Alex the Scribe

Exploring the craft of writing. Sharing resources for writers.

This Pain | Cette Douleur

The wound can scar

or stay open,

it can scab over

and bleed

again.

Never allow it

to fester.

 

This pain

is the testament

of the love

you shared.

 

Cherish it.

Que la blessure guérisse

ou reste ouverte,

qu’elle devienne escarre

ou plaie

à nouveau :

ne la laisse jamais

s’infecter.

 

Cette douleur

est la preuve

de l’amour

partagé.

 

Chéris-la.

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Writing and coffee

Writing is a lot like brewing coffee. There are many ways to brew coffee. All methods have their staunch supporters. Some brewers swear by their method and will try to convert every brewer. They hold their method as the one true way to get the best coffee, and any other method is flawed for some reasons or others.
But every brewing method is different. And each yields coffee, in the end. But the aromas and tannins and bitterness will differ.
Some methods are simple and require basic skills and equipment. Turkish coffee, for example. Pour boiling water on fine coffee grounds straight in the cup. Voilà! Strong gritty coffee.
Others ask for a bit more time and equipment. The ubiquitous percolator comes to mind. The coffee grounds go in a filter. Water is heated to 95 degrees, then dripped on the grounds. The water flows through the grounds, filters through the paper, and cascades in the pot. The filter absorbs some of the essential oils of and tannins the grounds. The result is a gritless coffee with more body and less bitterness.
Then comes the art of brewing. The barrista, artist of coffee, uses the espresso machine like a painter uses his brush. They grind the grounds, press them just right, and set it in the machine. They precisely set the water temperature, and the machine will push the water through the grounds. Done right, this process results in a small cup of a strong, aromatic coffee topped with light crema.
There are countless other ways to brew coffee—stovetop, French press, and mesh filters come to mind off the top of my head. And let’s not forget to factor in coffee bean roasting and place of harvest. They are key components of the taste of the hot beverage you will enjoy.
Like I said, every brewer will have a favorite method, by preference or habit. But all brewers will gain a better understanding of their art if they explore the various methods. Even if, in the end, they stick with their favorite method, they will be more rounded brewers for having explored the art.
In the end, the artist must take pleasure in the process and share the product with those who will appreciate it. Not all will like it. To each their own. But some will be grateful to have discovered something new and unexpected.

Words and Beads

According to various sources, all I have to do to be a writer is to write between 300 and 1000 words every day.

So here I am, writing.

Is this how it feels like to be a writer? If so, the writing life is fraught with uncertainty.

Is this how you do it?

A writer whose work I enjoy reading once wrote:

Quote by Neil Gaiman“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

Stringing words like beads on a necklace is easy enough. And it’s easy enough to end up with a decent piece of jewelry.

But to get a piece that will wow some beholders, or at least get them talking, you need hard work, know-how, and lots of time. Or, like Hemingway said:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

You can always tell which pieces were given a bit of time and which the artist bled over. Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird that the writer needs to give his best in each work, to give his all to the current work in progress without holding back, without keeping anything for the next piece.

In other words, she recommends using all the prettiest beads on your current project.

Because you’ll always find more beads, just as pretty and nice, for your next piece.

Getting punched in the neck by writer’s block

Where yours truly gets stuck in a rut midway through NaNoWriMo, questions everything, and rants about it

F*ck this is useless. I’m writing complete drivel.

This is not art. It’s barely a story. And a shoddy one, like a rusty bucket with holes punched in it that can’t even do its job right. You had one job, damn it! One job! And you messed it up. All you had to do was to come up with a story. An interesting story. The story you want to read. The kind of story you enjoy, that sticks in your head, the kind of story you want to tell others about, that you want to share with family and friends and strangers.

But this. This is lame. This is lamer than a feetless duck.

The dialogues are everywhere, and insipid. They fall flat and drag on forever. The characters show the emotional range of a newt. Flatlining doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s the great Canadian plains where you can send your dog running for the horizon and still spot him with a good pair of binoculars three days later. Well, of course by that time the dog will be dying of thirst and exhaustion and exposure.

I don’t even know where I’m going with this.

I read and heard tales of the wall of writing block that hits the writer midway through NaNoWriMo. But this here, this is ridiculous. I had a story to tell, but now it all seems so pointless and is becoming such a drag. Where is my fire?

I had a silly idea and ran with it. It was fun for a while. Maybe I’m starting to take myself too seriously. Aren’t I the one who keeps repeating that art, whatever the medium, is the most poignant when it’s not serious? When it does not take itself seriously? Think for a second of the artists you admire. Neil Gaiman. Terry Pratchett. Douglas Adams. Black Keys. Jack White. François Pérusse. San Antonio. Fred Pellerin. Dédé Fortin (oh man, just think of Belzébuth!). All the artists, all their art that has moved me and made me laugh, the beauty and humanity through it, those works of staggering genius.

Of course these works were the culmination of years of hard labor and sweat and blood and tears. And before getting there, these artists first had to produce a lot of garbage. I mean, a lot of garbage, piles and piles of worthless paperweights and more ugly and useless and misshapen things. And then, finally, after a lifelong of learning and mistakes and exploration, lots of hard work went into those masterpieces.

But they all stemmed, I am sure of it, from playfulness.

A masterpiece is born when someone plays with their material, be it words or canvas or clay. When an apprentice (because we are all apprentices, all the time) explores what he is working with, great things are bound to happen.

Playfulness and exploration are the cornerstones of creativity and great art.

There is no better way to make serendipitous discoveries (or to have a stroke of genius) than by not thinking too much about what you are doing. Let the mind and the subconscious make links that you would usually inhibit yourself to do. Playfulness and exploration and curiosity and fun allow the artist to get out of his own way. That is where and when the magic happens.

