Why Sammy Can’t Blog

I have been remiss in blogging for several weeks, in spite of my best intentions. I had a good run for seventeen days. I accidentally broke the streak when I wrote a post but forgot to publish it before bed. That set the stage for skipping a day, then two, and then two weeks went by in the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.

In spite of what this lapse suggests, blogging is important to me. That’s why I keep coming back to it.

I write at least one entry in my journal every morning. That exercise limbers up my mind. Often, those entries are not good writing, but the discipline of doing it prepares me for other forms of writing. Sometimes an entry helps me work through a scene I’m struggling with in my fiction. Sometimes I write about work problems and find a solution that way, or at least come to understand the problem better so that I can solve it later. Rarely, I can revise an entry for a blog post. (That’s how “Letters” began.) That’s never the intention, though. When I sit down at my keyboard with a cup of coffee at hand each morning, I am writing for an audience of one, and that one is myself.

I like the idea of blogging because I crave a different type of discipline. In the journal, I allow my thoughts to wander wherever they will. With blogging, I want to channel my thought into a specific topic and construct a coherent narrative or argument. Publishing that effort forces me to be accountable to an external audience.

Why do I struggle to do it, if it’s so important and I want to do it?

Fatigue plays a large role. I haven’t been sleeping well for the past few weeks, which means I start each day with limited energy reserves. I reserve mornings for writing fiction. I spend my workdays engaged in cognitive labor. By the time evening rolls around, I don’t have a lot of mental energy left to spend.

I don’t know how to solve my sleep problem. If I did, I would have solved it already. But I’ll keep experimenting until I find the solution. Until then, I’ll blog as often as I can muster the energy.

Connecting past and present

Last December, I was in New York City for a night, so I arranged to meet my friend Don for drinks. He teaches in Connecticut but is often in the city. We shared an office when I was in graduate school and have maintained the friendship for almost a quarter of a century.

He asked about the novel I’m working on, role-playing a busy publisher whom I had to hook. I said I was writing the best prose of my life. He asked what had made that possible. “I guess I needed to care about what I was doing,” I joked.

“But you’ve always cared,” he said. “Don’t you remember how much you wrestled with ‘Charlie’s Heart?’”

“Charlie’s Heart” was a story I wrote in graduate school about a young boy who discovers that he has literally lost his heart. (I was experimenting with magical realism at the time.) It took me months to finish, because I was determined to tell not merely a “good” story, but one that was honest, as well. Don read multiple drafts and helped me see it through when I despaired of finishing it.

That reminder was such a precious gift. Sometimes I doubt myself when I write. Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be happier doing something else. Sometimes I feel as though I have made no progress as a writer. Don reminded me of who I am and who I have always been.

The right priority

I played my guitar for the first time in years last week in honor of John Prine. I haven’t played it since and although I want to play more, I probably won’t.

It had been five years since I last played. I was rusty, for sure, but I thought I hadn’t lost much skill. I could get back to where I was five years ago without much effort. The trouble is that I wouldn’t likely get much better than that, either. The reason I stopped playing was that I reached a plateau. I couldn’t increase my skill any farther without devoting more time to practice than I could spare.

Broadcaster Ira Glass talked the fact that as beginners, creative people often have less skill than taste. The gap between what they want to create and what they can create is disappointing. That disappointment is why many quit. That is where I was: unsatisfied with my skill, but unable to improve. If I’d had the time, I don’t doubt that I could have been a very good guitarist. But writing called to me more than playing did, and so I decided to focus on fiction.

I’m almost halfway through revising my latest novel, with the working title Faithless. It is the best thing I’ve ever written, and when I finish this revision, it will be better still. For the first time, I look forward to trying to find an agent because the story is good. I believe there’s at least one agent out there who will see its potential and find it a home. And my next novel (already percolating in my mind) will be better still.

I miss playing guitar sometimes, but I made the right choice to set it aside.

Letters

I miss letters.

During my first year at college, going to the mailbox was often the best part of my day. Mail arrive twice each weekday at ten and three. People swarmed the campus post office like addicted gamblers fighting to place last-minute bets at the track. I knew it was foolish to join them. Why not wait fifteen minutes until the crowd evaporated? I plunged in anyway. I had to see what awaited.

In my first quarter, the girlfriend I’d left behind wrote to me almost daily. Even after we broke up, though, I could count on something being there more often than not. A letter from my parents (if I was lucky, with a check). A packet from my sister containing a week’s worth of “Calvin and Hobbes” strips cut from the Orlando Sentinel. (The local paper didn’t carry it.) Postcards and letters from friends at other schools.

