Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"One Egg" is Not a Measurement

Yes, this has something to do with writing. In fact it's advice about writing advice, which feels very something-or-other. Postmodern. Meta.

But it starts with cornbread.

I've been making a lot of cornbread lately. The last two loaves of bread we bought became science experiments before we could eat them, so we haven't been buying it. Therefore, when my body says "feed me something plain, please," we don't have the "ingredients" for toast. But cornbread works. Plus it's relatively easy to make.

Today is a howling-wind day, and I am suffering (and I do mean suffering) from a cold (though I imagine those around me are suffering more from my suffering), so today seemed like a good day to make cornbread. Except that because of said cold, we haven't been grocery shopping. So our stash of cornmeal is low.

Instead of the 3/4 cup of cornmeal, I had only 1/2 cup. "Excellent," I said (not really). "I will simply 2/3 the entire recipe." Next measurement: 1 1/4 cup flour. Which is, 1.25 divided by three, carry the...hmm, multiply...huh. Um, 0.8 cup and a bit of flour. (Seriously? 0.8 cup?)

Still. With the help of a calculator, I could figure out approximations for the ingredients.

Until we got to the egg. You can't 2/3 an egg. So the whole thing went in. Which will be fine, I'm sure, and here's how I know this.

Decades ago, a coworker shared a valuable lesson: "one egg" is not a measurement. She was trying to replicate a Christmas cookie from her youth and was running into trouble with the recipe she had, because eggs come in sizes. Extra large. Medium. Et cetera. So her recipe wasn't working until she figured out her problem.

Most recipes, however tried-and-true, are approximations, designed to guide someone who isn't working under controlled conditions. I had a friend who had an infallible recipe for candy, as long as he made it on a day when the weather was right. Seriously, falling or rising air pressure kept it from reaching the softball stage. Or hardball stage. Something. (This is why scientific experiments are conducted in laboratories. Also why I don't make candy.)

Many cooks will tell you that the real thrill, the creativity, comes when you have to wing it. Now, I am not an adventuresome cook, so the thrill I get from putting in THE WHOLE EGG is plenty, but someone else may need excitement at a different level. Like trying a brand-new recipe for a dinner party for people who don't love you already.

So, writing. More specifically, writing advice. There's a lot of it, and people tend to hand it around like a cherished recipe, guaranteed to work. Do/n't start with dialogue. Show/tell. Passive voice = bad.

There's also a fair bit of writing career advice. Write what you love (great, as long as you don't count on paying the mortgage with it). Try everything -- it shows your versatility and that you're flexible (great, as long as you aren't ignoring your desire to specialize).

The thing is, some advice applies to you, today. Maybe a lot of it does. But some may not. "One egg" is not a measurement. Today's weather may not be conducive to successful candy-making.

Sometimes you just gotta throw in the whole egg (and turn down the heat a little and hover impatiently so it doesn't get overdone) and see what happens. Write about vampires or ghosts, if they're calling out to you, even though paranormal is "so over." Write an entire story in passive voice, or dialogue, or telling, just to see if you can, and to see how it turns out.

Here's what happened for me: it's cornbread. Yes, it tastes a little different. I wouldn't make it for company, but it suits me fine. Excuse me, please; I have some breakfast to attend to.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I'm back in this corner reading aloud, in preparation for reading in front of people tonight, and hoping not to wear out my voice in the process.

Meanwhile, I offer up here an unanticipated gem. One benefit of my "suffer for 25 minutes" practice of weeding out files has been re-finding links I meant to check out more closely -- mostly, links to other writers.

Today, a quote by David Milch on the blog of (YA and other) writer Laurie Halse (rhymes with waltz) Anderson caught my attention. I'll make you go here to read it in its entirely, but the gist is that writers who aren't writing feel bad (untalented, incompetent -- miserable). Separate, in fact, from the Divine.

As in, don't postpone your writing until you feel the touch of the Divine. Writing is your way of reaching out to feel that touch.

Yep, it all comes back to Nike: Just Do It.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wanna Come Over and Read?

The kind folks at the Northern Woman's Bookstore have invited the fabulous poet Erin Stewart and me to read from our work. Please come -- and bring a short work of your own to share at the open mic time! We anticipate a fun, informal evening. There will be coffee! Possibly snacks!

