Wednesday, August 27, 2014

About Writing: Steph's Boot, Session Seven...Overcoming The Doldrums

Week seven.  By now, you must have hit the doldrums.  You know, that point where routine has become established and you are putting pen to page daily but you are so tired of your own words that you may scream or cry or both.  Don't worry, it happens to all artists.  It is possible to concurrently love what you are doing and be sick to death of your own thoughts.  When you reach the doldrums, it's time to shake things up.  

NOTE:  Shaking things up does not mean taking even one day off from your writing routine.  That, my friends, would be a mistake.  Trust me, if you take even one day off so early in your new routine, you will very likely lose the thread that keeps you attached to your project(s).  There may come a point, possibly years down the road, when  you can step away from work for a day or even three.  By then, your routine may be so well established that you will miss it and be drawn back almost against your will.  A mere seven weeks into routine is not the time to risk complete disconnection.  

Now is the time to shake things up by writing differently.   What do I mean by writing differently? Following is a short list of suggestions for zazzing up your usual drill.  Try one or more of these ideas for a day or maybe a few days.  This could be the key to maintaining interest in your own work.  Just don't veer from your usual schedule.  

1.  Write in a different place.  Maybe on your front porch or in a park.  I like relocating to a coffee house or bookstore from time to time.
2.  Write in a new form.  If you are a poet, try whipping out a short story.  If you write fiction, how about penning the first chapter in your memoir?  
3.  Write from a verbal prompt.  For instance:  Tell your own birth story.  
4.  Write from a visual prompt:  Write about the picture at right.  What do you see?  Who do you see?  Tell his or her story.

Your Homework is to keep on keeping on and post to comments about your progress with Steph's Boot.  Seriously, I want to know how your work is coming along.  Please tell.   

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Marvelous Tale of Agatha Jones, Wonder-Chef Of Whitby

Written and Illustrated By Stephanie Mesler

Part Two
Published August 24, 2014 (c) Stephanie Mesler

When the soldier returned the very next day, he found his ramshackle quite transformed and Ag dressed in a clean gown with a full apron.  He smelled a rich red sauce simmering over the fire and noted that there was a fresh bottle of wine on the table.  Once again, he asked Ag to dine with him and, once again, she did so. The two chatted at length about the homes in which they grew up and both said that one day they hoped to return to their people with children of their own to raise in idyllic bliss.

This time, there was a creme brulee for dessert.  The man asked if he might pay Ag for another day’s cooking.  Of course, she agreed.  He returned to his troop in the company barracks and she planned the next day’s meal.

The soldier arrived right on time that Friday, carrying an armful of flowers.  “I saw these and they made me think of you,” he said.

“They did?”  exclaimed Ag.  “I can’t imagine why!  They are lovely and pale, delicate buds, whereas I am a leathered woman of too much experience.”

“You are a beauty,” insisted the soldier.  “The flowers wish they smelled as lovely as you.”

“That’s the vanilla pudding you smell,” she laughed.  “I myself smell of labor and loneliness and loss.”

“No,” he said more forcefully than she’d imagined possible for one so sweet as this soldier.  “No, you smell of licorice and lavender, pomegranates and perfection.”

Ag blushed at the praise but soaked it in like a sponge exposed to water after a drought.

That day, the soldier told Ag how he had never been married but hoped one day to have a wife to love and care for.  Ag told him of the husband she had not known long enough to love.  As he rose to leave that day, the soldier extended his hand to Ag and asked if she might be willing to accompany him to a festival in the town square.

“There will be dancing,” he told her, “and music and food, fireworks when the sun goes down.”

Ag considered saying no.  That might have been smart.  Instead, she asked, “What is your name, sir?  I cannot possibly attend on the arm of one whose name I do not know.”

Taking off his hat and bowing from the waist, the soldier replied.  “Davko Jones, at your service, my lady.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Ag.  And with that, the two were off to the festival.

A week later, they were married and the soldier continued to pay his bride two gold coins each day for her cooking.  The meals became more extravagant as the days passed.  Agatha had always enjoyed cooking, but cooking for one who enjoyed her food as much as the soldier was a new pleasure.  Agatha was not afraid to try new things and neither was her husband.  He kept her kitchen well enough funded that she could purchase whatever spices she wanted to try, having some delivered from far away lands.

