Phew! Yee-ha! And a Pitiful Cry

I know life is made up of moments lived, not a series of goals and strivings, but I love how it feels when I get something done. Today I finished preparations for the course I’ll teach over the three-week January term. It’s hardly an adventure, more of a task, leading to a mere “phew” of satisfaction. The fun will come when I have students next week, new people with fresh ideas and thoughtful questions. I can’t have the fun, though, without the work.

With writing, the joys run backwards. Today I also finished the first satisfactory draft of the next Mae Martin mystery. I describe it that way because my writing process goes through so much ongoing revision and recycling that it’s hard to call anything a first draft. The moment of knowing that this is the plot that works and this is the ending is exhilarating, a big “yee-ha!” I dance quite a bit at this stage of writing, something I don’t do in my college office. I’m excited about revising the book, too, and sharing it with critique partners and revising it more. I even enjoy the picky details of word choice and sentence structure, of deciding what to cut and what to add, and experimenting with the best way to describe certain feelings and actions. It’s work that doesn’t feel like work, all the way to the final draft.

Getting sales and reviews is the work that feels like work. A book isn’t fully alive until it has readers, just as a planned-out college class is nothing until it has students. I have to do this work, but I look at Twitter and Facebook, trying to think of witty snippets of chat, and I shrivel. No, please, there has to be better way. My New Year’s resolution is stop whimpering and become a marketing genius without boring or annoying anyone. (That’s what would make me a genius.) I need to learn to dance with delight about filling out an advertising form, or at least look forward to the “phew” of having done it. Instead of just tweeting links, I will take up the challenge of composing something original and intriguing in 140 characters or less. Follow me on Twitter and see if I succeed. But don’t hold your breath. I’d rather be writing a hundred thousand words of fiction, or even next semester’s syllabus.

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Lucky Me!

I’m taking time to reflect on the good people and good fortune that enhance my creative life.

I am grateful for:

  • Having had parents who loved books and theater and a grandfather who was a poet. I was raised on Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes and taken to plays before I was in first grade. Language was valued in my family. My mother advised me not to cuss because it made me look as if I had a limited vocabulary—a far greater sin than saying a dirty word. My father was a late adopter of all things electronic and claimed to be a member in good standing of the Lead Pencil Society, which made him as good a letter writer as he was a conversationalist, full of wit and good stories.
  • Discovering Sisters in Crime when I was just getting started on my first book. I bought How I Write by Janet Evanovich, even though I may be the only person alive who doesn’t like her Stephanie Plum series. I told myself: “She’s successful. I could learn from her.” She mentioned SinC in the book, and I joined, and through them I have found many of the people I’m grateful for, listed below.
  • My first critique partner, an editor and writer. She was supportive of the potential she saw in my early efforts that didn’t turn into a polished book until I’d worked on it for over for three years. She edited it and all my other books, and has taught me about the craft of writing in the process.
  • My current and former critique partners, who can tell me when something works or falls flat, offer insight into my plots and characters, and not only help me create better work, but reassure me that I’m not alone in caring about it.
  • Readers. Without them I’m an actor in an empty theater. Having my characters live in someone’s mind and heart means a lot to me.
  • Readers who review. They don’t have to do it. It takes time to organize thoughts and post them on a review site. They help other readers think about my work and often help them decide to buy the books.
  • Tara at Draft2Digital customer service. She’s cheerfully solved many little problems for me, and she remembers me. I’m not just some author with a question. I’m a person.
  • My job. Most writers need a day job, and I am blessed to have one that gives me summers off to write. When I’m grading papers until nine at night I tend to forget that—but I am grateful.
  • My whole life. From the annoying people who inspired antagonist characters, to the losses and loves and joys that enable me to tell stories with a heart.

 

Karma and Creativity

I woke up with an attitude today. Tuesday I had to start the day with a divisional meeting and today I had to start the day with a faculty assembly. It wasn’t the event that was the problem, but my reaction to it: a negative thought.

Goswami Kriyananda’s book, The Laws of Karma, says that karma isn’t punishment or retribution, but cause and effect. The subtle aspects of the causes often get overlooked. I keep contemplating this line from the book: “If a negative thought enters your head, know the first law of freedom: Don’t feed it.” On the next page, he says, “Knowledge is greatest eradicator of negative karma.”

