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  1. Rewriting: Making the Commitment

    July 24, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    When we commit to a thing—a relationship, a project, a way of life, a new habit—there comes a time when the road gets rocky. There comes a time when we want to walk away, call it quits. “It’s too hard!” we say. “I can’t do it! This isn’t what I expected!”

    Those statements may be true, but unless the relationship/project/action is a threat to our mental or physical well-being, commitment means staying engaged, no matter what.

    Rewriting a book is like having a relationship with a person. You get acquainted, you check for strengths and weaknesses, you get feedback from others, and you either walk away or take the relationship to the next level.

    But first, you meet.

    The project begins

    Someday, I want to publish a book. The book I publish might not be the one I’m working on now, behind the writer’s curtain. Similar to marriage, if we’re lucky, we land the right guy or girl the first time we date. But usually, it takes a few practice relationships before we develop the skills to forge a lasting bond. It takes dating some bozos before we attract the best match. But that doesn’t mean all those clowns are a waste of time. No! We learn something new with each relationship.

    I accept that this novel might be the practice one. I’m sharpening my skills. And it’s good to take the pressure off, knowing this is a learning experience. Once I mastered that mind-set, that I’m showing up every day, putting in my hours or minutes or whatever time I eek out to learn this craft of rewriting, then all that’s required is for me to make the effort.

    So, I carve out three days—Friday, Saturday and half of Sunday—to devote to my rewrite. First up: read the whole thing.

    As I read, I try not to futz. I resist the urge to straighten the collar and flick lint off the tie and pull up the socks. I just read.

    It’s been at least six months since I’ve looked at my manuscript. Plenty of time to have an unbiased viewpoint. Plenty of time to conclude I need to toss at least half. And not wince at the thought.

    “Okay, it has a pleasing voice, there’s something interesting here, but the front end needs work.”

    I’m able to make this assessment without cringing because I’m not in the throes of first love anymore. The rose colored glasses are off. With time, I’m able to see the flaws as a reader would, not as a writer. And that’s what we’re doing in this first reacquaintance with our manuscript. Reading as a reader.

    So far, so good.

    The project stalls

    After checking out my novel, it’s time to start dating.

    When dating, we get to know each other. We get a closer look at what this person is all about. What is this person’s history? Is there a turning point in their life that affected them? What crises has this person been through, how do they deal with problems, and how evolved are they?

    It’s the same when looking at our manuscript.

    We’re looking for structure, for character arcs. We’re looking for plot points or beats or whatever method we’re using to shore up our story. This is the getting-to-know-you stage: Is there a foundation here, a story, or is it a series of incidents with no conflict? We wouldn’t settle for a boring relationship. A reader won’t settle for a novel where nothing happens.

    At the dating stage, we might need to lower the bar. This guy isn’t Brad Pitt, this girl isn’t Angelina Jolie, but hey, they’ve got a beating heart, right? And they’re decent, and successful on some level, and worth spending time with.

    Well, this novel of mine has a beating heart, but it’s faint, somewhere in the middle. And it’s not bad; I mean it’s not like a third-grader wrote it. The voice is strong at times, and there’s sorta a story in there somewhere, and it’s successful in the sense that I got a first draft down. That’s something, right?

    But first, I need to know what this story is about.

    “Well, it’s about this beatnik who…”

    “It’s about…”

    “Um….”

    Trouble. I’m in deep doo-doo. I can’t get a handle on what the piece is about. I ponder. I rack my brain. I bang my head on the desk trying to shake something loose. A premise.

    “Maybe I should choose one of my other novels. One that’s a whole lot clearer.”

    Week one, and I’m ready to throw in the towel. Surprised? Not likely. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I’m a self-confessed commitment-phobic. The act of agreeing to do anything permanently makes me feel like I need to breathe into a paper bag.

    But wait…I vowed to commit to finishing this rewrite, right? Last week I blabbed it to the world. Or at least to sixty people.

    “Maybe they’ve forgotten,” I tell myself. “Maybe I’ll hang up the Gone Fishing sign and go outside and play instead. They’ll never know.”

    These are the thoughts that rattle around my brain. As they rattle, no premise breaks loose.