The result was that townspeople passing the couple’s home near the waterfront were intrigued by the smells that wafted from their windows.  Frequently, strangers knocked upon their door asking what was being prepared.  Agatha always offered these guests spoonsful of what she was making for that night’s supper.  Often, she gave them home-made bread with the best clotted cream money could never buy.  If the visitor was a soldier like her Davko, she offered him wine in a crystal glass.

The ramshackle Ag and Davko shared grew lovelier and larger, going through stages during which it might have been called a cottage, a chalet, a manse, or a mansion.  Those who came to call were forever amazed at what Agatha Jones was making of the place.  Not long before, most had believed the hovel would collapse of its own weight and then slide into the sea.  Agatha was praised by all of her neighbors for restoring that place to respectability and somehow making it lovely.  But no one, not even Agatha herself, could explain how the place grew and grew.  It was a wonder she thought as miraculous as her husband’s love.

After three months of wedded bliss, Agatha found herself to be with child.  No one was surprised by this news.  It was obvious to all who knew them that Agatha and Davko Jones were the happiest couple in Whitby.  When she told her husband of the impending birth, Davko decided that was reason to leave the King’s service.

“I would rather be a living and breathing father than a dead sergeant,” he said.

Of course, he was dead within the week, run over by a covered coach, pulled by three large draft horses spooked by a hissing cat along a city lane.  The wagon was hauling soldiers and their arms to the battlefield north of the town, so, in the end, it was the war that killed the soldier after all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

About Writing: Steph's Boot, Session Six

The last couple of sessions in Steph's Boot have focused on carving out space and time for doing the work of writing.  And, yes, it is work.  Even when it looks like lollygagging in front of the computer or luxuriating in books, it is work.  Writing is hard work and anyone who does not get that needs a serious lesson in exactly what it is writers do all day long.  That brings us to the topic of this week's session...

Garnering Support and Encouragement From Friends and Family.

It is absolutely essential that artists of all kinds receive support in many forms from the people around them. We all know the folklore about suffering being good for art.  This may be true years after the suffering is over.  It is easy to draw on past agony when singing an aria or creating a new ballet.  One can even channel fair amounts of pain into one's current work.  But that only works when the artist is not actually living with the source of his suffering.  Yes a case could be made that Van Gogh's depression fed his creativity, but I must point out that the man might not have painted at all if he had actually lived with Rachel, the woman who rejected him.  I have no doubt he was creatively better off without her.  

What artists need from the people around them is nurturing acceptance and the occasional and lovingly administered kick in the rump.  I am very, very lucky to be supported emotionally and financially by a life partner who believes in the viability of my work, maybe even more than I do. I am also lucky to have the support of friends and of other writers.  It makes a huge difference in my ability to focus on the work.  Not only is someone else sparing me the agony of worrying how the bills will be paid (not that I don't worry about my own contribution to the household anyway) but both my partner and my daughter, the two people with whom I live, understand my needs for a room behind closed doors and absolute silence while I write.  They understand that I prefer the company of the cat to their companionship during long hours writing.  They get that when I am in the middle of a project, I don't have much else to discuss.  Of course they can talk to me about other things and I will try to be responsive (Usually, I succeed.) but my mind will still be in my current story.   The fact that they support what I do makes it much easier to actually do the work than it might be otherwise.  

Nothing is more likely to hinder an artist's work than a lack of encouragement from his or her loved ones.  Full disclosure:  I was not a great support when I was married to another author.  I think it is actually pretty rare when cohabiting artists manage to respect and bolster one another's work.  It is not at all uncommon for families and friends to undermine a writer's confidence.  Sometimes they even realize what they are doing, but mostly they do not.  I think the vast majority of people sharing their lives and space with authors, poets and other artists have no clue that their behavior might have a negative impact on productivity and quality of work.  

Whether the people around us know we need support or not, they may need to be told what form the support needs to take.  That means we, as artists, must know what we need so that we can ask for it.  We have already said that we need time and space.  What else might you need from your friends, family, and colleagues?  

