Saturday, June 30, 2018

Letters from Marilyn - Update 26

Two things have been on my mind this past week: time and causality.

Time, in the purest sense of the word, is defined as the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.

In connection, causality is defined as the relation of cause and effect. 

When I was in college, my writing professors would have us participate in various freewriting techniques. The one I remember the most is called loop writing, in which the writer engages in a topic of choice for a timed interval. When the timed interval is up, the writer goes back to underline three or four key words, or even phrases, in their writing. One underlined segment is selected, and it becomes the starting point of the next timed interval. In essence, the writer is writing in a loop, a continual chain of ideas that are the result of the previous.

If we could describe the way our minds work, 90% of the time I would state that mine is in a loop. One idea is a result of another, and so on and so forth.

This brings me back to my opening remarks about time and causality. Every writer needs a little help every once and a while, and for me, that help comes in the form of my various books on the topic of writing. I pulled The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing from my shelf a few days ago, skimming the chapters for assistance on the structure of my beginning chapters.

The author, Alice LaPlante, has a chapter focused on the definition of plot. I flipped right through the first few pages, my mind scoffing at the need to review a chapter about plotline. I am a teacher of writing, I thought. Why, as someone who has a degree in English and communications, would I need to review a chapter on plot? 

Ego can be a writer's biggest enemy. As I scornfully continued flipping, a heading caught my eye: "A Word about Causality." What are the odds? I pondered. I have been thinking about that word all week! Curious, I paused, and this passage jumped out at me:
"Why did I leave out the word causality when formulating our definition of plot? It seems as though that would be a prime determinant of the plot points chosen. And it is, it is - but I'd rather imply it (after all, we do say that the series of events brings about the desired effect) than build it more directly into the definition. [. . .] To put too much stress on the fact that every plot point must have its own particular consequence is to undermine the subtlety of many stories and novels."
Voila! And that, dear readers, is how I pinpointed why I have been struggling with my beginning chapters: I have been overthinking it, seeing the beginning as the start of the plot in which every detail, every interval of time, needs to have an underlying reason. It was a very humbling moment in my process. Thank you, Alice LaPlante, for your wise words on the subtlety of story and how it impacts "complexly motivated behaviors."

For all my fellow writers reading this, I am sure you are nodding your heads sympathetically in understanding, having been in a similar predicament yourselves. For my non-writer readers, here's what this means in a nutshell: time and causality are fluid writing components, meant to guide the process but not necessarily set events in stone. 

The purpose of these updates - if you think back to the first one years ago! - has been to keep you informed on Letters from Marilyn. Phase 1 was to share excerpts from M's letters while I took notes and laid the groundwork. We are now in phase 2: updates on the writing process and excerpts of chapter drafts. 

I am sharing a draft of the beginning with you (finally, I know!). I chose the beginning because I've written a lot about it and my process. It's just a teaser, only five pages - and will only be online for a short time. A note about structure: I am writing this novel in four parts, one part for each year Marilyn was enrolled at Augsburg, along with a prologue and epilogue. I did make the decision to switch to third-person point of view, mainly to incorporate other characters' thoughts. I feel that third-person POV deepens reader perception of Marilyn and the people in her life.

Here is the link. Enjoy. Love always, dear readers.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Letters from Marilyn - Update 25

Do you ever wish you could freeze time? Just to hold onto a moment for a little longer?

I have been re-reading M's letters, trying to find the words to launch her story. I have written middle chapters and end chapters, but no beginning chapters. When I place the cursor at the very start of that first page, I find myself staring at it, watching its pulsing and blinking like the ticking of a metronome. It feels like the cursor is waiting for me. Waiting for me to give it letters to form words, and words to form sentences.

Beginnings are the hardest. In writing, in starting over, in taking a step forward into an uncertain future. It is hard to change beginnings, after all. You can alter your path, change your steps, erase your words, create a different ending. But that first moment, it can never be taken back. And since my last post, I have felt without words, stuck staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page.

I have had this mental block for months. I have spent hours, days, weeks pondering how to find the words to lift the fog. I have been on countless drives to nowhere, hoping that the clear roads and skies would somehow clear my mind. I have read dozens of books, believing that immersing myself in a story would perhaps spark ideas for Marilyn's.

But interestingly, it is not others' stories that have kick-started M's beginning, but rather my own. I pulled my notebooks from storage a few weeks ago, choosing to reread what I had written as a young girl, then teenager, college student, and now adult. Focusing on my day-to-day life, some entries are silly, others thoughtful, several with a bitter sorrow and regret, but many with moments I had found to be most important, a milestone in my growth as a person. And I wondered:

Do you ever wish you could freeze time? Just to hold onto a moment for a little longer?

