Walking the balance beam

Out there in the world of writing advice, there always seems to be just two camps.  There’s the “follow the rules” camp and the “there are no rules camp”, there’s the “let your muse guide you” camp and the “gut it out” camp, there’s the “work and practice” camp and the “indefinable art” camp.  There’s the “pants” camp and the “no pants” camp.

But that’s not really right, is it?  As with most things, these aren’t the only camps, just the loudest ones.  I mean, much as we humans love to put things in boxes, to make them clear-cut and easy to align ourselves with, real life is almost always a grey area.

The grey area I’m struggling with right now is the one between inspiration (“let your muse guide you”) and perspiration (“gut it out”).

Some people say they can only write by the light of a full moon, or in nothing but their underwear, or just on the 3rd Thursday of the month, or only at midnight with bonbons and booze.  It’s that “I’m an artiste through whom the ideas flow from on high” mentality; or, more simply put, the idea that you can’t force things.

On the other side of the scale are those who promote the philosophy of “butt in seat, fingers on the keyboard” every day, whether inspiration strikes or not.  But I challenge any of you to claim that you *really* and *truly* follow either of these practices.  Most of us fall somewhere in between, trying to capture fleeting moments of inspired imagination and corral them into our offices, out of our fingers, and onto the page.

But how?

How do we block out the mundane world – the honking horns on the street, the toilets that need to be cleaned, the siren call of the television, the need to go exercise, or a million other things clamoring for our attention – and make space for the fanciful worlds we’re struggling to create and the imaginary friends who occupy them?  Where is the line between being moved and excited about what we’re writing and laboring to hit a certain word count?  How do we balance the inspiration and the perspiration?

This morning, in that muzzy place between sleeping and waking, unwritten scenes from my novel played out in my mind.  The characters were vivid, the drama enthralling.  By the time I woke, though, they’d turned to smoke.  I chased them down the hall, trying to grasp their vapor, but by the time I had my tea and was sitting in front of my computer, they were gone.  I felt bereft, at a loss.

Ah well, so much for inspiration today.  Time to gut it out.

How do you make your garden grow?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile now (since the summer, actually), but have been so busy and stressed that I haven’t found the time.  The last few months have been hard, both personally and creatively, and sometimes the motivation to keep at it seems as fleeting as smoke.  Appropriately, then, when I most needed some inspiration, I remembered what I had wanted to write about so many months ago–and why.

So, here goes.  Bear with me.

My mother is a gardener.  Not the kind of gardener you’re probably picturing (a retired lady with a sun hat and a bed of Dahlias), but a hard-core working machine who labors rain or rain (she lives near Seattle), year-round to coax beauty and wonder out of 16 rambly acres on a Pacific Northwest island.  For the last 15 years, she’s planned, experimented, planted, replanted, designed, redesigned, weeded, ripped out, and redone an ever-growing landscape of incredible beauty.

Her dividends have been satisfaction, joy, and recognition, both locally and in some of the country’s leading gardening mazagines (Country Living, Sunset, Seattle TimesFine Gardening).

When I last visited (in August), I remember watching her at work and realizing that what she had accomplished with her garden was not so different from what I was trying to do with my writing.

Her garden is not just a series of pretty arrangements of plants, trees, and bushes.  It has a story running through it, a logic and a rhythm.  English cottage plantings are woven into a woodland by a shushing stream.  Sinuous hedges of boxwood lure you towards a pond full of lily pads and the bridge across the water deposits you at the edge of a path. Follow it and you might find a secluded glade in yellows and blues or an arching pergola hung with roses.  Each “room” in the garden evokes a different mood, has different pacing, and features unique characters.

The garden is my mother’s great work in progress, constantly in a state of unfolding.  As she prunes, weeds, adds, and subtracts, the story evolves.  And just when you think you have it figured out, you arrive at the edge of an enigmatic, eathen maze, dotted with colorful wooden pillars and presided over by a looming cairn of stones.  Plot twist!

Just as my efforts to become a better writer and tell more interesting stories might begin with a wisp of an idea or a glimpse of a character, her garden began with an old hot tub she decided to covert into a bubbling pond.  It looked naked sitting there all by itself, surrounded by empty lawn, so she built a structured garden around around it, bit by bit, year by year.

