Want to Finish Your Book? Focus on Fascination.

Friends, I am in the process of trying to finish my second book, and let me tell you, it is a difficult task. When I first began my book, I loved it. Words flew from my fingertips. My characters were quirky, weird, and felt just so juicy. I could hardly wait to sit at my computer and write because I was completely immersed in the world I had created. The story held me by my tippy toes and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

In my case, this fascination lasted about 80 pages, before I started to get overwhelmed with the mechanics of writing—were the characters well rounded? Where was the story arc? What were the internal and external conflicts? Was I telling too much? Not enough? Was the problem compelling? Were the characters annoying? Did this book even matter? At the end of the day, ugh! Writing is hard.

That’s when I stumbled across a podcast on The Unmistakable Creative. The guest was Sally Hogshead, a creative author, speaker and marketing expert. (Go check it out, yo.) She talks about the concept of fascination. Fascination is different than interest or just paying attention. Fascination is when you are at your creative best—or for lack of better words—when you are in a pure creative flow. You are in the zone, completely absorbed, and focused on whatever it is that you’re trying to do.

Neuroscientists say when the brain is in a state of fascination, it has the same brain pattern as being in love. This makes complete sense. I have been fascinated, or in love with, people, books, ideas, paintings, cookies, places, music, TV shows and friends. You all know that feeling. It is bliss. Whatever you are fascinated by, is completely engaging and intriguing.

That’s why a brand new idea is wonderful. We are essentially in love with our creation—it’s original, fresh, and intriguing. We can’t stop thinking about it. By the way, if you are a fascinated person, you communicate better, connect better, and love the world better. All cylinders firing—you are your best self. It’s like that movie with Bradley Cooper, LIMITLESS, where he takes the pill that makes him his best self by 1000%. (Man, I really wish there was a pill like that. Come on, Bradley, help a girl out.)

The attention span of the average human being is 9 seconds. And with instant everything, available 24 hours a day, it is getting harder and harder to stay fascinated. Want to hear something fascinating? Only 7% of workers think their bosses are fascinating. We are all walking around, bored out of our minds. There is also a direct correlation between income and fascination of work (not necessarily your job, but whatever you spend most of your time doing.) The more fascinated you are, the higher your income (according to studies), which makes sense. If you’re fascinated by your life/work, the easier it is to make a living.

That’s great, you say. But what if I’m just bored with my project? What if I’m stuck in the middle and can’t find my way out?

Here’s how you can return fascination to your creative writing project:

1. Muscle Memory: Muscles remember stuff, and so does your brain. For example, maybe you’re an excellent athlete. My husband is a great surfer. I hoped that he could teach me to surf so we could surf together. But here’s the thing, he paddles through the waves like butter. He can expertly eye the perfect wave, with just enough shape and force, to get him on his feet, within 0.7 seconds. He rides his surfboard like it’s attached to his body. He hardly has to think about it because he’s done it so many times. When I surf, its laborious. I have to think about every move I make and then my body doesn’t obey, because I haven’t practiced.

The same is true with writing. If you only write sporadically—let’s say every few days or every few weeks—it takes your mind so much longer to get back into the groove of writing. Writing requires muscle memory. People who spend 2-4 hours each day on a consistent project or endeavor are much more successful, than those who don’t.

2. Writing Rituals: Even with muscle memory practice, writing can still feel like dragging your fingernails across a chalk board. Writing rituals can help you harness the original fascination you had at the beginning of your project. Only you know what motivates you to finish your creative project, but many writers have specific rituals they follow to get them in the zone before they write. I listen to the same play list when I write. I also listen to a favorite book on audible, or a favorite inspiring podcast before I write.

Some people read poetry, some writers hand-write a page from an author they admire, before they begin to write their own project. Other authors go on a walk, run a mile, do the dishes, drink a specific cup of tea, or talk to a creative mentor. Whatever it is that inspires you to sit down and get to work, figure it out, and do that. Sometimes before writing, I tell myself that I only have to write 100 words. More often than not, it only takes me 100 clunky words to get in flow of my project.

3. Mechanics: When I become frustrated with a project, I know I need to change my perspective. It could be tweaks with my characters, plot, or tension, but when I’m bored, I know I need to change my view. Deconstruct what it was that drew you to your creative piece. That may mean further research—a field trip, a new hobby to understand a character better, or an interview with an expert.