  1. Make a list.
  2. Ask for support.

Here is my list of the ways in which I am supported by the people in my life.  Maybe this list can be a starting point for you in creating your own.  Once you have created such a list, you can open a discussion with your loves ones.  This may be the most important step in actually making your work viable.  

The Supportive Gifts I Receive From Those Who Care About My Work
  • time alone for working
  • space for being alone when working
  • an understanding that my work does not always look like work.  I am not lazy and I don't play games online all day long.  I really am working behind that closed office door.
  • a willingness to let me wallow in creative and technical problems until they are resolved
  • a recognition that I may come to you with a work related problem but may have no interest whatsoever in your solutions to that problem.
  • an understanding that sometimes I really do need help and that, when I do, I will first fall apart and then ask for assistance.  
  • an understanding that I will sometimes appear to come completely unglued by a problem that has developed in a project.  This does not mean I really am unglued.  This is just part of my work process.  (So sorry.)
  • an acceptance of my complete focus on my work.  Sometimes, all conversational roads will lead back to my writing in progress.  Can't help it.  Everything and everyone is part of my research.  
  • financial support and patronage.  I used to be able to work a day job and write on the side.  Those days are gone.  
  • a willingness to listen to me read my work aloud or to read it (again) when I ask you to.  
  • a willingness to comment on my work when I have asked you to do so and a willingness to keep your thoughts to yourself when I am not ready to ask for them. 
  • a willingness to get excited about my work when it is published and share it with others.  
Not everyone is  cut out to be the partner of an artist.  Seriously.  This can be a real deal breaker for some couples and it should be.  If you are a writer, then you need to write.  If loved ones are not supportive of that need, then changes must be made.  

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Poet's Diary: Back At It!

So the social media break is over and I am back to writing the material for this site and for Virtual World Notes.  I am also back to Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Google Plus.  Some time ago, I dumped LinkedIn because I could not see that it served any useful purpose for me and Goodreads because I find it cumbersome and because there are too many trolls there.  I was never bothered by one, but did not like the idea of participating in social media where authors are regularly targeted by viciousness.   

Within 24 hours of starting this recent social media break it became obvious to me that I needed to make some changes in my use of time for social media and virtual worlds.  I realized that, even with doing NO social media or VWs, I was having trouble getting all my work done and tending to my home, family and health.  Something(s) had to give.  So I've done some re-prioritizing and have managed to carve out a routine that allows more time for the actual job and eliminates some things that may not have been serving the purpose for which they were intended.  I have also managed to create some time for fun.  Imagine that!  

This week will be a busy one, writing-wise.  I have a number of projects in the air, some in the end phases, others at their start and two in the prime of the process.  I expect to have hard copy of Under The Sheets laid out and ready for review by all the pertinent parties by week's end.  That means that next week I will have to face the dreaded ebook layout.  Ugh.  I love the way the book and illustrations (by Vicki Barnes) are coming together!  It will all be worth it in the end.  
Illustration by Vicki Barnes
Velma and Bal, Those Crazy Kids From Masada

The other project nearing completion is Escape From Pig Hill.  The writing has been done for some time now, but illustrations are taking their sweet time.  My goal is to be ready for layout by mid-September.  

The two projects knee deep in process are The Marvelous Tale of Agatha Jones, Wonder-Chef of Whitby (serialized on this website) and Gator (a new horror story in the Pig Hill universe).  Both of those stories are great fun and I will be ready to share them in performance in the near future.  Gator features Balthazar Granger, nastiest of Donny Granger's uncles (Escape From Pig Hill) and not-dead-enough husband of Velma Barnes Granger ("Velma and Bal, Those Crazy Kids" from Under The Sheets).  This past weekend, I was able to visit one of the settings for Gator, Lake Jesup, near Orlando.

Speaking of research, I have been doing a lot of research into 18th century literary figures and lifestyles. That has led me to what I think will be my next play.  I am not quite ready to say too much about it, but, at the moment, I am pretty excited about that one.  