To me, this means that when I have a negative thought, I need to notice and transform it, not smother it. If I suppress and ignore it I could still feed it—dig a hole for it and plant it and water it with my other unsolved problems and cranky attitudes. Talking about it can go two ways: I can vent to a friend and transform the negative, or I can vent to friend and magnify the negative. Writing about it can go in various directions, too, from pointless rumination to logical, problem-solving analysis to creative transformation.

In one of his talks, Kriyananda said something along these lines: “If I’m meditating in a cave, I have no problems. But as soon as I have a student, I have a problem.” This made me laugh—it’s so true.

Humor is one way of transforming the negative. Some professors have little pottery jars in their offices labeled, “Ashes of Problem Students.” The meeting this morning suddenly became amusing when I saw it through the filter of my critique partner’s work in progress, a comic paranormal mystery in which life after death has not fire and brimstone but meetings—bureaucracy and rules and meetings. I listened to the speech about new committees for assessment being formed and could see it as a scene in that book. With that shift in perspective, I stopped feeding the negative thought and started to smile.

I know writers who transform annoying people into murder victims in their stories. That’s not a choice for me, since I write murder-less mysteries. However, I have used people who troubled me as the inspiration for oppositional characters—and a funny thing happened when I did it. I developed compassion for them. Though the characters’ roles are antagonistic in the stories, I have to understand these difficult people and feel my shared humanity with them or they’ll be cardboard villains. The process gives my protagonist some complicated and interesting enemies, while it changes my resentment into insight. One of my students told me he transforms his stress into poetry, and that it’s the best therapy he’s ever experienced. It’s working. I’ve known him for a year and seen him change to become gentler and more open-minded. He used to rant on and on about things that bothered him. Now he makes poetry with them, understands himself more, and complains less.

I suspect we’re so attentive to our negative thoughts because they are alarms going off, telling us that something needs to change. That’s also what makes them so uncomfortable, and such fertile material for art and humor.

*****

The give-away posted last week is still open for entries.

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/win-four-books-a-gift-to-thank-you-for-reading-my-blog

 

“Do You Need a Ride?” A Pedestrian Ramble

One of my favorite Edward Abbey rants in Desert Solitaire is about tourists who won’t get out their cars in a national park and who suffer the illusion that they have actually seen the place when they haven’t walked in it.

For me, walking is a way of getting to know a community and its personality. I seldom sit in waiting rooms when I could be out exploring. A place doesn’t have to be scenic to have character; even a kind of dreary character can be interesting to a writer. While waiting for oil changes at the Ford dealership in the town that inspired Cauwetska in The Calling, I explored the neighborhood behind it. Many years later when I wrote the book, I knew which house Mae and her mother would move to in the opening scene and I could see, hear and smell every step of the life-changing walk Mae takes that evening.

In my review of The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras I mentioned the narrator Hubie Schuze’s reflections on the superiority of walking compared driving. The line that stuck with me from this particular scene is I saw a baby gopher—one of the many things one could not experience if driving a car. I’m trying to find the chapter for another quotation but I keep finding all his other walks in Albuquerque instead. Hubie walks in his city quite a lot.

Based on this literary precedent, I believe it can’t be remarkable to be walking in Albuquerque, surely not so odd that a complete stranger should offer me a ride—and yet someone did. I arrived early for a yoga class Tuesday and decided to walk a few not-very-scenic blocks to pass the time rather than sit. A man of about fifty to sixty, driving a nice car, rolled down his window in passing and asked if I needed a ride. New Mexico is a friendly place, where we talk to strangers all the time, but I’ve never been invited into a car. I was so stunned I just said “No,” forgetting add “thank you.” What was this man thinking? I was wearing yoga clothes, flip-flops, and a sensible sun hat, so I don’t think I looked like some middle-age hooker angling for business at five-thirty in the afternoon. I didn’t look feeble, either. When I was walking in T or C a few nights earlier, a woman I’d never met before asked me what I did to stay so fit. She was getting out of her car, and she didn’t offer me a ride. (On that same T or C walk I passed a group of people who’d been rafting on the Rio Grande. They’d just unloaded their gear and I think they’d been imbibing a little on their trip. One woman, still holding a half-empty beer bottle, hugged another, and liquid poured from the bottle to the ground. The recipient of the hug asked, in a most serious tone, “Are you peeing?” You couldn’t get a laugh like that while driving. That was as good as seeing a baby gopher.)