    The project resumes

    And then comes this reminder…

    It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just choose something. Anything. You can always rework it. Like a sculptor with clay, you keep at it until the shape comes through. Look at this as practice, not like you’re writing The Great American Novel.

    And just like that, the pressure is gone. Poof!

    Like any good relationship, rewriting a novel takes effort. It takes willingness to stick it out during the easy times and the rough, because—surprise, surprise—it ain’t all smooth sailing.

    That’s where vows come in—a reminder not to walk way.

    So, in the spirit of taking that final step, I am officially inviting you to witness my joining of self to novel. Gifts will be accepted after the ceremony.

    I, Diane, promise to show up at the writing chair every day, even when I don’t feel like showing up, even when I’d rather be reading, or eating a chocolate truffle from See’s, or cleaning my refrigerator. I promise to remind myself how I love writing, though at times it feels akin to having my toenails peeled back. I promise to honor the process, reminding myself that all writers get stuck and want to give up, that we’re all constantly honing our craft, trying to become the best writers we can be. And I promise to respect my work, even when it stinks—especially when it stinks—because it’s part of becoming a better writer.

    Takeaway this week:

    Do you have a project you’re committed to doing? Try writing your own vows. Post them as a reminder. Make a ceremony out of it; invite family and friends. Insist on gifts.

    Okay,  maybe not gifts.

    Just chocolate.

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  2. Afraid of Commitment? Join the Challenge!

    July 17, 2016 by Diane

    Yikes! Commitment.

    Yikes! Commitment.

    I have commitment issues.

    My wise friend pointed this out over lunch at the sushi place. I was forking my way through a super vegetable roll while rattling on about blogging.

    “I’ll blog when I have something to say, and not because the powers-that-be suggest that I blog to attract followers or build a writer’s platform,” I said. “I’ll blog just for the hell of it and okay, maybe I’m taking the middle road, but I don’t know if this whole blogging thing is what I want to do anymore.”

    And my friend, carefully placing a slice of pickled ginger on her salmon roll with her chopsticks, said, “What I see is, you start a project and then skid to a stop. You have a problem with commitment.”

    I allowed myself to take that in. I resisted the urge to fold my arms, gaze at the corner of the ceiling with a thoughtful frown, and zone out on the live poker-playing event on the overhead television.

    Instead, I agreed.

    I have a commitment phobia.

    From actress to dancer to writer, I reached a tipping point and then slammed on the brakes.

    I studied acting and dance, acted and danced on stage, taught others how to act and dance, and then chucked it all to write.

    I’ve written first drafts for four-and-a-half novels, and when I started to rewrite the first one, I hit the wall.

    Marriage? Forget it. Children? As long as they’re not mine. Vacations? It depends. How far, and for how long?

    I’ve been known to buy fifteen different kinds of shampoo because one smells nice and one is for curly hair and one is for dry hair and one is for fine hair, and…well, you get the point.

    Sleep? Too boring. What if I’m missing something important? What if there’s something else I should be doing?

    What if I choose the wrong guy, the wrong project, the wrong whatever?

    Driving home that day after sushi, I was sitting at a stoplight, and I thought about gravity. I thought:

    We’re spinning in space. Right now.

    I thought about how the Earth is tilted on its axis and we’re spinning ever so slowly in a vast universe.

    What if gravity decided to stop doing its job? What if it decided it didn’t want to commit to pulling everything toward it, and wanted more space?

    There would be consequences, that’s what. We’d all spin into infinite darkness and vaporize. I had a tingle of discomfort in my spine, thinking about that. I had to go home and lie down and ponder.

    And I’ve concluded that it’s a good thing, commitment. I’m grateful to gravity for its commitment to hold us to its breast.

    That’s a step in the right direction. Being grateful.

    My boss, I’m fairly certain, is grateful that I show up for work and get my job done. My muse is grateful that I allow her to play in the first draft. But my editor is knocking at the door, wanting to clear the clutter, and he’s mighty pissed that I’m lying on the bed gazing at the ceiling.

    The fact is, I can’t even commit to avoiding commitment.

    After all, I commit to watching America’s Got Talent every Tuesday night. I commit to reading an entire book, buying groceries, cleaning the shower and showing up for work.

    But something creative…that’s when the problem kicks in.

    So, here’s the deal.

