Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

I am currently finishing up the first draft of my first-ever e-book! The backstory: three years ago, against the advice of many, I left a budding career in journalism to build my own freelance copywriting and editing business, and since then, I’ve fielded a regular stream of emails from and about people searching for a way to make writing pay.

Most of the emails go something like this:

“Hi, Erin! My brother/friend/co-worker needs some help. He’s always been a great writer. His teachers told him so. We tell him so. But he’s lost. He hated his last job and now he’s unemployed. Do you have any advice for him?”

Yes. Yes, I do. And I am currently in the process of fashioning what I’ve learned into a short guide for newbie writers. The first hit is free! And I’d love to know what you think.

Tough Truth for Writers #1: You are not Don Quixote.

Matter of fact, neither am I. And neither is that guy in your writing group who just scored his first book deal, or your sister’s friend who made a zillion dollars off ads on her Quirky Mommy Blog. I’m not trying to be harsh. In fact, I don’t even blame you, Dear Writer, for hoping that maybe we were Don Quixote. (It would certainly explain our rumpled clothes and the wheezing chariots we drive ourselves around town in.) After all, every culture since the dawn of the alphabet has romanticized Itinerant Dreamy Creative Types.

Every good movie has one, and so does every interesting family or group of friends, and we love them for their wandering ways. We let them sleep on our couches. We sometimes lend them cash. We fawn over their adventuring spirits and invite them to all our dinner parties because they’ve got, like, the best travel stories ever.

But as you may have noticed, especially if you’ve tried to nominate yourself for the position, what our culture doesn’t do is pay anyone to be an Itinerant Dreamy Creative Type.

Even IDCTs with multiple writing degrees and a good measure of natural talent are unlikely to find anyone waiting at the foot of their bed each morning, offering up wads of cash in exchange for the first rights to trumpet their eloquent observations far and wide. Even when those observations are really, really fantastically crafted.

We are not Don Quixote. But like him, because we are writers, we feel irresistibly, cosmically compelled to seek out strange and interesting fodder for our literary reveries, to chase shadows and inspirations to the far corners of the earth, or, at least, the far corners of our minds. So, like his, our paths will inevitably wind and twist. And this is where the trouble can start.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

For many would-be-writers, the first part of the story goes something like this: Your sister wanted to be a lawyer. So she majored in political science, earned admission to a respectable law school, took out her nose ring, wrote for the law review, and eventually landed a cushy government job. Your best friend wanted to be a legal secretary. So she scored a filing job at a downtown law firm straight out of undergrad and worked her way up over the course of half-a-decade, taking advantage of free on-the-job training and saying “Yes” to every promotion until, voila! Legal secretary at 26.

And then there was you. Maybe you majored in English, communications, or creative writing, or at least you fantasized about it during those interminable, soul-sucking chemistry labs. Maybe you stayed up all night reading Raymond Carver short story collections and writing bad fiction that became, over time, slightly less bad and maybe even eked its way into the realm of good. Maybe you wrote a column for the college paper and thrilled at the rush of being published – and read, and discussed – by your peers. Then, graduation. By default (and the need to, like, eat every day) maybe you ended up working in an office doing corporate communications or managerial work or some other thing that was only tangentially, if at all, related to the written word.

Or maybe you reformed your writerly ways earlier on: you penned poetry and plays all through high school, then opted for the fast-track into early adulthood and became a teacher or a cop or a construction worker or a cocktail waitress. Now you’ve woken up five or 10 or 20 years older and you are longing to reconnect with your youthful love for the quiet craft. You mightn’t have written, I mean really written, anything in years, but the itch is back and worse than ever. It’s not too surprising. If you’ve got writing in the marrow of your bones, it will always call you back, eventually.

Or maybe you are just starting out your career, and determined to give the writing biz a shot, because you like working with words and you figure it’s worth it at least to try.

Whatever your story, and whether or not you’ve ever even read Don Quixote, I’ve got some good news. The happy reverse of this rusty coin is that you wouldn’t probably want to be Don Quixote anyway, even if you could. Because he’s so wrapped up in reveries that life ends up happening to him and not for him, and that’s no way for a creative person to live.