To illustrate this question with my mental connection to M's beginning, I want to share one of these moments. In July of 2006, I was on a trip with a group of young people and adults from my community. For those of you following my timeline, I was seventeen years old. Our final destination was San Antonio, TX. We had traveled to the South Padre Islands for some initial work prior to our time in San Antonio, and were now making our way back north. Our original arrangements for the evening had fallen through, and after a majority vote, we made the decision to stay overnight in Corpus Christi. Tucked into a bay of the Gulf of Mexico, Corpus Christi was an ideal location to rest before making the next stretch of our journey.

It was a breezy evening, unusual for a July night in Texas. The dusky twilight was on the horizon and we were exhausted, but we chose to wander down to the outdoor pool of our lodgings. The cerulean blue of the water was enticing, but then we discovered something else: the arched opening that led directly out to the beach. We could hear the ocean waves so close, and pretty soon we were laughing and racing each other to the shoreline, our exhaustion forgotten. One of the chaperones in our group had also joined us, acoustic guitar in hand, and soon our full group was assembled on the beach, as if we had summoned each other by thought. 

The stars were blazing in the indigo sky (it's true what they say about the stars in Texas!), and as we sat there in the fine white sand, the ocean stretching out before us, singing songs together, I wanted that moment to never end. I felt free. 

I had written about this moment, wishing I could freeze time, to make it last just a little bit longer. But, of course, life is a series of moments that flash by in a blur. In some ways, that moment is preserved in my notebook, a memory of a time that to me, felt perfect. 

To this day, I cannot pinpoint the exact reason why this moment was so pivotal to me. Perhaps it is because it held many of the things I value: the outdoors, wide open skies, music, and a group of people who had taken me in as one of their own. And as I re-read more notebook entries and more moments, I discovered a common theme for me: oftentimes the moments that have the most meaning are also the ones that are unplanned.  

The more I pored over my old, dusty notebooks, the more a beginning for Marilyn began to take shape in my mind. And so just as I did with my own stories, I went back to re-read hers. But this time, I have recorded her moments, weaving them together to launch a beginning that is her. One that is reflective of her bright soul and vivacious personality. I am reading her moments that she describes so vividly - and I know that in my writer heart, these are the moments she wished she could freeze in time. 

Creating her beginning is going to take a while. I have written in a frenzy today, with new chapters saved and this update getting posted well beyond a twilight dusk. As you go about your weekend, dear readers, I encourage you to consider these questions: do you ever wish you could freeze time? Just to hold onto a moment for a little longer?

Love always.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Letters from Marilyn - Update 24

Good morning from Montana! 

I promised myself I would take one morning to write while I was on vacation, so here I am, typing away at City Brew Coffee. 

Many of you have written to inquire how I am and how the Marilyn project is going (my last update was March 25, yikes), so I'll take some time to fill you in.

If I am being 100% honest, the last 2 weeks have been rough. I had injured my hand, which came with the frustration of canceling a piano lesson and finding two vocalists a new accompanist. A former student of mine died, too young, too soon (a death I am still processing as I try to find the words to write to her family). 

Meanwhile, my current students have been especially challenging as summer vacation draws nearer. I was in technical rehearsals for our play, which was giving me some serious sleep deprivation. I woke up at 4:00AM the night before performances with the nightmare that my entire set had disappeared, no joke. During this time, a friend had mentioned an email correspondence I sent, in which I had signed off as simply "Liv." She stated that when I don't take the time to type the remaining 3 letters in my name, it is apparently a sign I am losing my marbles. Needless to say, I am going to be more mindful when sending emails from now on!

Maintaining a cheerful outlook had been a struggle, readers. For two weeks, I had to remind myself daily to be kind, to be patient, to be compassionate (note that I said "remind" - my success rate was not 100%). It's not to say it was all bad, of course - I firmly believe there are silver linings in every day! - but I had to work a little harder to find them. Those that know me best had commented that I was not my usual chipper self. I am very grateful to have had successful performances with the very best kids, some rest, and a passable amount of energy to have made it through two tough weeks.

As such, I am happy to be over 600 miles from home right now. The distance is giving me time and space to reflect, to rest, and to soothe my very exhausted heart. What's more, I get to visit one of my dearest friends who I only get to see 2-3 times a year. Things are looking up loves, and upon my return home, I hope I'll have newfound energy to move on to "what's next."

Letters from Marilyn had also been a high-stress point for me during this time. For my fellow creatives out there, you know how frustrating it can be when you don't have the time to commit to doing the things you love. I've had some writing time of course - Certainly Candid drafts, daily journaling, etc. - so it hasn't been 2 weeks of absolutely no writing, but not the writing that currently matters to me most. I also think it is tougher when you have multiple passions - between theatre, writing, piano lessons, vocalist accompaniment jobs, and so on, I have been a very busy creative bee.