To recap:

WHAT "Out of Hibernation," a reading of new writing
WHERE Northern Woman's Bookstore, 65 South Court Street (across from Lot 66) (aaaaand I just figured out where that name came from, duh), Thunder Bay, Ontario.
WHEN Wednesday, February 22, 2012, at 7:30 p.m.
BRING Short writing of your own to share at the open mic

Oh, and about the title of this post? I was a bookish kid (I can hear your shock from here) and my mother often "urged" me to go outside and/or find a human friend to play with. Apparently she thought that Laura and Mary Ingalls and the March sisters were somehow less real than the 10 or so girls my age who lived in my immediate neighborhood. She wanted me to have shared experiences with other people in this real world of ours. (Not the Real World of MTV.)

Imagine her frustration to find that one or two of my friends, also bookish types, were only too happy to read different books at the same time in the same room.

The reading next week will be kind of like that, only we'll be reading aloud, which creates the option of listening and thus one of those "shared experience" thingies. It will be fun!
Thursday, February 9, 2012

Loop, Thrown for a

Some days, things happen that derail normal life. And even in this world, when we as a culture tend to consider no life event "off limits," I just can't write about some things.

Yes, I wrote about my mother's illness and death. However, I have not yet written about my father's death. Directly, that is, except informally. On the other hand, easily half of the short stories I'm revising feature protagonists with "dead people in the family." So perhaps it comes out one way or another.

In any case, sometimes things happen that throw you for a loop. Today is a day when I'm a little loopy. (My brother is fine, by the way; this is not about him.)

Ergo, for your contemplation: Is Ryan Gosling Cuter than a Puppy?

(My answer: not consistently. Possibly not ever. Puppies, they are dang cute.)
Thursday, February 2, 2012

Whatever Are You Saving Them For?

I've written before that I have no hobbies other than reading and writing. Of course, that's not strictly true, and I have the boxes of craft supplies to show for it.

Still. I do very little these days other than reading and writing. So drawing zentangles has turned out to be a lot of fun, and oddly illuminating.

For example, many tangles are quite "dark" -- they're not so much patterns drawn in dark ink on white as white patterns left after you color in everything else. Even a basic checkerboard pattern is half colored and half not. I have found myself resisting drawing patterns with lots of "black space," not because I dislike coloring (I love it), but because using up all that ink?? It's WASTEFUL. And WASTING INK is WRONG. Because...why again?

Yes, generally, wasting things is wrong. Reduce, reuse, recycle, et cetera. But USING is not WASTING. I'm using ink to draw things. What is wrong with that?

And besides, ink? Really? What am I afraid of: that "they," whoever "they" are, will suddenly stop making pens and I'll have WASTED all this ink on these drawings that, oh by the way, bring me such pleasure?

As I was examining this line of thinking (not coincidentally, while I was drawing a zentangle), I realized that this resistance falls into a category that requires what my sister calls "transcending my upbringing."

Our parents grew up in poor families. In the reverse of the words to the hymn, they were poor in things and rich in soul. They grew into young adulthood in the 1930s. Later, they raised five kids on not enough money. As a result, we heard a lot about Delaying Gratification, about We All Have to Do Things We Don't Want to Do, about We Can't Always Do What We Want, about Representing the Family.

Worthy, worthy lessons to teach us. But sometimes a bit...stifling.

For example, my parents were known to eat a cookie. One. Sometimes my mother was "wicked" and ate two. TWO COOKIES. Who were these people? (And what happened to those genes? I can eat either zero cookies or an entire batch.)

My sister's example of learning to transcend this upbringing is to look ahead when she receives a calendar as a gift. She looks at ALL THE MONTHS instead of WAITING until that month to see the picture. (It's the little things, people.)

All this mental yakking about WASTE is also in my parents' voices. So I have been selecting tangles with lots of dark space, calming my breathing, and drawing them anyway. I have been using ink with reckless abandon -- I will not admit to WASTING ink because how exactly is this a waste? Besides, THERE IS MORE INK.

And because everything in my world gets back to writing eventually, so does this: Hoarding ideas is a bad thing. Put many things into an early draft because you don't know where they'll lead. You can cut them out later if it turns out that they don't fit.

Because the real way to waste an idea? Is NOT to use it.

(Great. Now I'm thinking about cookies.)