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Update: Creative Process (How I Found Mine, Again)

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Have you ever put aside a creative project somewhere in the middle of it? Some people call it writer’s block. For some, it may be brought about by having a lack of parameters… it’s not that they don’t have ideas; they have too many ideas. And, there’s nothing funneling them down to the ones they can actually use. For others, it gets brought about by the realization of what they don’t actually know. That’s what happened to me.

2016-12-08 14.47.16 Sib's Writing Space at Meredith's

My friend Meredith gave me a week’s retreat in her getaway. I brought my computer, desk chair, and a flip chart. It was about as idyllic as it gets. Wrote seven chapters and am eternally grateful.

I’m writing a thriller. Classic themes. All the tasty morsels readers of thrillers expect when they pick up the next potboiler. In January of 2017, I ran into a snag. My character needed to spend time in a place I’d never been. Part of this novel’s style is to imbue location into the story as a kind of background character. That worked great for part one of the novel (or roughly what I see being the first third). But, now my character was going to a location and a culture I had never visited and was unlikely to before the novel was finished. So, I stopped my process. That was my first problem.

Fall of 2016, I spent my Saturdays writing. I had used a straightforward process. Early on, I made a mind-map (bubble-map) of the major plot points of the entire novel. So, when it came to my writing day, the first couple hours, I would take the plot point or two I was planning to cover, and mind-map all the major points I wanted to hit in the chapter. This would function as a loose flowchart (with many side trips) to follow the action (or some piece of character development). This process saw me through the first eighteen chapters (roughly 40,000 words).

Hale Novel 1 Plot Mind-map (Blurred) 2018-07-23 17.46.59

A blurred capture of my very first mind-map of the novel. I made one of these for each chapter and have made newer versions as the story has grown.

That’s when I ran into the What-Do-I-Do-Next syndrome. I was unsure. I knew I needed to do a few things:

  1. Figure out where in a particular country / culture my character was headed
  2. Learn about that place and the people who live there (not to mention a little history)
  3. See a lot of photos and videos
  4. Develop an attitude toward the place (this would help give the place a sense of character in my story)

Something else happened. I travel for work, but the amount of travel increased so that I was gone almost every week. I was exhausted and didn’t feel like thinking hard on Saturdays. So, I let my exhaustion, and moreover, lack of adherence to my process keep me from getting there quickly. By mid-summer, I was only thinking about my main character and the story for five to ten minute intervals only a few times a week. The plot was not progressing.

sibs-haiku-099-updated-2017-01-22

I love haiku as a form. This one captures a bit of what life had been like…

In September, it dawned on me that I actually knew someone from the culture I needed to understand. I could take action! Within a week, we had a lunch appointment. By the end of lunch, I had a location. We set up a time for me to interview her. I did and learned a great deal. Then, she connected me with her parents who had lived in the town as adults. I spent a couple of days in town as a tourist (inside Google Maps) prior to interviewing them. I walked from place to place (clicking my way from one location to another). I saw the historical things. Monuments to literary figures. Beautiful places. Trashy and muddy places. My virtual trip gave me enough questions that at the end of three hours interviewing this lovely couple, we could have spent many more hours talking.

I was excited about the story again. But, two things were true. I was exhausted from all the travel and I had completely lost any rhythm or momentum by losing my Saturday process.  It was now December and I gave it another go. I took a Saturday, in my office which had been unintentionally converted into a closet. At the end of that painful day, I had written the most fantastical and whimsical beginning to Part Two.

It was now Christmastime, and we were invited to a Holiday party. We like to get to Lucy and Mark’s party early (or very late when it’s winding down) so we get to talk with the hosts. Lucy is an author and always has good questions when it comes to story. So, I recounted the story captured above and then told her about the new chapter. She gave me this look as if she felt so bad to have to tell me the following, “Sib, that sounds like a completely different book.” And, she was right.

It took me a month to fully commit to scrapping the direction it was headed. I spent a couple of Saturdays reading it and thinking, then thinking some more. I had to go back to the drawing board to get part two started again.

Over the course of the spring, I realized that I had gotten so focused on trying to know what I did not know, that I lost all confidence. I was focused on the tiny details. But, I knew this story. In the world of my characters, I am omniscient (at least most of the time). I know how this story ends. I get to make up the fun-and-games that happen along the way.

Then, I was reminded of something one of my dearest friends Richard Geller (who also happens to be one of my favorite writers) says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Sometimes the best thing you can do is show up!” Not only had I given up my Saturday process, I had allowed my office to become a closet. It was not a place I wanted to work. So, I hadn’t.