Writing a book proposal is hard, and a lot of work, and easily could be a full-time job with how time consuming it is. I spent 3 hours one evening going through an 800 page writer's guide on publishers to try to narrow my market for Letters from Marilyn. I have a starting list of six publishers that accept non-agent proposals (the agent proposals is a whole other post for another day). I have started to tackle one of these six. Each publisher varies in their proposal guidelines, but the one I'm currently working on is extensive - chapter descriptions, manuscript samples, market knowledge (yes, that means I need to research my competition), a schedule for completion of the book, etc. etc. etc.

I actually called one of my friends while working on this one evening, as I am sure I was on the verge of a writer meltdown. It's been 2 years, I've done my research, I've written hundreds of drafts (again, not here on Certainly Candid), and this next step could easily take me another 2 years at this point. "All good things to those who wait, Olivia," my friend had said soothingly over the phone. 

She meant well, of course, but that platitude meant nothing to me in my worked-up mind. And do not even get me started on the risk of failure now that I am so close. When I think of the hours of my life I've invested into this project, I want it to be for something! I mean, even the pre-writing hours spent reading all 500+ letters, then copying them, then scanning them digitally, then archiving them - it is extensive. I really should have been logging the time I've spent on this.

Once this school year concludes, I'll be able to put more time into Marilyn over the summer and hope that by the end of June, I am ready to send off a few proposals. In the meantime, I will keep you updated on how it is going, and hopefully it is smooth sailing from here on out.

Thank you for staying with me readers and for reaching out, especially these past few weeks. I appreciate you. Love always.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Letters from Marilyn - Update 23

I have a love/hate relationship with my writing process.

Once I get an idea, I cannot let it go until I have furiously scribbled it on paper. In fact, I think I may have reached a new level of madness recently: inspiration struck, and the only paper on hand was the back of a few old receipts lying neglected in the bottom of my bag. 

That inspiration? In the form of a novel I had loved as a child. I received a pristine copy of Little Women from an old writer friend of mine, who knew it was one of my favorite books. "Perhaps rereading it will get you out of your writer's block," he had said soothingly. My scholarly friends have always heard me vehemently claim that writers are influenced by the literature they have read, and I am certainly no exception to that. Sidebar: don't believe me? J.K. Rowling stated in an interview after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that her tale of the deathly hallows was based on "The Pardoner's Tale" from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Harvard has a nice translation from the Middle English here.

I couldn't remember the last time I had reread Little Women. "When am I going to have the time to read this?" I had whined. I needed to make headway on my novel, not reread old literature! "Just try it," he had coaxed. "Take a break. Read a book. Heck, read a few! What harm could it do?"

I still own my first copy of Little Women - a now-battered paperback that I had purchased out of a Scholastic book order in the 6th grade. I was eleven when I first read it. I related most to Jo: her need for adventure, her whirlwind of energy, her love of stories and writing, her resistance - and ultimate acceptance - to change. I think about Jo and her sisters from time to time, the complexity of their characters, how their faults and virtues balanced each other in the end.

I hadn't reread the novel since college. It's been at least seven years since I've touched it. Upon receiving this new copy for my library, I leafed through the pages, randomly opening the book at the halfway point. It was like the words jumped off the page: 
She did not think herself a genius by any means, but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh.
Life has a way of connecting the dots when you need it the most. Only a few days after receiving this book gift, a college student I am accompanying for a voice recital texted me one afternoon: "Liv, I am changing one of my recital pieces to 'Here Alone' from the stage musical Little Women. Do you know it? Can you do it?"

"Of course," I had replied. I pulled the music from my library, dusted its pages, and opened it to the song she had requested. Like the novel, I hadn't touched this music since college. For my non-musical theatre readers, "Here Alone" is Marmee's song. When I had first heard this number years ago, it was not the lyrics initially but the score that stood out to me. Written in the key of F minor, it has a hauntingly beautiful quality, a sorrowful reflection on Marmee's struggle raising her four daughters alone while her husband is at war. 

The lyrics begin: Write a letter, / be inventive, / tell you everything is fine. / Be attentive to the distance, / send my love with every line. / Every word should bring you closer, / and caress you with its tone. / Nothing should remind you / that I am here alone.

I told you I have a love/hate relationship with my writing process, because a good percentage of it is not even time spent writing. These "dots" have been floating in my mind these past couple of weeks, not quite connected. One evening, as I was poring over M's letters for the millionth time, wondering what I had missed, one question came to mind:

Do we ever really know someone's stories?