Letters were treasure.

After I transferred schools, I kept up steady correspondences with the friends I’d made in my freshman year. It kept me connected to a world I missed with all the longing of an unwilling expatriate. I wrote letters in big batches every Sunday night. I looked forward to the responses throughout the week.

It didn’t last, of course. Someone would forget to write back. Or I would. The flow of letters slowed to a trickle. By the time I got my first email account, I was only getting regular letters from one person. Then she got an email account, too, and we shifted our correspondence online. It didn’t last much longer after that. Email lacked the warmth, personality, and permanence of letters. I still have many of her letters. I don’t have any of the emails.

If you miss letters, too, write to me at the address below. I promise that I’ll write back.

Sam Falco
PO Box 11052
Saint Petersburg, FL 33733

Blogging more

I wrote a blog post every day for the past seven days. This is a big deal for me. I go for long stretches during which I don’t post anything, but that’s not for lack of desire. It’s for lack of confidence that I have anything to say worth saying.

That feeling usually takes the form of being unable to settle on a subject. Even when I have one in mind, I can’t select a focus. The result is either a rambling mess or a series of false starts. When I don’t have a specific topic in mind, I’ll look through my notebook for ideas I’ve jotted down. Usually, I reject them all before becoming frustrated and giving up.

Last Friday night, I decided to experiment with blogging every night. I needed a way to select a topic quickly and focus on it. A gift from my wife supplied the method: the “Hemingway Deck,” which is a deck of cards with a writing prompt on each card. Some of the prompts aren’t relevant to me, so I didn’t want to commit to selecting one at random and hoping for the best. On the other hand, if I tried to select one, I knew that I would reject one after the other.

I chose to select three cards at random, and then select one. That way, I had some choice, but not so much that I never settled on a topic. This method took away one of my excuses not to write. I had a topic. I didn’t give myself a target length, so a few sentences was enough. As a result, I wrote several posts, including one that didn’t come from the cards but occurred to me before I sat down to write.

I intend to maintain the momentum this week. I would like to get to the point where I can write deeper posts than my typical response to a prompt. For now, though, I’ll settle for establishing the discipline of publishing something daily.

 

Revision under way

Just after the new year, I finished the first draft of my last novel, as yet untitled. (It had a title, but the story that emerged made the title obsolete, so I’m still in search of a new one.) I deliberately set it aside for a few weeks to get some distance. Yesterday, I decided it was time to start.

I made some changes late in the novel that will require me to re-arrange the beginning. Some scenes need to be rewritten. Some will be replaced with new ones; others will be cut entirely. I wanted to make the structure visible so it would be easier to understand how changing one scene would affect others.

I first thought I would use the blank wall in my home office to map the structure. Color-coded sticky notes and swim lanes would do the trick. Trouble was, I ran out of wall 1/3 of the way in. Today I transferred the physical notes into a spreadsheet. Manipulating cells isn’t as enjoyable as having something I can touch and feel, but at least this is portable, which will be good when I travel on business.

Tomorrow, I’ll print the entire draft and start reading it and marking it up. For the first time, I’m eager to revise. Usually, I’m so sick of a story by the time I finish the first draft that revision is a torment. I don’t know why this feels different.

Two Weeks

I have been away from the blog for too long. It has been over two weeks since my last post, aside from the two announcing speaking engagements. I don’t count those.

It took me two months of blogging to get even a little bit comfortable with the practice. It took me a week to start doubting myself again. I started posts, then deleted them. They weren’t deep enough. They weren’t significant enough. Someone else has already said what I’m thinking, only better. Who cares what I think? All the same old negative self-talk.

The excuse for the past few days has been that I’m too busy. I’ve got two speaking engagements to prepare for, one of which is right around the corner. I’m busy at work. I’m revising my novel. I’m writing something new for my critique group. I don’t have time to blog.

Truth is, I can find the time. I’m not asking that much of myself here, only that I  experiment and get comfortable showing my work without revising it out of existence. It was working, too. Here, in my critique group, in my company, I was starting to show my work without fear. Since I stopped writing for the blog, the fear has started to return, and I’m starting to get anxious about what I write. I can’t let that happen again.

Banal. Lacking Insight.