Now it’s your turn: Any other Bohemian archetypes you find yourself pledging questionable allegiance to as you fashion yourself into a writer? Dean Moriarty? Truman Capote, perhaps? J.D. Salinger? I’d love to hear about them, and about how they  help and hinder your progress.

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo



Under His Spell: In Scrabble as in Love, it’s the Little Words that Count

 Deep down, I think, what most writers really want is to be loved with words.

Forget the short-shrift gestures, the achy-breaky looks, the profound silences. Forget ever, ever leaving anything unsaid.

But, ah! The hand-penned poem, the stumblingly sincere email missive, the drunken, napkin-back confessional. These are the mightily longed-for asseverations of a writer’s native tongue. They are ardently imperfect. And they are beautiful.

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Tilting at Castles: On writing, risks and unintended time travel

As I may have mentioned one or a thousand times since I arrived in Spain back in early June, our terrace has a front-and-center view of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.

This sprawling, Roman Catholic Basilica is a work in progress, to put it mildly. Construction kicked off in 1882. It’s supposed to be finished by 2026, on the centenary of Gaudi’s death. (Tragically, ironically, unbelievably, he was struck by a tram while crossing a street near the church, headed to another day at his life’s great work. I can just picture him, starry-eyed, gazing up at the unfinished spires, and BAM! Poor guy.)

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Good work, career crap factors, and the “Is-ness” of it all: Thoughts on finding meaning in a creative profession

Two full weeks here in Barcelona and I’m finally settling down to the primary task I’ve set for myself during our time in Spain: rejiggering my worklife, and rethinking entirely what I want out of my career as a writer.Yes. So. What do I want? It’s such a huge, bloated, amorphous, nebulous, terrifying, wonderful, impossible, fascinating and inevitable question, isn’t it?

So grand, and yet so essential, to put one’s wants – not one’s needs – at the center of things, to shout them out to the huge, busy, noisy universe and confidently, cosmically await a reply. Just who do you think you are, asking for all that happy, being that you are so very tiny, and in case you didn’t notice, this is the Milky Way, not the Hilton, thank you very much; you knew that long before your birth and you chose this galaxy anyway and just what do you expect the gods to do about any of your carbon-based woes?

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To Dos

Beer night with Emiliano - Erin J. bernard

Beer night with Emiliano – Erin J. Bernard

Heard on the radio this morning that the vast majority of rich people keep regular to-do lists. I’m a big fan of TDLs, and I always have been. But for some reason I haven’t gotten rich yet. Maybe I’m doing it wrong? At any rate.

Lately, I’m up early and cranking out work all morning. (I’ve already worked 6.5 hours and gone running and it’s only 2:30. Not being required to commute or get dressed really cuts down on lost productivity hours.) The afternoon is for loose ends and creative writing. As of Tuesday afternoon, here’s what’s on my personal to-do list. I feel like this list is an interesting microcosm of the larger arc of my days as a freelancer. Lots of little things.

Hold me to it, friends!

To Do | Jan. 28, 2013

• Skype meeting with Irwin

• Find retainer

• Clean kitchen

• Apartment hunting in Barcelona for next summer

• E-mail friends I’ve been neglecting

• Send photos to lady

• 1 hour of writing/querying

• Organize office/room

• Write note to idiot postman re: misdelivered mail

• Meet Mom for tea

• Update planner

• 20 pushups

• Text L re: photos/hops

• Update blog

The Man Drowning, or, Lazy Fiction for the Reluctant

I am usually not a fan of caveats or throat-clearning, but I must disclose that I am most certainly not a fiction writer. I adore fiction of all stripes. I adore fiction writers. And when it comes down to it, I subscribe to the school of thought that writing great fiction is a far more daunting task than writing great non-fiction. Everything I put to paper or screen is truth, down to the letter. My great task is figuring out how all of that truth fits together, and separating what’s profound from what’s pompous, sorting out what’s compelling to others and what’s only interesting to me because it happened to me. But creating an entire universe that actually functions in a consistent manner, and doing it from nothing but a bunch of letters and sounds in a language that lacks color and rhyme? Much more difficult.