She visited other gardens, read about gardening, learned what would grow in her zone and what would not.  There was trial and error, good years and bad, and lots and lots of hard, cold labor.  All those things have transformed that first kernel of an idea into a world class garden that gives my mother (and the many people who visit annually) incredible pleasure.

So, on days when I feel despair of ever improving, of ever finishing this chapter, or that story, or of ever selling my work, I think about my mom’s garden.

Work hard, love what you do, focus on the task in front of you and — one day — you just might find you’ve created a true work of art.

Thanks for the inspiration, mom.

Writers as armchair anthropologists

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a post in my series on anthropology and Fantasy/SciFi, so I thought I’d kick off Sunday with a consideration of some of the awesome sources of writing inspiration anthropology can provide.  To read the other entries in this series, click on the “anthropology 101” tag.

Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, both likely and unlikely.  My most recent flashes of inspiration occurred during a poker game, in the middle of the pas de deux at Swan Lake, and at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  I’ve blogged about the importance of travel and experiences in a writer’s life, but sometimes time and finances don’t cooperate.  Enter inspiration drawn from the travel and experiences done for you by anthropologists and archaeologists.

The first anthropologists were called “armchair anthropologists” because they stayed at home and used the reports of explorers and adventurers as source material.  Nowadays, anthropologists spend their careers traveling to far-flung locales themselves (or even not-so-far-flung ones) to live among other cultures or to excavate the ruins of ancient societies.  They discover cultural beliefs and practices ranging from the bizarre and beautiful to the reassuringly familiar.  These insights can be fodder for writerly inspiration and allow us the chance to play at armchair anthropology.  Here are a few fascinating cultural practices you might like to mine for ideas:

Interested in the intersection of magic and technology?  Consider looking into cargo cults.  Arising primarily in the south Pacific following WWII, cargo cults found their genesis in the sudden arrival (and equally rapid departure) of American military personnel.  Soldiers brought technology and material wealth into previously isolated and low-tech island communities, who came to believe the cars, planes, radios and refrigerators had been magically summoned from the spirit world (mostly because they arrived in cargo planes from the sky).  After the soldiers left, some Pacific Islander communities engaged in magic and rituals designed entice the return of Westerners and their goods.  Some of these rituals were based in traditional religious practice, while others included things like ritualistically building airstrips and “control towers” to summon cargo planes from the sky.  Sound crazy? Tragic? Fascinating? Like fodder for some interesting sci fi?  Here are a few links on cargo cults from good old Wikipedia (including a good bibliography for further reading) the Smithsonian.

Maybe your cup of tea  isn’t technology, but music.  Consider then the Molimo, or voice of the forest, of the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire.  The tropical rain forest is the heart of Mbuti culture, providing everything these largely nomadic peoples need…so much so that the forest is considered a living spiritual entity.  The molimo is a long, hollow trumpet stored in a secret place deep in the forest.  When Mbuti life is thrown out of balance (for good or ill), the molimo ceremony is conducted.  It can last for several days, or up to a month or more, and is designed to wake up the forest.  Each night the community gathers to sing.  The song of the molimo answers from the forest, sometimes drawing closer to the camp, sometimes farther away.  Eventually, when the time is right, those bearing the molimo burst into the camp, trumpeting wildly and dashing around the fire before vanishing again into the forest.  A sacred musical instrument that must be fed and watered, is believed to be the voice of the forest, and is capable of restoring balance in society?  Awesome.  If you want to know more, Colin Turnbull wrote the classic ethnography “The Forest People”, or you can check out Wikipedia or UConn‘s pages.

Another practice to consider is the Kula Ring in Papua New Guinea.  The Kula Ring is all about gift-giving, social status, and the creation and maintenance of social obligation.  Best known among the Trobriand Islands, the Kula Ring revolves around the exchange of kula, red shell necklaces and white shell armbands.  These gifts are purely symbolic and are traded around the islands from partner to partner (necklaces traveling clockwise and armbands counterclockwise around the “ring”); the more exchange partners you have, the higher your status.  Individuals will travel great distances in their canoes to participate in the exchanges and elaborate negotiations through lesser forms of trade spring up as members compete to entice new partners and enhance their social standing.  The Kula Ring has been long- and well-studied, if you want to know more, read up on Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnographies, Marcel Mauss’ discussions of gift-giving, or start with this catch-all Wikipedia entry.

I could go on here, but three seems like a good start for now.  Out of curiosity, I’d love to know if these cultural practices are new to you or if you’d heard of them before.