    I’m going to commit to rewriting my novel. And blog about it so I’m held accountable. It might take six months, it might take a year. But I’m going to face this thing head-on, and when the fear rises, I’ll use my mindfulness training, my cognitive behavior therapy, my humor to overcome it. And I’ll let you, dearest reader, in on what transpires, in case you have commitment issues as well.

    It won’t be easy. I see roadblocks ahead: fear of failure, anxiety about feeling boxed in, agitation about all the effort involved.

    Doesn’t matter. I’ll find a way to work through those blocks, or scoot around them, or I’ll kick those suckers down. For better or worse I’m going to rewrite my novel.

    Do you want to join me in this challenge? Do you want to be my commitment phobia-busting buddy? Let me know in the comments. What will you commit to doing?


  3. When the Small-Town Parade Passed Me By

    July 10, 2016 by Diane

    woman walking in snow

    Over four months one winter, without a job or the money to pay rent, I vacated my apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area and holed up with my father, stepmother, and sister in the tiny town of Twain Harte in the Sierras, along with their rambunctious dog, orphaned cats, and a canary that sang the Tequila Sunrise song.

    While I was immensely grateful to have a loving family who took me in and tolerated my anti-social behavior, as an introvert, being suddenly thrust into a household of people and pets, I failed miserably as a member of the tribe. I spent the days hiding in the guest room, making half-hearted attempts to write a novel.

    Carl Hogan walked downstairs with a plate of wet cat food and was never seen again.

    “What happened to Carl?” my father asked from time to time, his eagerness palpable.

    I’d mumble something unintelligible and go out for a walk in the boy’s snow boots I had purchased at the local Walmart that were a size too small, trudging down icy roads to a boulder by a ditch flowing with water, where I sat and contemplated my life.

    Occasionally, I visited the grocery store.

    On a December evening I was on one such grocery-buying escapade, when sawhorses magically appeared on the street, blocking off the one and only road out. A parade was marching in, so I stashed the groceries in my trunk and joined the crowd of onlookers.

    The tennis club led the parade, carrying their rackets and a huge banner that read “Twain Harte Tennis Club” in case there was any doubt. The Kazoo Club came next, followed by the Lion’s Club and what may have been the Dog-Walking Club, or a group of people out walking their dogs. Next up: the volunteer fire department—which is to say, the barber, the pharmacist, the newspaper editor and the taxidermist/bar owner who was also a member of the Hunting Club. A trio of girls with Shirley Temple arms rode by on their father’s shoulders—or who I assumed were their fathers but may have been the Elk’s Club. They were followed by an elderly man driving a Model T—the mayor, I guessed, and his diminutive female companion, she giving a royal wave, his more like a Texas howdy doody holler.

    I heard the marching band before I saw them, rounding the corner onto the main street led by a young man snapping his baton up and down as if he truly were leading 76 trombones to the heart of town, rather than a paltry two, along with six trumpets, three drums and a french horn striving to keep up.

    Bringing up the rear: Santa and his sleigh, with a bevy of helpers bringing up his ample rear. The float, wreathed with tiny white Christmas tree lights, played a tinny-sounding Jingle Bells from a single speaker, proving to be too much electricity for the overloaded contraption. The whole thing shorted out, and Santa froze mid-wave.

    “Ohhhhh,” wailed the crowd lining the street. They wore mufflers and snow boots and thick ski gloves, and held hot cups of cider sold by volunteers in front of the real estate office.

    A tall man standing next to me groaned and shook his head—probably one of the parade committee members who thought he had hired a jolly old Saint Nick, and not some retired bearded guy afraid of being electrocuted.

    The lights and music flickered back on.

    “Ahhhh!” said the crowd.

    Santa settled back to waving his huge white paw, and the lights flickered off.

    “Ohhhh,” said the crowd.

    And flickered on.

    “Ahhhhh!” said the crowd.

    And off.

    “Ohhhhh.”

    And on.

    “Ahhhhh!”

    And so on, until Santa disappeared around a corner, and the man next to me wiped the sweat from his brow.

    And that was that. The parade was over.

    The crowd dispersed, volunteers packed up the cider and took down the sawhorses, and I returned to my car and sat behind the wheel in the dark.

    That winter, I often felt like the parade passed me by.

    And it was that kind of parade.