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In the spring semester of 1988, I signed up for a creative writing class in poetry. I remember the year and the season because a friend had died in a car crash the previous December. I remember the class because of the professor’s comments on one the poems, about the death of my friend, that I turned in as part of my midterm assignment.

“Banal.”

“Lacking insight.”

Thirty years later, I wish I remembered his name as clearly as I remember his marginalia, so I could properly curse him.

I stopped going to class, forgot to drop it, and failed it. There were multiple reasons—depression, illness, money problems—but “banal” and “lacking insight” didn’t help.

Several years later, I started frequenting a coffee house that hosted regular poetry readings.  Listening to poems that ranged from godawful to brilliant inspired me to try again. Some poems came into my head fully formed, others required an enormous amount of work. One that I wrote for a friend’s wedding took almost twenty hours over the course of three weeks to write. I was never prolific. I averaged perhaps a poem every two weeks, until August of 1998, when I wrote this one:

Sunset

Day opens her veins into an
Unforgiving sky absorbs the last drops of
Light seeps scarlet stains into
Dirty smokestack gauze oozes across the
Horizon slowly betrays day’s trust to
Night seeps into my eyes

With the exception of greeting card epigrams, I haven’t written a poem since.

“Sunset” revealed more about my mental state than I was comfortable with confronting. I’d only intended to experiment with enjambment, but this is a poem informed by clinical depression and a rapidly necrotizing marriage. I didn’t want to risk more material like this bubbling up from my subconscious.

In time, I convinced myself that I actually couldn’t write poetry. I dismissed the fact that I’d written dozens of poems, had one published, and had given readings that were well received. I told myself that the successful poems were flukes.

My poetry was banal. Lacking insight.

I even told people that I didn’t like poetry, which was patent horsefeathers. I threw away the paper copies, and now I only have seven from that period. Eight, if you count a limerick about a man who had carnal relations with chickens.

And so I have not written poetry for almost twenty years. Earlier this month, though, I started thinking about trying again. Some thoughts and ideas are better expressed in verse, and besides, I feel incomplete as a writer without being able to write poetry. I asked Carolyn to get me a copy of a book I used to have:  A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, by Mary Kinzie. I’ve started to read it, but I’m already stumped on an assignment from the preface. Paralyzed, almost.

What if it’s terrible? What if it’s banal? Lacking insight?

It probably will be, as rusty as I am. But I have to limber up somehow. I’ll write as many crappy poems as I have to in order to find my voice again, and start writing good ones.

 

Notes on “The Apology”

The Apology” was inspired by the song, “Cheap Whiskey,” on Martina McBride’s debut album. The song is about a man coming to terms with his alcoholism having driven away “the light of his life.” I wanted to explore what might happen if he decided to apologize, and discovered that the apology didn’t make anything better.

In the first draft, there wasn’t much more to it. I felt like it was thin as I wrote, so I introduced additional characters: four customers and the cook. It wasn’t terrible, as first drafts go, but my critique group suggested that I cut the other characters. Removing them made me realize how thin the characterization was, especially of Margo, and that gave me a clearer vision of the story.

Margo, especially, was little more than a cardboard cut-out. What was in her heart and mind when Nehemiah walked in? What would it do to her to hear an unwanted apology? Deepening my understanding of her also gave me fresh insight into Nehemiah. These insights changed the story for the better.

What I’ve learned from this is not to clutter my scenes and stories with extra characters. The other customers, Margo’s brother; I’d put them all in as scenery, basically, and then I’d felt obligated to give them something to do. They distracted me from the heart of the story. In my next first draft, I’ll be ruthless about keeping the scene focused on the only people who actually matter.

Small Assignments

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I set a goal of writing three blog posts this week, and I finished one, but the second one completely got away from me. I wanted to write one more thing about my experience in the Pentecostal church, but then I had to explain something else in order for the one thing to make sense. The something else also needed to be introduced, and that introduction had half a dozen components, and so on. And I kept thinking, “This topic is just so big; I don’t know how I’m going to boil it down into a single post.”

I stepped away from it for a little while this morning hoping that doing some chores would generate insight—it happens that way, sometimes—but alas, when I returned to the page, the topic was still so big, and it grew even longer as I worked. I took another break, and picked up Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There, I found my answer:

“The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments.”

If the topic is too big, don’t boil it down. Break off a piece. And if that’s still too big, break off another, until you get something small enough to write. I don’t have to tell my whole life story in one page.

Image by Stasi Albert.