Tag Archives: revision

Input vs. Output

 

I have two boards in my office: one is a whiteboard of due dates and projects, the other is a bulletin board of colorful images clipped from magazines, books, and catalogs. The whiteboard is a to-do list of crossouts and dates, and it looks important. The bulletin board is where my eye goes, however, with its mix of vintage maps, postcards, advertisements and book covers.

The whiteboard represents where most writers focus their time: Output. Whether mounted on the wall, tucked into a notebook or etched into their brains, the to-do list looms importantly. We should be producing something, we should have goals, we should get published.

My whiteboard contains a list of free-lance stories due over the course of this year; some short creative projects I’ve been submitting; and a novel that’s still under revision.

But just as important is Input, an area to which we pay scant attention. Arguably without Input there will be no Output. Input is where we get our ideas, our spark, our inspiration. Because it seems to come out of the ether, we are loathe to quantify it. But Input can be listed and analyzed; we can boost our Input to increase our Output.

My list of both might look something like this:

 

Reading “Emerson and his Eccentrics”; rereading Thoreau’s journal – Thinking with intention about my memoir

Research into medicine – Free-lance stories on hospital history

Reading the New York Times and other papers – Ideas for op-eds and letters to the editor

Browsing the Times archive – Random sparks of interest for fiction and nonfiction

Posting on the Creativity Bulletin Board and collecting new images – Same 

Reading books about moonshining – Novel on moonshining in Rhode Island

Gardening on this homestead where I grew up – Ideas for my memoir

Plays and books – Writing reviews of same

 

Most of this Input comes from magazines, newspapers, online sources, and vintage ephemera. I’m low on one vital source of Input: experiences. Other than gardening and the theater, I don’t list any. A few trips to museums, hiking trails, and art galleries will boost my Input considerably.

In her seminal work on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron refers to these experiences as the “artist date.” She prescribes a weekly foray that will feed the artist within us. “Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to,” she writes, suggesting long walks, a visit to a new neighborhood or browsing through a secondhand store as possibilities. 

My list of experiences will not be your list. I find a trip to the dump shack (where used books are dropped off and picked up) or an antique bookstore is always rewarding, as is any cultural experience that doesn’t involve reading or writing: a play, art gallery opening or musical performance. 

Sometimes these experiences sneak up on you. A family outing, a bulletin board in a coffee shop or a trip to the post office can provide that sudden “aha!” moment that writers need. You increase your odds of benefiting from these experiences if, instead of spending all day at your computer, you take time to mingle in the real world.

We cannot minimize the power of images and texts, either. I’m in the middle of reading two books (one on Emerson, another a novel I’m reviewing) and listening to a third book on audio (Pearl Buck in China, a fabulous biography by Hilary Spurling). My bulletin board is saturated with images: a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville ad; a postcard of a motel in Rutland, Vt.; a Nancy Drew cover; a vintage map of New England; one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s poppies; and photography by Maurine Sutter, an artist who spent two weeks in the dune shacks of Provincetown. All of these speak to me on some level, and all of them in some small way fuel my writing thoughts.

The conventional to-do list is a necessary evil, especially for those of us writing free-lance on deadline. But spend some time on another kind of to-do list – the experiences and interactions that fertilize your mind – and you’ll find your writing will benefit enormously.

 

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Advice from an artist

 

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received came not from fellow writers, or teachers, but visual artists.

Such was the case this afternoon as I watched Antonia Tyz-Peeples lead a workshop on painting technique at Rhode Island’s Charlestown Gallery.

The Connecticut artist specializes in large-format wave paintings. I met her six years ago and feel lucky to count her as a friend. Yet no matter how many times we chat, I always learn something new.

Working on a small canvas this afternoon, she gave the audience step-by-step directions on brush technique, color mixing, and proportion. None of that may seem applicable to those of us who deal in ink and paper, but consider some of her advice:

  1. “People can use their imaginations. They see something, they know there’s more.” How many of us are guilty of spelling it out for the reader? You don’t have to describe every step down a corridor or every article of clothing. Leave something for the reader to do.
  2. “It’s what you see, not what you think.” She said this while holding a brush tip to the photograph she was painting. In other words, your brain might think your painting needs bright ochre, but if you hold the brush up to the color you’re copying you may find it’s another mix altogether. As writers, we tend to have a vision in our mind of our characters and place details. But just because “egg-yolk sun” sounds good doesn’t mean the sun really looks your breakfast.
  3. “It’s not magical. I’ve practiced a lot. I paint every day.” Tyz-Peeples is not blowing smoke here – she’s the hardest working artist I know. She’s honed her craft over many years, and she is in her studio by 9 a.m. every day. Writers must practice a similar discipline. Sit at the desk, open up the laptop or notebook and do it regularly. Inspiration will land on your shoulder when you keep your appointment with the work.
  4. “I find it very important to have multiple things going on.” Maybe this technique isn’t for everyone, but for me a variety of writing projects – as dissimilar as possible – keeps me focused and energized. The quick stuff, like blogs, letters, and essays, give you a sense of achievement for very little time invested. Analytical writing, such as play or book reviews, keeps my critical faculties honed. And for the long haul, I need at least one book-length manuscript that will require years of work. You wouldn’t want to spend all your writing time on quick-hit pieces with a short life span, but you also need relief from the intensive immersion a novel or memoir requires.
  5. “I can see it with new eyes.” She was talking about letting a canvas sit overnight. For writers, that fallow period might be much longer, days, weeks, or months. I recently returned to my novel after six months of querying to tidy up some loose ends. Its flaws jumped out at me.
  6. “I’m not going to overthink it.” The visual artist knows when a touch-up here or there has the potential to ruin a painting that’s done; so, too, must writers let the work go eventually.
  7. Tyz-Peeples had a practical piece of advice that might at first seem unique to painting: Turn the canvas. Making her horizontal painting vertical, she saw not the finished product but the abstract section she was trying to focus on. Plus, she wasn’t bumping her hand on the easel. In journalism school, our professors taught us to squint at the copy we were editing, or mumble it aloud to ourselves. Whatever the tactic, it disrupts the brain’s visual expectations, helping both focus and concentration.
  8. “I know what the surf looks like. I’ve studied it.” Don’t forget that you, too, know a lot more than you give yourself credit for. You’ve got a lifetime of memories and experiences, good and bad, to draw from. It’s never too late to learn more, but don’t forget just how much you bring to the page.

For further inspiration, check out some of Antonia Tyz-Peeples’s work at www.antoniatyzpeeples.com or follow her on Instagram: antoniatyzpeeples.

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Revision, A Woman’s Wash Day

I’ve been doing a lot of cooking lately. Finding new recipes, buying the ingredients, then sifting, stirring, folding. Something about baking, especially, is compatible with writing. I work on a freelance story or the fledgling novel, then I go downstairs and stand in the kitchen, happily taking out the whole-wheat flour, salt, sugar and eggs.
The laundry, however, is a different matter. There’s nothing soothing about toting dirty clothes down to the cellar, emptying and filling the top loader, then leaning over the bed to square off T-shirts, crease pants and match socks. In fact it makes me downright grumpy.
Cooking, you see, is creation. It’s generation. Just as we writers enjoy that moment of seeing a story unfold from the pen or in computer typescript, so too do I like to watch the lemon pudding cake softly browning in the oven, or the muffins rising in their round little homes.
But laundry is revision. It’s trying to put order where there seemingly is none. There always seems to be a stray white athletic sock with no mate, a sleeveless undershirt that might be a daughter’s or a son’s, towels (upstairs) mixed up with dishtowels (downstairs). Laundry means sorting whites from darks, climbing up and down stairs, wrestling with static cling.
Just like the piles of laundry that seem to breed by themselves, my drafts build up, demanding attention. And fixing them is no easier than sorting, washing, drying and folding – in fact, it’s a chore, which is why I put it off, attending to the easier projects instead. The newspaper story I can dash off in an hour. The mood piece the magazine requested. The blog I’m writing right now.
With the short pieces, it’s like baking cookies: nearly instant gratification. Cookies don’t hang around for six months or a year, like some of my memoir pieces that refuse to be “done.” In the oven, out of the oven. Bam, as the chef says.
But the laundry piles up. It’s a series of mundane yet variegated tasks, and there’s never a sense that there – you’re done. No sooner is the linen closet restocked with towels, then you notice your son’s hamper is overflowing. As quick as you hang up your husband’s shirts, you begin running short on pajamas. It’s hard to get excited about laundry, or revision, when you never feel like you’ve accomplished anything.
But revision, like laundry, must be attended to. And like the mounds of married socks and fluffed towels, some good does come of all that effort. It’s just hard to see the final draft when your laundry baskets are full of stray commas, dead phrases, and limp endings. It seems like you should be done, after spending hours rewriting that beginning, over and over again, or taking out the small anecdote and then putting it back in, once, twice, three times. If you read that piece about your childhood one more time, you’ll rip it to shreds. It seems like you’ve made it worse than better. But how could that be, when it was so terrible to begin with?
Take heart. Just like housework, we must mix our chores to stay sane. So keep baking those cookies and shaping those meatloaves, as long as in between you dash down cellar to reload the washer. Keep checking that little basket of unmatched socks. Sooner or later, their mates will turn up – just as you will finish that story, eventually.

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