When I went to the corn dance at Kewa Pueblo (Santo Domingo) earlier this week, I chose to park a distance from the plaza and walk. Twice, shuttle bus drivers tried very hard to let me know I could ride. I know they were just being courteous, but I couldn’t bring myself to ride. In my work in progress, this pueblo will be one of the settings, and walking helped me to soak up details.

When I walk in Santa Fe, no one offers me a ride. The city is full of pedestrians, some of them very interesting. While I walked to the Best of Santa Fe Block Party last Saturday, I encountered young women striking dance and yoga poses on the streets. This evening in the Plaza at Bandstand, I saw a tall trim Anglo man with a white tiny goatee wearing a little round flat African hat in pink and green and orange, pink John Lennon sunglasses, an orange-and-green African print shirt and a swath of similar fabric wrapped around his waist over his bright green shorts. All the clothing looked new, clean and crisp, a carefully chosen concoction.

The best-dressed dog at Bandstand belonged to man whose lean, scruffy appearance and worn-out backpack suggested he might be homeless. He had placed a pair of sunglasses with bright orange frames on the nose of his dog, a gentle, friendly mutt. Children broke off dancing wildly to the Santa Fe Chiles Jazz Band to pet the dog, and the man was gracious, careful of the children’s well-being and his dog’s good behavior. The way he steered and guided his dog made me think perhaps the glasses were there to indicate that the dog was blind. I had to wonder about the story behind his apparent good cheer in what looked like tough circumstances. Now, while writing this, I wonder if anyone ever offers him and his dog a ride.

Out of the Office!

I love putting that “out-of-office” automated response on my college e-mail account every summer after the three-week June session ends. It means I’m only a writer for July and half of August. I do all my fall class preparation in June, so I feel free: no pressure or to-do lists hanging over me. It’s not that I dislike my job—I enjoy my interactions with students—but I do have a tight schedule during the academic year, keeping up with two off-campus yoga teaching jobs as well my faculty job. I spent a few days in Santa Fe to celebrate my freedom, and now it feels great to settle back into in Truth or Consequences, 100 degree weather and all. When it got down in the eighties in the middle of my first night here, I went out for a soak in the hot spring under a full moon. When I woke up blissfully late, the first thing I did was write, working on the fifth Mae Martin book during breakfast. That’s my idea of the perfect start to a day.

As I always do in the summer I went out in the heat yesterday. The sign on the Bank of the Southwest said 102, but I’ve been told it’s right over a very hot spot in the hot aquifer and is usually wrong by a few degrees. Convinced it might it be only ninety-nine degrees, I walked to the river. The Rio Grande was full and broad, its waters gleaming with reflected blue and green. The bright notes of a red-winged blackbird perched in a shrub on the bank, the sweet scent of the sunbaked plants and the yellow flicker of a butterfly in front of a vista of pink-red dirt stopped me in my tracks—and stopped time. Nothing existed but the moment itself.

As I headed home, a friend driving past on his way from the pool stopped to talk in the way of small towns, cutting off his engine and rolling down his window. There was no traffic for us to interfere with, not in July, and I stood in the middle of the street for a one of those unexpectedly soul-baring conversations which are the cherished hallmark of our friendship. Later, while I was doing yoga in the shade on the back deck, watching a promising flock of dark clouds being herded in by the wind, a white butterfly against the thick blue-gray stilled me again. Stopping is good. To talk, to see, to be. At night, soft rain fell, touching my face with its cool fingers while I soaked in the hot spring. Water from above, water from below. Doubly blessed.

While I’m in T or C, my internet connection is limited to our wonderful local coffee shop, Passion Pie Café, which closes at three, or a feeble little mobile hotspot, which is sometimes so slow I’m reluctant to waste time dealing with it. This is making me cut back on my social media interactions, so I’m out of the office to Facebook and Goodreads, checking in rarely and saying little when I do. This results in more time for writing. I have no idea what impact my partial absence will have on my social networks on those sites, but it’s having a great effect on the next book.

My summers in T or  are always healing and productive. Immersion in the living world, from butterflies to old friends, is as important for my creativity as the freedom to write.