In non-literary news, Su is back from her Dad's and started school today.  The first day of her senior year.  I can hardly believe that.  Where has the time gone?  While riding my bike this morning, I saw a mom photographing her son as he set out to catch the bus to school.  It occurred to me to wonder of this is something most parents do?  I think I took pics the day Su started kindergarten.  Maybe.  Not sure, to tell the truth.  I am certain I have never bothered with it since.  I know I am not the most traditionally maternal of cats but is this something most moms do?  

And now I am off to begin a day of work.  Take some time to read The Marvelous Tale of Agatha Jones, Wonder-Chef of Whitby, if you have not already.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Marvelous Tale of Agatha Jones, Wonder-Chef of Whitby

Written and Illustrated By Stephanie Mesler

Part One 
Published August 17, 2014 (c) Stephanie Mesler
Agatha, On Her Own
Jeremy Jones, known as Jems, was born under a bad luck moon.  The midwife told his mother he would struggle all his life and that all manner of calamity would befall him and her because of the son's bad luck.  The old mole-faced woman insisted  the child was destined to a life of frustration. She asked if his mother wanted the baby strangled before it took its second breath.  

"It would be kindest to kill him before he tastes his miserable destiny," said the jowls wagging beneath her chin as she tut-tutted for the shame of such a birth.  

Lucky for Jems, his mother was not the least bit superstitious and had more common sense than was normally found among women of her time and place.  She laughed at the old midwife's predictions and said she figured he could not be more unlucky than she was herself and that, since she had survived a life of limited charm, he would as well.  

As the boy grew up, his mother doted on her only child.  There was no father in the home and, surprisingly,  no real need of one.  In the years before her baby's birth, Agatha had needed men for many things.  First her father had housed her and seen that she was fed.  After his death, her brothers saw to her betrothal.  That might have been disastrous, had Agatha’s brothers been the sort of men who’d marry a sister to an old toad for a fair trade in gold and livestock.  But Agatha had been lucky enough to be pretty (if you weren't troubled by the slight hint of purple in her otherwise raven hair).  Her brothers chose her a handsome young man, one she might actually have learned to love, had he lived long enough.  They lived happily together for 41 days in the town of her husband’s people, far from her own.  

When her husband died in a freak Barley-break accident, failing to leave behind what was needed to provide for a young widow, Agatha sought help from the town's magistrate.  That man, wearing an almost clean cassock and several heavy medallions that announced his high station,  told her she was not his or the town's responsibility, but that there were ways a pretty lass such as herself might convince him to look after her.  Agatha Jones had taken a long look at that fat old man, skin poxed and breath rancorous, and decided she would find another way.  

As it turned out, that way found her instead.  Agatha  was walking along the river in Whitby, wondering where she would sleep and what she would eat when a handsome soldier threw some coins at her feet.  "Two gold pieces for three hours of your time?" he asked.  
Davko Jones, In Uniform

Agatha knew what the man wanted.  Short as the marriage had been, she had lived with her husband long enough to know that men mostly wanted the same things women wanted, just in different proportions.  Where women wanted security most of all, men wanted sex.  Where women yearned for peace in their home lives, men wanted sex.  Where women desired intellectual companionship and loyalty, men wanted sex.  And where women wanted good food, well, men wanted food.  

Agatha scooped up the two coins, pocketed them and followed the man into a tiny shack.  There he handed her an apron and pointed to a small stove.  “Mind if I watch you cook?” he asked.  

Agatha was dumbfounded.  “Cook?”  she asked, holding the apron in one hand.  

“Well, if you don’t mind,” the soldier said.  “I am far from home and have not eaten a home-cooked meal in many, many moons.   I know you probably have a husband and family at home expecting you to cook for them, but I hoped you wouldn’t mind preparing a meal for one who serves His Majesty in the fields of battle.”  

“You want to watch me ... cook?”  she asked, still confused.  

“If you wouldn’t mind,” he replied.  

Thinking that she had never before heard of this particular perversion, Agatha started to take off her cloak and dress.  She hoped he would satisfied to see her wear the apron over her chemise.  

“I’ll hang your coat for you,” the soldier offered, “and your hat can lay on the window ledge.”  But then he saw the woman starting to remove her dress and realized what she must think.  “Oh no!” he cried.  “I am not one of those dandy men with weird habits.  You can keep your clothes on.  I just want to enjoy a fine meal, if you wouldn’t mind.”   