Are your characters stagnating? Peel back each person piece by piece. What makes them fascinating? Are they their truest self, without a facade? Is your language helping your piece or is it filled with clunky phrases, words or cliches?  If the mechanics of your writing are on point, it can help improve it’s fascination level.

By tapping into what inspired your art, you and your writing will be more successful. Fascination is what inspired you to write in the first place, right?  So let’s finish that book!

I hope these suggestions help. Happy writing!

xo,
Jen

www.jewhitebooks.com

 

Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Day 2 With Dana Walrath

Graphic Art by Walwrath

 

“Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.”   Dana Walrath

 

 

Dana, let’s talk a bit more about the graphic novel versus the novel, and the verse novel versus the prose novel. It seems you just listened for a way in and found it, rather than imposing form from without. Any advice for artists wanting to blend their work in this way?

I believe that each story has its own form and its own voice and that I found these unusual forms because these were the ones to use for these particular stories. I came to both comics and poetry very late in life. I was poetry phobic as a teenage and bristled with embarrassment with my inability to interpret it to the satisfaction of my teachers. Karen Hesse’s verse novels opened the world of poetry for me.

In terms of comics, I liked Mad Magazine but Archie, Marvel and the like, left me cold, even made me mad. But when I discovered the form in 2009, I was hooked. Masterpieces like Maus, The Fun Home, Persepolis and American Born Chinese showed me that this form was perfect for complex, multilayered storytelling. I was a visual artist long before I discovered writing, and graphic narratives gave me a way to use pictures to tell stories and to tap into my subconscious. It is funny that my first two creative works to be published are not in standard prose. Prose is where my writing began. I have a number of prose pieces in various states of revision that I hope will be out in the world before too long.

Cover Art Aliceheimer's

I was really interested in how collage entered your work, and how your work seems to be a collage of your life (and you “collage” various art forms in a sense as well). Do you find this has any connection for us, considering our lives today? We’re often scattered and fragmented it seems, yet you were able, with your paint, pen, needle and awl, to make these bits into something whole. How can we as artists and writers best learn to embrace this sense of connection with the past, with our families, in our work? 

What an interesting observation! True that collage provides a medium for simultaneous reference and a way to integrate disparate elements. I first got into it big time, back in the dark ages, in college, when I studied intaglio printmaking and loved chine-collée, a method for bringing torn paper into the print, fusing the pieces of paper together as they run through the press. After that, I was away from printmaking/artwork for 20 years but went right back to using collage elements the second I returned. Maybe collage always represented a subconscious wish for integration. Over the past few years I feel like those threads of my life that always seemed disconnected have finally come together.

I think that the route to embracing a sense of connection with the past, our families and our work involves finding ways to tap your subconscious as you work. It’s all there in that compost heap in a non-verbal form. For me, turning to the visual, going back and forth between the visual and verbal lets this happen, but one doesn’t have to be an artist to use the visual.  Let yourself do some free, uncensored drawing, with your eyes closed even. Don’t underestimate doodling. Another lovely way to access the subconscious is to let naps be a part of your writing process. Often when I am stuck in a story a certain kind of exhaustion comes over me, and if I just give in to it, sleep brings things up from my subconscious that un-stick me.

How do you handle the violence in your stories (emotionally and craft-wise). I’m thinking of the emotional violence of your mother’s illness, and the violence of the genocide. Of course it’s important to speak about these realities, but any advice on what to leave in, what to leave out? How to give the reader relief? Why violence is important to include?

LikeWater_jacketI addressed some of this above but this is so important that I am glad to return to it. With my mother’s story, the violence/unhappiness in our relationship predated Alzheimer’s disease. The sickness gave us time to process our relationship and to heal. Finding common ground at last made it possible to feel at peace with losing her and for her to be free to die in peace. I wish this for every being. In terms of craft, the form of short individual pieces let some of them hold more pain and others more relief. The tough stuff came out in precise bursts that kept going deeper once the reader knew that they would be held after each bit of pain. Repeating visual and verbal motifs kept these pieces that varied somewhat in tone, unified and knitted together as one.