Spring cleaning completed, in early June I finished a solid draft of the first chapter in part two. I’ve been keeping my Saturday’s sacred for five weeks and now have five more chapters completed. Furthermore, I’m back to my process, the process I know works for this book (perhaps a different process for a different book).

Google Maps Image of Sib's Book opening

My novel opens here. I have spent countless hours studying the details in GoogleMaps.

 

What are my take aways? I have three, with a kicker:

  1. KEEP SHOWING UP! – I had a process that worked for this novel. I gave up on it.
  2. YOU HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE CONFIDENT! – Don’t lose sight of the fact that in the world of the characters, you are omniscient (mostly). Take charge…
  3. REFRAME THE PROBLEMS (BLOCKS) AS OPPORTUNITIES! – I don’t like the term “writer’s block” because it suggests some outside force. Rather, these stoppages can be opportunities to solve problems for your character or story. Answer the questions: What is the problem? Why does it exist? How can it be overcome (all the options)? And, what steps am I going to take toward one of them?
  4. Start the process over… keep showing up!

P.S. Great resources for writers: Google Earth & Google Maps, TripAdvisor reviews (and photos)… or any review site you can read or translate (Google Translate).

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Connecting the Dots

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I’m a fairly visual person. What does that mean for me writing long-fiction? For one, it means keeping flip-chart and markers stocked up on the door to my office. It also means a lot of bubble maps. Every chapter gets its own bubble map. The entire arc of the plot gets a bubble map. Then, as I lay out all the pieces of the puzzle, sometimes I need a map to see how they all stick together. Yesterday, somewhere over the midwest at 30,000 feet, I did just that with all the data-points for my forthcoming novel set in Stratford, CT. Most of my chapter bubble-maps follow the plot: beginning-middle-end. This was more of a seeing how each data point relates to all the other data points; not so much plot as connection. Here’s a quick window into what that looks like:

Blurry Hale Novel 1 Dots Connected 2017 11 09

What does your creative process look like?

Written by @SibLaw_Official

November 10, 2017 at 12:53 pm

Mrs. Mayhew’s Second Baptism

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The following story was written for and read at a fundraiser at First Presbyterian Church of Fairfield, CT on April 1, 2017. Click here to learn more about our church’s ongoing efforts to help the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana build a maternity ward where it is much needed. 

Fiction

Mrs. Mayhew’s Second Baptism

Mrs. Mayhew was ninety years old in 1985 when she was baptized a second time. If she had remembered or if anyone had thought to check the registry at the church campground a hundred miles away in the mountains, they would have seen that she had been sprinkled in 1905. She had just been ten. Her name was Sally, but she had only thought of herself as Mrs. Mayhew for many years. Sally was some girl from childhood.

Charles Alexander Mayhew had been in line next to her and put a hand forward to help her up the stairs where the Reverend and Elders waited. “Lady’s first!” he insisted. Before grabbing hold, she turned to see who it was and their eyes locked. At eleven years old, Charles had an impish grin. He carried that grin with him through their childhood together.

Turned out that he lived a quarter of a mile away and liked to walk. Sally knew this because she could count on a visit most evenings shortly before supper. So, Sally’s mom began a nightly ritual: “Charles, would you mind staying for supper?” She would ask. “We have too much and it just won’t keep.”

That familiar grin infected his whole face, “Happy to help anyway I can, ma’am.” So, Charles became a fixture in Sally’s childhood home.

After dinner one midsummer evening when she was thirteen, they were playing explorers. She was a feisty Pocahontas to his John Smith. After much protestation, she knelt next to the bird bath to be baptized. “I don’t need to be baptized, Charles,” she explained. “I was baptized in front of you.”

“It’s just pretend,” he assured her. “You’re Pocahontas, now.”

She took a deep breath and a long think. Finally, she took another breath and said, “As long as it’s only pretend. You can only get baptized once, Charles Alexander Mayhew.”

Charles placed his right hand in the grimy bird bath water.

Her bright blue eyes peered at him above her red war paint.

“Pocahontas,” he stated firmly. “I baptize thee in the name of the father!” He paused, raising his wet hand and placing it atop her head, next to the tall white feather. Then, he soaked his already damp appendage in the bird bath again. “I baptize thee in the name of the son!” He repeated the first move, only this time emboldened by some hidden power, he brought more water in a slightly cupped hand. Having saturated her brown hair, water trickled down next to her ears. He submerged his hand once again, this time splashing some of the water and spooking an onlooking brown squirrel. Then, with flourish in his voice, delivered the final line, “I baptize thee in the name of the Holy Ghost!” This time more water.