Is this what’s bugging me? The fact that I’m not exploring, that I don’t feel like I am being playful in my project? It started playful enough. The ideas were funny. They actually made me laugh. I had to share them with friends, with my wife, if just to see her face of “What-the-hell-are-you-talking-about-this-is-crazy-you’re-nuts”, and then see her indulgent smile.

That might be it.

I’m sticking too much to the “I-have-to-write-enough-words-to-win-this-thing” mindset, of word-churning, and not enough on the playful exploration of the situation my characters are in. Not enough on the playful exploration of my characters. I should just write them into impossible situations and watch what happens and what they do as I write it. Let them surprise me in playful ways.

See, I write all this, and it sounds great. Yeah, good pep talk, you could even share it with fellow Wrimos to give them a little boost in the wordcount.

But here is the thing.

I’m not feeling it.

Not tonight anyway. I feel like a dried up well that gave its last drop of good stuff long ago. Well, like yesterday. Too much stress? Not enough sleep? Not enough physical activity? Not enough socialization? All of the above. Definitely.

It reminds me of the time I was depressed, actually. Not times when I was “under the weather” or a little down. I mean full blown depression. Getting up from bed was a feat. Taking care of myself was a drag and an inconvenience and a burden. Going through the motions every day was like letting myself be dragged by the current of a river, and it was all I could do to keep my head above water.

Writing this, all of this, even these very words, feels exactly like that right now, like trying to swim in jello or pudding or thick mud. It is slow going, it is messy, it is not pretty, it is far from elegant and as gracious as a boulder in a tutu.

Why am I feeling like this?

I have lost sight of my goal.

Which is: to tell a story.

I know I am a good storyteller. I know it. I have discovered it when I was a camp counselor improvising stories for the kids sitting around the campfire. And when inventing bedtime stories for my boys. They listen enraptured when I’m nailing it. When I’m not nailing it, they keep interrupting with their own tidbits and tossing “and then” left and right and center.

I have to be doing more than hitting a wordcount. Speed writing works fine IF I have something worthwhile to write. Otherwise, it’s just wasted whitespace and lost time.

Maybe, just maybe this isn’t just a gigantic pile of crap.

Well, it probably is.

But on today’s manure will grow tomorrow’s grass.

Dancers

golden leaves tumbling—
empty clearing alive with
dancers on the breeze

Golden leaf falling

Photo by Melissa Rebelo

 

The Cliff

We meet on the plain not far from the cliff. We talk a bit. She wants to walk with me, but I say I have to go.

I meet her there again a few years later. She was waiting for me. We talk some more. We start walking. She tells me she did walk with others while hoping for my return, but she never got too close to the edge.

Walking the edge between friendship and love with her is exhilarating. It’s beautiful. It’s scary. It’s dangerous. It’s exciting. Not knowing if one of us or both will fall. Not knowing what will happen if we do. Will we crash or fly?

Free fall.

Then flight.

Then lazy gliding to the valley below.

We settle. And now we’re setting our little explorers on their own paths, to find their own adventures. We’re thrilled and worried. A bit scared, too.

Then we remember that we were explorers too, once.

Urban Megalith

Granary

Urban megalith — picture by me

He squatted in an old abandoned granary. It looked like a dozen giant cement toilet paper rolls, about 7 storeys high, stood up side by side. A corrugated-sheet-metal shed perched on top. The shed was as rusted as the metal staircase leading up to it. In winter, he had to patch the holes in the wall to get a small reprieve from the wind, but the stairs held his weight without bucking.

The only color on the grey and rust structure were the sun bleached graffiti at ground level and along the top. Artists and troublemakers used to climb up here for the view, the privacy, and a canvas to leave their mark on the cityscape.

He hadn’t left his mark, but he was the only one still climbing the rusting stairs.

Exotic Birds

 

Bird of Paradise

The lady looks at the smouldering ruins of her home, where she had housed her vast collection of exotic birds.
– Well, at least I know what I’m having for supper.

Inspiration is Unnatural

“They were able to compose only by bringing themselves to attacks of inspiration, an extinct form of epilepsy.” Yevgeny Zamyatin in We.

“[Goethe] leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. […] Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he ‘could not live or work without it.'” Goethe, cited in Odd Type Writers

Inspiration isn’t just a fickle mistress, it’s also an unnatural mental state. It’s an intoxication that disrupts the normal functions of the brain. It’s accompanied by a release of endorphins and dopamine, producing a sense of euphoria and invincibility in the artist and making the whole experience addictive.

Once the effects wear out, the victim is left deflated with a sense of guilty elation. Then, withdrawal kicks in with a bout of “the blues”.

The victim will then actively seek out inspiration through various methods, both rational, like reproducing the setting in which inspiration struck, and irrational, like calling upon the forces of the occult, and everything in between, with various degrees of failure. Others will simply wait for inspiration to strike again, which can take from days to months, and longer.

A more reliable way to get your fix is to work for it. Start creating without inspiration, and it will eventually manifest itself spontaneously. Creation breeds inspiration. More so than the other way around.

Inspiration isn’t all that fickle when you get to know her.

Angel’s Death

I’ve seen things you cannot imagine:
the gates of Hell;

Heavenly armies fending off swarms
of fiendish beasts;

Seraphims and cherubims fighting
hellish archdemons;

Torn leathery wings, bloodied feathers
filling the skies;

The victorious trumpet blasts of
celestial beings.

All these moments will be lost in time,
like tears in rain.

Nothing’s left for me but to accept
it’s time to die.

[Inspired by this timeless monologue from Blade Runner]