With Like Water on Stone I was determined to honor the truth of the events, which meant including harrowing details. These details were documented by hosts of neutral eyewitnesses at the time, through census records, through confessions, through the stories of survivors. Even heaps of bones in the desert have not been enough to stop policies of denial. I brought in specific details judiciously but with absolute clarity, protecting the reader through the character of Ardziv and by the fierce love Shahen, Sosi and Mariam had for each other. With each peak of violence one of them would take on the role of protecting the others, and in the process keep the reader safe. People survive extreme violence and pain often through magical thinking. Ardziv, a magical creature, was the embodiment of their strength. I was also determined to lay down paths toward forgiveness so that Shahen, Sosi, and Mariam could survive these horrors with their spirits intact instead of consumed with revenge, unable to ever move on.

You are a wonderfully gifted artist, poet and writer. Yet publishing today doesn’t always embrace the spare, lyrical author of serious works. Can you speak about your journey and how you stayed the course?

Thank you. True that it has been a slow journey toward publication. The thing that kept me going was always doing the work. I think if I hadn’t immersed myself in a series of projects while waiting for one of these tough topics to stick, I would have lost faith.  Along the way, I consciously began a piece that is more of a madcap romp to give myself some respite. Even with that story, The Very Long Days of Arden Hose Stoopnagle, the serious questions have been finding their way in as they do in all the books by others that I love, such as Holes.

Writing, reading, drawing, working, turning to humor and to short pieces where appropriate also helped me stay the course.  Staying in touch with other writers and artists and exchanging work with them kept me a part of a supportive community and ready to continue. I even taped bits of encouragement, things said by writing mentors, above the screen of my computer to keep me on track. Publication tales filled with countless rejections for fabulous books, such as Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running, also served as inspiration.

Graphic Art DWalrath

Always interested in edges, margins, and connections, Dana Walrath weaves many distinct threads through her work. After years of using stories to teach medical students at University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, she spent last year as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds upon her award winning graphic memoir series Aliceheimer’s about life with her mother Alice, before and during dementia. She has shown her artwork in a variety of settings in North America and Europe.  In the fall of 2013, she returned to Armenia to give a talk at TEDx Yerevan that integrates Aliceheimer’s with her Fulbright work, and for the launch of Part I of Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass (Harvest 2013). Her verse novel, Like Water on Stone, is forthcoming from Delacorte Press the fall in 2014.

She earned a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania; an MFA in Writing Vermont College of Fine Arts; and a BA in Fine Arts and Biology from Barnard College, Columbia University, and is a co-author of one of the leading college textbook series in anthropology. Spanning a variety of disciplines, her work has been supported by diverse sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Centers for Disease Control, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Vermont Arts Council.

                                                                                                               –Zu Vincent

 

Graphic Art and Prose Poetry: Dana Walrath’s Two New Novels

 

Cover Art Aliceheimer's

“This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her [my mother’s] humanity with every image.”  Dana Walrath

 

I remember seeing Dana Walrath’s early art about life with her ailing mother—now the poignant graphic novel Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass—when we were working together at the Vermont College of Fine Arts residency one summer. You entered her room and were immediately drawn to her work, tacked along the bookshelf like newly inked pages of fresh newsprint. Amazing images that drew the heart and inspired the mind. And like her work, Dana is brilliant, funny, inspiring and down to earth. This two-part interview is a look behind the scenes at how her alchemy of art, writing and anthropology emerged into print.

VCFA grad Dana Walrath is a writer, artist, and anthropologist. She spent 2012-2013 as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds on Aliceheimer’s (Harvest 2013), her award winning graphic memoir series about life with her mother, Alice, before and during Alzheimer’s disease. Her first novel, Like Water on Stone, set during the Armenian genocide, is forthcoming with Delacorte Press in the fall of 2014.

Dana, you’ve spoken elsewhere about how your art is informed by life and how, conversely, your life informs your art. Many writers struggle with the question of how to write about their own lives (especially because of what their families might say). Yet you’ve successfully used autobiography in works such as Aliceheimer’s, and what’s more, been able to speak eloquently about a difficult last journey with your mom. Can you speak to how and why you approached this painful journey?  