Agatha didn’t mind at all.  Cooking was one of her favorite activities, a desire she had not been able to indulge since her husband died and left her penniless.  She was pleased to find that the man had stocked the shack’s tiny kitchen with everything she needed to make him a fine lamb stew with butter dumplings and an apple crisp.  There was also a bottle of deep red wine.  When the food was prepared, the man asked if Agatha would dine with him.  

“Are you sure that is proper?”  she asked him.  

“No less so than my asking you to cook for me and not your own household,” he answered.  

“I have no household,” she told him.  “My husband is dead and left me to my lone self with nothing.”  

“Ah, then ‘tis not improper at all,” he said pulling out a wooden chair for Agatha before pouring her a glass of wine.  

As the meal progressed, the man talked of his home in Belgravia, of how he missed his mother and grandmother and how he wished the war would end so that he might go home and eat at their table once more.  “In the meantime though, I thank you for cooking for me, Lady Agatha.”  
Agatha and Davko Share A Meal

“Call me Ag,” she told him.  “I am just Ag to those I consider friends.”  

“I am honored,” he told her, “and would be honored more if you agreed to cook for me again tomorrow.  I can pay,” he added, “and I can offer you this rundown ramshackle to sleep in, if you like.  I myself will sleep in the barracks with the other men, but can return here tomorrow at the same time to share a meal.”  

Agatha looked around the rundown ramshackle, as he called this hovel, and at the two coins he was offering her to stay and cook another day.  That gave her a total of four gold coins, more than enough to buy fresh linens and a broom to sweep the shack’s dusty floor, some curtains for its windows.  With four gold coins, she could do all that and more and still have money to save.  

“Of course, I’ll stay,” she told him.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Time Out! For A Poet's Progress

See you on August 17.  

About Writing: Steph's Boot, Session Five

This week we'll have a mini session of sorts.  In the previous weeks, you have defined your work as a writer, made some choices about what work you will attempt on your own, carved out time and space for writing.  If you are new to using structure as a tool for getting work completed, you are very likely struggling with those first lessons in Steph's Boot.  This week I will share with you one tool that helps me make the whole regimen work.  We'll call this session...

Strategic Use of Timers

That's right, I said timers.  If you don't have one, you should.  If you aren't using it for your work, let me tell you why you should be.  

Back when I worked with very young children, I used a timer in my classroom.  I used it to let the children know when we would be coming inside from recess.  "Look boys and girls, the timer is set for five minutes.  When it buzzes, we will be heading inside for nap."  They couldn't t blame me when play time ended.  It was all that nasty timer's fault.  Sometimes I set the timer in order to get the children to complete a task efficiently.  "Look, children!  The timer says we have only ten minutes left before lunch time.  Let's see if we can put the music instruments away and wash our hands before the timer sounds!"  When my daughter was young, I would set a timer for story time.  She was one who would stay awake for hours if I kept reading to her.  I started setting a thirty minute timer so that I could quit when the bell rang.  

Now, I use an alarm clock to tell me when to start and end my workday. (Start time is 8:15 am; quitting time is 3:30 pm, barring unlikely mid-afternoon creativity surges.)  I use a kitchen timer to keep me on task all day long.  I set the timer for 15 minutes of Facebook time twice each day, seven minutes of Pinterest and five minutes on Twitter each day.  Every third day, I give myself ten minutes in Google+, Ravelry, and Goodreads. Throughout my morning and early afternoon, I set a timer for 30-60 minute blocks of writing/editing time so that I get up and move around once in a while.  In between those blocks of writing time, I set ten minute alarms for household tasks or exercise or 45 minutes for a lunch break.  Once in a while I let a task extend a few minutes past a timer, usually because the task is close to being completed.  I never sacrifice one task for another.  If time in my work day is running out, so be it. Sometimes tasks have to be put off until tomorrow. 

  1. Get a timer.  I use one like this one. If you don't have a timer in your home and are loathe to purchase one, try this one.  
  2. Have you claimed your work space yet?  Do so.
  3. Have you set a schedule for your work?  Do so.  
  4. Use the timer to make the schedule more manageable.