Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When is it too late...

to send Christmas cards? I'm only half-kidding.

For various reasons (including freak holiday ice storms in Toronto), we celebrated Christmas twice--once around December 25, and another time around January 15. I had to gear up for 2014 all over again in late January. (But it was great to see people during the holidays--totally worth it.)

In any case, we never got the cards sent. Even though "sending cards" now means "insert link in Facebook status to holiday letter in Dropbox; send link in email about 20 others; send a dozen actual cards to aunts, uncles, and cousins (some in foreign countries)."

While I have dithered quietly about whether to do something about the cards, I've been thinking a little about that feeling of "too late!" and its present-tense version, "time's running out!"

Now that I'm approaching middle age (or have passed my quarter-life crisis, assuming I live to be, like, 200), my peers often say some version of this: "I want to get my work out there. I don't have time to wait around on the traditional publishing process." And I do understand that urge. Lots of people are indie-publishing their work and finding satisfaction in immediately reaching readers. More power to you guys! Yay!

I understand the urgency, but I personally don't feel urgency around publishing. Instead, I feel urgent about my ability, or lack therof, to revise drafts well. To craft the stories, both fiction and nonfiction, I feel capable of telling.

So here's a math formula: for a completed story draft D, there exists an unknown time T after the completion of D during which R (revision) approaches maximum values of E-squared (efficiency and effectiveness).

In non-math words, there's an optimal amount of time to wait after you write a first draft of a story before you even attempt to revise it. During this time period, your ability to revise that story--to tell it in the way it deserves to be told--increases. Assuming you're still developing writing skill, that is. Eventually at the end of this unknown time T, you can revise the story effectively and do it with a minimum amount of faffing about. (I should add the faffing about variable F to the equation.)

(Note that in various work settings, this time is short. You can't let an annual report ripen for six months--for one thing, it doesn't need it. For another, if it's going to be at all useful to you, it has to be timely. It's this lack of time for revision in work settings that created in me a false sense of "I don't need to revise." Which is true for some tasks, but not so much for the kinds of stories I really want to tell. Hey, wait a sec: aren't Christmas Cards sort of like annual reports? Sigh.)

Anyway. I've been solving for T, this unknown variable, for several years in my creative writing life. I like to think that my value for T is decreasing, that I'm getting better at estimating this "put it away and let the story ripen," "put it away and develop your skills," "put it away and let your unconscious work on it" time and then revising effectively when I start.

Of course I know the whole writing/revision process is imprecise, and I'm kind of kidding about the formula, especially the "maximum efficiency and effective" part. Kind of, because this is where I do feel urgency: I want to produce the best work I can, so that when it appears (note: "when" because I want that, too) I can be proud of it. Setting a novel aside for 10 years, coming back to spend 5 more years on it...yeah, that kind of time I'm not sure I have.

When it comes to Christmas cards, I'm not kidding at all. It may be "too late" according to someone else's value of T, but we'll send them. They'll be March 1 cards. Even though it's been a quiet year. Because keeping connected to friends and relatives is a Good Thing.

But for the urge to publish--no urgency there, not yet. I want to revise until I'm sure that I've done right by the story, and I want to learn to revise better. So, off I go.
Friday, February 14, 2014

Spreadsheet? Check!

A little late, but last week I did finally set up the spreadsheet for my Book Tracking Project (read more about that here). I have a little more data entry to do, but basically it's done and seems to be capturing what I want it to capture.

My focus now will be to pull together the to-be-read pile into closer proximity. And read! And report back periodically.

So far, giving myself the "out" of book club books is helping. Having two library books available, in addition to the existing to-be-read pile, kept the "read the books you already have" part from feeling too claustrophobic. Yet I am also still reading the books I already have. Which is fabulous.

I don't yet have enough books to take to the library book sale. But I know where those books are, and that's progress!
Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My Name Is ...

Recently I'm reading more nonfiction (yes, even with resolutions to read what I already own because guess what? I own a lot of nonfiction), and I'm connecting with more "nature writers" on Twitter.

Aside: why do I dislike the term "nature writer"? It feels pejorative--dismissive. I prefer to think that a writer is a writer is a writer, and people who specialize in essays and fiction about the natural world are writers. The added specificity isn't necessary.

Hello! And suddenly what started as an aside is part of the point of this blog post. Because taxonomy--naming something, calling it by an established and recognized name--is important. (To me.) Yet recently, this lovely blog post by Melissa Harrison, a writer in the UK whose novel came out last year and who blogs about nature (among other things), has made me reconsider. Specifically, this part:

"Taxonomy is not an essential part of connecting with nature--far from it. Some people actively prefer not to put names to the living things around them, seeing it as an act of domination that creates distance, rather than closeness."

Since I moved to rural Thunder Bay, I've made learning the names of trees, animals, and birds an explicit part of the process of feeling at home, an early part of learning to be a worthy steward of this place. And it's an ongoing process--currently I'm trying to decide whether that thing we see occasionally is a wolf or coyote, a bobcat or lynx, a raven or crow. In winter, I get to figure out what's around by its tracks, which is its own kind of fun. Plus in summers we're seeing new kinds of waterfowl: teal and goldeneye in the past couple of years. For me, being able to distinguish between mallards and mergansers, or knowing whether that spot out there is a loon or a gull, remains important.

But now I'm also wondering about the drawbacks that come with my "need to name." As Melissa points out, assigning a name (or telling a story about an experience) gives the namer or teller a kind of power over the named or the experience. In the case of a story, that power might be positive. In the case of separating name from namer, perhaps not so much. And right up there is my discomfort with "nature writer": adding a specific descriptor to a general name is often unnecessary and can be belittling.

More pondering, and lots of reading of thoughtful writing, ahead.