Marmee wrote soothing words to her husband, carefully choosing her words, omitting her struggles, focusing only on the uplifting. Jo wrote story after story, not knowing how to make her words meaningful until after Beth's death. And as I read and re-read Marilyn's letters, I couldn't help but wonder: what did she leave unsaid? 

I looked at M's words in a new light. I've spent almost two years closely examining what she had shared with her mother, her scrolling cursive so familiar to me. I've spent this time feeling as though I had been there, had known her through her written word that has been preserved for over 60 years. Those questions surfaced again: do we really know someone's story? What was left unsaid? 

Writing is a complex art. As I thought, perplexed, how to address such monumental questions in a novel, a new framework has taken place. I've been redrafting, trying to piece together the parts that seem missing, in order to complete a new, revised draft. This has inspired more research, more questions, and more plans. It has forced me to take a hard look at my own updates here. It is worthwhile to note that looking back, I too have been selective in what I have shared from her letters. These are now my two driving questions as I write new chapters and throw out the old. It is my hope to have a complete manuscript by the end of June. No, I am not sharing this new draft yet, but all in good time, reader friends.

As you go about your daily lives, readers, I encourage you to ask yourself, do we ever really know someone's story? Perhaps with more empathy, more kindness, and more perspective, this question can better apply to our own lives. I ask you consider what may be left unsaid. More soon.

Love always.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Letters from Marilyn - Update 22

Hello world!

Today finds me being the stereotypical writer: sitting at Starbucks, earbuds in, busily typing away. I know it has been quite some time since my last update, and many of you readers have emailed, Facebooked (is that even a word?), or tweeted to ask how I have been. Let's recap, then I'll update on the Marilyn progress.

On the life front, the musical wrapped up with set strike on January 28. Moving forward from there, this past week had been a challenge. After 3 months of being at the theater until at least 6:30 Mon-Fri - and yesterday being my first free Saturday in 4 weeks - I have had major rehearsal blues.  

January 28 through February 15 is my small window of time to do "all the life things!" I'll admit, I'm very stir crazy and gloomy right now, which is unusual for me. To try and distract myself, I've spent this week contacting all my friends about getting together, lining up piano gigs, cleaning my apartment, writing a bunch of Marilyn chapters, and polishing my nails multiple times. Sidebar story: yes, multiple (3) times. Yes, I know you all find this weird, friends of mine, that polished nails are a sign I'm stressed. My piano teachers believed in clean, short nails, and to this day, I tend to keep them that way. At the moment however, they are turquoise. Let's hope that doesn't change again.

But onward and upward, loves! C'est la vie - such is life! The majority of my friends are very busy (I miss you all, but I understand life happens, you're all still the best I promise!), I'm out of things to clean, I've practiced the keys 'til my hands are sore, and I'm still stewing about the right direction for this novel mainly because I haven't had the time to commit to working on it. Baby steps, reader friends. Once the play begins on February 15, I'll be very busy again and won't have time to be gloomy! So, let's shift the topic and talk about Marilyn!

I decided to choose a different literary agency. A small roadblock, declining an offer, but I promised myself that when I started this project in June 2016 that I would take the time to do it right (yes, even if it means years). This decision stemmed from wanting this novel to be with the right publishing company or imprint, and to do that, I need to have the right literary agency first. In the meantime, I've reorganized all my electronic files, starting pulling the copies of the letters for my chapter drafts, and have a major paper mess in my living room right now as a result (I'll post pictures in the next update, just so you can see how insane my process gets). It's a good thing I took the time to scan all the letters that June, because that's how I'm referencing them now as I sit here at Starbucks. God bless the digital age - there's no way I'd be dragging that paper mess here.

Despite the "cluttered desk, cluttered mind" situation, I have almost a dozen chapter drafts completed. While I have not been updating here in January, I have been writing when I have the spare time. Writing keeps me sane. Even now, I can feel a little of my pent-up energy and frustration dissolving. Clearly I've needed this time, even though I have a million other things I should be doing: writing my blocking for the play, finishing the set design, lesson planning for my poetry unit (that I'm starting tomorrow), practicing the 7 pieces of music I have to learn as an accompanist - the list goes on and on. 

Because I'm free of the constraints of a literary agency right now, I'm going to post actual Marilyn chapters this week! Yay! I know I've teased you all long enough readers - and now this week you are going to get to read the book in its early stages. I'm so excited to share this with you, and believe me, I really need some excitement in my life right now. I hope you are excited too.

Thanks for checking in on me. Thanks for continuing to share these posts, to tell your friends, to spread the word. Views continue to climb even higher into the thousands. You all have my gratitude.

Love always.
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