Sally remained still as war paint streaked in places.

But, he continued, “So help me God. Amen and Amen!”

Sally didn’t move; eyes closed, wet hair held in place by a homemade headband for the feather, streaks of war paint now running to her chin. What could possibly come next? She tried to remember what had come next in her actual baptism.

When his lips touched her cheek, she felt a warm sensation in her spine between the shoulders. Her eyes opened to Charles’s sparkling browns. His turned-up lips had a new accent, which took a moment to register, what with all the new sensations going on. She wasn’t aware that her war paint was creating some kind of new fandangled art across her face, just that Charles was wearing lipstick.

So, when he punctuated whatever feelings were going on inside of him by saying a second time, “Amen and Amen,” all she could do was laugh.

He angrily splashed the birdbath and stormed off huffing something under his breath; what, she could not hear.

Moving to dry her face, she finally realized about the war paint and his red lips.

She chased after him around the side of the house and grabbed his hand.

He turned and stared, expressionless.

In what seemed like forever to Sally, they stood eye to eye. She would tell friends for the decades that followed that she didn’t know what possessed her to do it, but she leaned over and whispered into his ear, “Amen and Amen.” And that became their own private affirmation.

Before The Great War, he had asked her to marry him and she answered with “Amen and Amen.”

Before he shipped off to the trenches in Europe, she made him promise to come back to her and he responded with “Amen and Amen.” He wrote while he was there and she could hear his impish grin trying to put a good face on something so terrible. He signed every letter: Amen and Amen, Charles.

When they settled on the name Olivia for their first girl, it started with him asking, “Amen?” and her finishing, “and Amen.” It was a knowing, an understanding, a truth between them.

When soldiers came to their door, explaining that their eldest son William had died a hero on a beach in Normandy, she couldn’t say it. She held it in. She didn’t say anything that day or the next day. Then, on the third day she planned his memorial. The day of, she was strong. People said beautiful things about him, they brought food, and gave her too many hugs. After everyone had left, Charles quietly took her hand and they left for home.

Having raised a family in the house where she grew up, everything was familiar. Everything was home, including Charles. His moist brown eyes peered into hers and he whispered, “Amen and Amen.” She said it too and they wept in each other’s arms.

But now, it was 1985 and Charles had been gone for eighteen years. At ninety years, she had forgotten so many things. So, when the new minister explained that there was no record of her baptism and asked if she wanted to be baptized, she wasn’t sure what to say. She knew there was something, but it wasn’t quite there. So, she said yes.

One of the final things Charles had done for her was purchase a brand new 1967 Cadillac and told her who to trust with its care. That’s what she drove to her baptism. Slowly.

One of the elders, a young professional in his thirties, escorted her to the font at the appropriate time in the service. She didn’t quite fill out the dress she had purchased when Charles was still alive, but she looked appropriate to the occasion. Another elder, a woman in her forties she had always thought had a sweet way with her children, stood on her other side and the two elders helped her kneel.

The minister had said a few things about her life in the church and expressed surprise that no record had been kept. The minister did not know about the church camp and the records there because it had been sold during the Great Depression. The records were probably somewhere, but no one remembered their existence.

The minister then asked her about the basic tenants of faith, “Do you?” To which she answered, “I do.”

The hand at the end of a long black robe dipped into the marble font, “Sally Jean Mayhew, I baptize you in the name of the father.” A few drops of water matted her thinning hair. “The son,” the hand returned with a few more drops of water. “And the Holy Spirit,” the damp hand rested gently on her head.

As the minister prayed, so many images and sounds filled her head. A lifetime of memories. The grandchildren. The children. And Charles. The memories were all present, right up to their last walk on the beach together. Hand-in-hand.

The minister finished, “Amen.”

In that moment, everything was so vivid and present, especially her baptism. Inside she laughed, you can’t get baptized twice. She couldn’t help herself; with as much energy as her frail ninety-year-old lungs could muster she responded, “Amen and amen.”

The congregation was speechless. What they saw was nothing short of miraculous. This quiet old woman was making a statement with these words. These young people saw a smile they had never seen.

The elders helped her to her feet and with tears streaming from her eyes, she felt the war paint on her chin, once again.

It was miraculous. All of it. She remembered.

 

Copyright © 2017, by J. Sibley Law

“If you enjoyed this story, please share the link with someone who you believe would also appreciate a little time with Mrs. Mayhew.  Thank you.”  -Sib

Written by @SibLaw_Official

April 15, 2017 at 12:20 pm

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