I came to writing late and had never kept any sort of personal journal. Anthropological field notes were as close as I could get. While my memory for the specific details of my life has always been imperfect, I am all too aware of the emotional and physical sensations of this life. I worried about my imperfect memory, my aches, and my un-writerly habits until I read Robert Olin Butler’s book, From Where You Dream. Butler says that writers must let go of specific experiences and instead, let them flow into an internal subconscious compost heap in which experiences ferment and recombine and become stories. Suddenly I could reframe what I had seen as a deficit into a fortuitous process.

Graphic Art WalrathAround the same time that I read Butler—my first or second residency at VCFA—Marion Dane Bauer said in a lecture that if you are a woman, everyone will assume that everything you write is autobiographical. This differential treatment of male and female authors clearly derives from constraints imposed by gender roles established in a patriarchy, and in a funny way this assumption liberated me. That people would assume that I was writing from my life no matter what, gave me permission to use my life as I wished, without a burning need to stay close to any specific “facts” or details that could constrain the storytelling.

But more than just general comfort with writing from life drives me. For my forthcoming verse novel, Like Water on Stone, a powerful need to tell the story of how my mother’s parents survived the Armenian genocide of 1915 stems directly from the official Turkish policy of denial, and the lack of recognition of the genocide by other governments such as our own. In a briefing paper prepared for the US State Department in 1996, Gregory Stanton describes denial as the final stage of genocide (see http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/8stagesofgenocide.html). In other words, until denial ends, genocide is ongoing.

LikeWater_jacket

For my grandmother, I had only a single haunting sentence of family history to draw upon: That after her parents were killed she and her younger brother and sister hid during the day and ran at night hundreds of miles from their home to an orphanage in Aleppo. So many survivors were too traumatized to share the details of their stories with their families, though witnesses and generations of scholars have amply documented these events. Knowing the scars the experience has left in the survivors and their descendants let me tell a story that was grounded in personal emotional truths and accurate historical research.

In a similar vein, a desire to support people with dementia, their caregivers, and to help re-write the dominant narrative about dementia and aging led me to share our family’s experience in my graphic memoir, Aliceheimer’s. Stigma and silence and a discourse of pain and loss surround dementia and other permanent, incurable problems of the mind. The dominant story is a scary zombie story of bodies without minds, loved ones experiencing only loss and valiant researchers searching for an elusive cure.  As a society, we are so fearful of mind loss and death that we leave families in isolation, without a roadmap of how to handle a host of daily challenges. Of course there is loss, but if we accept the loss and share our stories this can be a time of magic and laughter and healing. A lifetime with my mother made me certain that I could share our story respectfully, that her story could contribute to restoring the humanity of those with dementia.

Can you talk a bit about the differences in approaching your two books—from verse to graphic novel? Are there different emotional and/or craft considerations you could point to?

Considering the scary subject matters for Like Water on Stone and Aliceheimer’s—genocide and dementia—I knew I had to find ways to make these topics safe.  They found entirely different forms due to the sources of the fear and the reasons for bringing the issue into the open. With Aliceheimer’s my mother, a life-long reader, was the driving force. When she lived with us, she still read each day without the benefit of a short term memory. Watching her eat up every graphic narrative that came into our home made me certain that I wanted to use a form that someone with dementia could access.

Graphic Art by Dana Walrath

As people lose language they revert to the preverbal stages of life when we were experts at reading visual and other cues. My mother also loves to laugh and she led the way to laughing at her loss. Subconsciously, we associate comics with laughter. The medium grants us permission to laugh. Laughter is respite. It opens up new ways to cope. Comics also let simultaneous realities co-exist on a single page, mirroring the conflicting realities of people with dementia and their caregivers. This graphic form let me tell our story with a light touch and space for magic while reasserting her humanity with every image. And the book began as a series of comics-style drawings, each of which went on to inspire another layer of story.

For Like Water on Stone, I wanted to show the truth of genocide in such a way that it was undeniable, but that readers would not be so overwhelmed that they would have to turn away from it. The language and story came to me in fragments as the painful truths grew on the page. Though I generally write in prose, line breaks and spare language were integral to this story. The character of Ardziv, an eagle, a guardian spirit who protects the three siblings as they travel, also appeared as part of making the book safe for me as I wrote and for the reader. My job was to make it safe enough for a reader to truly know the horror.

Next: Dana talks about graphic novels, comics, collage and staying the course to publication.                                                                       –Zu Vincent