirrelly problem in which other class members had to puzzle out a number of significant tax issues.

Sounds boring, right? Most of my classmates’ responses were pretty dry. I wanted to have some fun, look for the story behind the Form 1040, and at the same time challenge people to notice which details were significant and which weren’t. This is what I came up with:

After eleven years of marriage, Betty finally kicked that sponging loser, Al, out of the family’s rented tract house on June 2. She went to a lawyer the following day. He filed a separation agreement that was signed by the judge and filed with the court clerk on June 25.

Betty has been too busy working paid overtime at her job with Swell Computers to get back to her lawyer about a divorce. Swell paid her $27,329 in 2001. Her only other income was $13.54 in interest from a savings account, and she does not have enough deductions to itemize.

Al’s in no hurry for a divorce. It’s not a community property state. He has to grovel to Betty for the bucks to make his rent every month on the converted garage where he now flops. He figures he has a better chance of guilting her into paying it if she still thinks of him as her spouse. So at year’s end, they’re still legally married.

Al works a part-time, dead-end job with Toilets Is Us Cleaning Service, which paid him $6,003 in 2001, and which is too cheap to spring for health insurance. Al and Little Al–his six-foot-four, sixteen-year-old son from a weekend liaison with a Swedish volleyball player–are still covered by Betty’s generous fringe benefit package at Swell. The biological mother was last heard from on the little tike’s third birthday, when she sent him a postcard from Tokyo.

Because of the rat droppings on the converted garage floor–and because Betty believes Little Al hasn’t been totally polluted by his father’s laziness and lack of aspiration–she urged Al to leave Little Al in her custody until Al gets his act together. Though she never adopted Little Al, she has cared for the lad as if he were her own and continues to do so now, working a split shift so she can be home to fix him an after-school snack–three grilled bologna and cheese sandwiches, a quart of milk, and half a package of Oreos.

Betty’s instincts were good about Little Al. In 2001, he earned $3,953 as a web designer for local small businesses, working after school, on weekends, and during the summer. $1,546 went to his support and $2,407 to his college savings fund.

When Al moved out, his grandfather–Al the Big Cheese, 67 years old and legally blind–sensed that the pickings were about to get slim and left Betty’s to live with his recently widowed niece, Myrtle. His meager disability payments help her keep her rented shotgun shack.

Al the Big Cheese was wrong about Betty. She’s had a soft spot in her heart for him ever since the time he brailed his way into a spousal argument and told his mewling grandson to stuff a sock in it. Betty pays his portion of the utilities at Myrtle’s, in addition to his food, blood pressure medication, weekly jaunts to the race track, and evenings out with the nineteen-year-old who claims to be pregnant to him–more than half the old gentleman’s upkeep.

Now for the questions (drum roll):

  • What is Betty’s correct/most advantageous filing status?
  • Would the added deduction and exemption involved in filing Married, Filing Jointly status outweigh the added tax liability from including Al’s income on the return?
  • Would Betty be too pissed off to do it? Would she file Married, Filing Separately, just to spite Al, and make him file his own 1040?
  • How many dependents can Betty claim?
  • Is she eligible for Earned Income Credit?
  • Extra-point question: If Al has to file separately, can he claim his flesh and blood, Little Al, as his dependent?

I haven’t made a taxable dime on this piece, though it may have helped me get a job the following tax season because the people giving the course ran the local H & R Block office. I did, however, turn a dull dissertation into a mini-melodrama that made my classmates laugh–and think.

Just Say No

Longtime creative writing instructor Leslie Clark will be retiring soon, and no one more deserves the time to do her own writing and sleep in on Monday mornings.

Recently, we talked about her plans. I said I had been busier since I retired than I was when I was working. She responded with her usual succinctness: “Just say no.”

She’s right, of course. Saying no to one thing makes time and energy to say yes to more important things. We can imagine–and commit to–an enormous number of attractive activities in addition to the ones that are just part of life or thrust themselves on us–family, friends, housework, the dog being bitten by a rattlesnake.

In order to make (note I didn’t say “find”) the time to write, we have to say no to other possibilities–not all of them, just enough to get our creative work done. That’s the way life is. It’s full of choices, and we have to set priorities.

My step-daughter, Alex, is in an MBA program and loves to sew. She has three children, two of them with special needs. When they came by on their way to her husband’s new military assignment in Texas, I asked how she managed.

She has a simple system. She announces that she’s going to study for the next hour and is not to be disturbed. She sets a timer for the kids to see. Every time one interrupts her, she asks, “Is anyone bleeding? I anybody’s hair on fire?” If it’s not an emergency, she promises to deal with the child’s issue when she’s done studying. They can trust her to keep her promise.

What do I say no to? I’d love to take some art and craft classes, bulk up my birding life list, and take my dogs to obedience classes. If I want to finish my parrot memoir before I’m old(er) and in a nursing home, I have to say no, at least for now.

When my husband retired from teaching, I said no to having my desk in the living room any more, where he could interrupt me ever seventeen seconds. I spiffed up an old travel trailer for my office and learned how to operate the lock.

I mastered a sweet smile and the words “I love you, now go away” for those times when he wants to spend “just a minute” in the middle of my writing hour, showing me this cool video he found on the Internet.

How do you say no to enough other things to create (note I didn’t say “find”) enough time to write? I’m hoping readers will share their strategies.

TFOB 2012

Well, another Tucson Festival is in the books, you should pardon the pun.  I’ll bet everyone who went can feel a few muscles–walking muscles, stair-climbing muscles, book-toting muscles, and writing muscles.

I didn’t take a lot of notes this year but would like to share a few points I found worth jotting down.

T. C. Boyle, novel and short story writer:

  • Take an ordinary event, such as a man not wanting to go to work, and see how you can up the stakes, push it over the top.

Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig:

  • When you can’t believe in yourself, you can believe in your animals.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Sometimes it’s an animal.
  • If you’re writing about animals, ask why you were attracted animals in the first place.  What do you get out of your relationships with animals?

Ilie Ruby, Naomi Benaron, & Sarah McCoy – panel discussion, Capturing a Sense of Place in Fiction:

  • Capture the moment when everything changes for good or ill.
  • History and myth can add depth to a setting.  Show what it has come to mean in people’s minds.
  • Capture the voice that makes you want to write.  Then just write the story.

William Pitt Root, poet and teacher:

  • What do you need to be in touch with in order to write well?

Richard Russo, Margaret Coel, & Louis Bayard – panel discussion on Edgar Allan Poe:

  • Remember to get to the interior life of all your characters.  Villains are people.  They have mothers, too.
  • Everything a character experiences in a story prepares him/her to face himself/herself and  the external challenge at the story’s climax.
  • Read “up”–that is, read work that is better than yours is at the moment.  Read like a writer.  See how good writers achieve the effects that make their work excellent.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, Heid Erdrich, Ofelia Zepeda – Layers of Knowing – poetry reading & discussion:

  • Efforts are being made to save indigenous languages that may contain ways of knowing that we need for survival.
  • Arts improve empathy between individuals and between people of different generations.

Pam Houston, writer of fictionalized memoir (I’d recommend Sight Hound)

  • Looking for something to write about?  Feel around for your own emotional bruises and press on them.
  • Shine the light as strongly on yourself as you do on others.

Hope there’s something useful in this potpourri of ideas.

Fiction: Episode or Story, Part 1

I was looking through my short fiction for a piece to submit to a competition when I came across two personal experience stories. I’d sent each of them out to several literary journals over the years, where they were rejected for publication or failed to win, place, or show in competitions. I had revised each piece when it was rejected, thinking that the voice, style, opening, or some other technical aspect might be at fault.

Did revision improve the stories? Yes. The writing become tighter, more focused, and richer in sensory details.

Did that get them published? Nope, and I know why: I wasn’t addressing the underlying problem. These were episodes, not stories in which the main character struggles to resolve one or more problems. I had simply retold, in as literary a way as I could, events from my life.

One was a funny (in retrospect) episode on an airplane sitting at the gate at Albuquerque, its takeoff delayed by fog in Phoenix (yup, Phoenix), and how the flight attendants got a crazed passenger to leave of his own accord. The other revolved around the parallel scars on my father’s forehead, the result of his weekend-warrioring with the weeds between our garage and our neighbors’.

Fun to tell to fellow writers over dinner after a meeting, but not stories.

Okay, that’s the first question: Is your piece a story, or is it episodic? The way to evaluate that is to determine whether or not it has the elements of a story. Is there is a main character with a thwarted desire who must struggle against increasing odds and who may or may not win. Is there something at stake? If so, you may have a story.

I’ll leave you to assess your own work and post more on this issue soon.

 

Going to a Writers’ Conference? Be Prepared!

I just love spring in Arizona, don’t you–especially that six-week period in March and April when I want to dig a pit, line it with cinder blocks, roof it with steel, and not come out until the battering wind stops.

High-positive-ion wind messes with people’s neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that affect emotions. More serotonin and less norepinephrine is a formula for irritability and depression in a lot of people. The wind even inhibits thyroid function. That’s why I own an air cleaner with a negative-ion generator.

(Digression: Writing about what you know about is good. Writing about what you want to know and have to research makes you stretch.)

Still, I do love spring in Arizona. Why? Because three of my favorite writing events take place in that season:

(Digression: Okay, you can argue that Pima takes place in the summer. Any season in which you have to turn on your car’s air conditioner at eight in the morning is summer. Humor me anyway.)

Having listed these upcoming delights–and having read a couple of newsletter and blog pieces about writers’ conferences–I want to pass along two doable, down-to-earth logistical tips that have helped me get the most out of my time at these events.

Take food and water. At the very least, it gives you options for getting enough glucose to your brain cells in case the caterer’s truck breaks down, a fuse blows in the hotel restaurant, or the incoming water pipe is breached by a backhoe driver digging to install cable. This is especially important if you need to regulate your blood sugar more frequently than coffee and meal breaks allow, are on a tight budget, and/or have food sensitivities or other considerations.

For instance, the Creative Writing Celebration provides a catered lunch the first day. It’s beautiful, it’s healthy, and there’s rarely anything on the serving table that doesn’t contain meat, wheat, milk, sugar, and/or chocolate. So I brownbag it.

Dress/take clothes for any conditions from Siberian auditoriums to Saharan hotel meeting rooms. Shivering and sweating can distract you from participating fully, keep you from learning what you came to learn, and cause you to miss the serendipity that, frankly, is my biggest motivation for going to conferences.

Air handling systems are idiosyncratic, perverse, and sometimes downright malicious. Their quirks are poorly understood by the people who design and install them, never mind those who have to run them. Dress in layers and carry a jacket. I don’t go as far as packing sandals and mukluks, though it’s crossed my mind.

Ross reminded me to add:  wear shoes that are comfortable to walk in.  Venues at some events are spread out, especially Tucson Festival of Books.  Blisters are not conducive to fun and learning.

You can’t plan for every eventuality, but if chance favors the prepared, a little preparation can increase the likelihood that you’ll have a good time and get all the conference has to offer.