That said, I made a rather pitiful attempt at participating in National Novel Writing Month in 2012. I was in California that Nov. 1, recovering from a Halloween glut during which I had my favorite black peacoat stolen by some dick in a rainstorm and then got hit on by both the Duff Beer Man and a balding playwriting from Los Angeles (one of whom I am still meaning to e-mail … argh!), and working away at a Starbucks in Oakland, when I unhappily recalled my vow to participate in NaNoWriMo, and my vow to write as fast as I could for 1-2 hours each day of the month, revising minimally, until I’d stitched together a rough opus of some manner or other. Just sort of literary diarrhea, I guess. Just to see. Just to practice finishing, which is incredibly hard for all writers. (Or at least for this writer. Harder, even, than starting, which can be very hard, indeed.) My efforts that day in Oakland went reasonably well, despite my peptic exhaustion, but I am ashamed to admit that I never wrote another word the entire rest of the month. A sorry showing, indeed!

But I like my failures, especially when they are so unapologetic. Besides, I was organizing my computer files a week or so ago, as I am wont to do at a year’s end, and I came across that NaNoWriMo folder titled, oh-so-hopefully, “The Man Drowning.” I had a whole elaborate magic realism kind of concept sketched out for my novel, full of talking fish and shifting perspectives and color symbolism.

Although that maybe-opus never came to pass, as I spent the rest of my SF trip eating noodles, drinking wine, and jogging up and down Nob Hill in recompense, I figured I’d offer up that one day’s worth of writing to the world. Not because I think it is particularly well-written, although it has a few nice bits, but more for posterity and whatnot. Because it’s a new year and I’m feeling prolific and motivational.

I spent about 2 more hours editing this piece during the past week, which means I’m shoving it out the door in under 4 hours total. That’s less than half the amount of time I spend on a non-fiction essay, on average, and it leaves plenty of room for polishing. Which I will not be doing. Because, as I said, I am not a fiction writer. So nothing much is at stake, except, I guess, you thinking I am cool and impervious. Which has never really been my schtick. I’d definitely say I’ve gunned more, during this past decade or so of blogging, for lovably haggard. So if you find mistakes, friends, don’t bother to point them out, because I’m not interested in correcting them this time around. Writing – not writing well – is the point here.

Thusly. Just for fun, just to see. Here you go.

Vallarta Water - Erin J. Bernard

Vallarta Water – Erin J. Bernard

“The Man Drowning” by Erin J. Bernard

Never in all his days had The Man seen water such a brilliant and terrible shade of blue.

Blue like icicles and blue like Depression glass, blue like infinity, blue like a hand that grabs you by the throat and starts to squeeze.

The Man knew he was too far out. He was bobbing up and down and up and down in the warm turquoise sea like a bloated, fleshy cork. He was fumbling with a tangle of snorkeling gear.

He pulled at his mask, which released itself from his face with a juicy, reluctant pop. He positioned it upon his forehead and looked around.

A few hundred feet to his left, The Captain and The Man’s wife were waiting in the little hired speedboat.

The Wife had thrown a patterned sarong over her eyes to block out the infernal glare of the Caribbean sun. She burned easily. The Man thought suddenly of their honeymoon on a nearby island, when even her eyes had burned.

The Captain was bent over a knot of fishing line, doing something with his fingers. His shoulders bunched in concentration as he worked.

Little tickly blue waves were lapping at The Man’s own, softer shoulders. He was treading water. The sky looked vast and empty and hungry and The Man imagined he could feel, for the first time, the true weight of the universe. Pressing down on him from above. He was human-shaped flotsam. It pained his gut to think of it, all that that heaviness.

The Man waved a cursory hand in the direction of the boat. A congenial wave, a test wave, just to see. Nobody looked.

The Man was too far out. He knew this. He would swim for it.

“I’ll swim for it,” he said aloud, and the sound of his own voice make him startle. It was gravel and liquid. Too many Mexican cigarettes. Too many years.

With effort, The Man kicked his feet back until they popped up to the surface behind him. He dipped his hands into the water. He adjusted his red flippers. He replaced his mask and he bit down on the snorkel.

He would swim for it.

The Man kicked hard, right foot, then left foot, angling his body westward, toward the little boat. He kicked and kicked and soon he was swimming, his face below the surface. He was breathing wetly through the mouthpiece and staring straight down into that infernal blue.

So many things down there. The calcified, cratered remains of an old fishing rig, coral castles, strange flashes of light and low, moaning sounds. Families of fish scattered slipshod in front of him as he cut forward, then closed ranks behind him as he went. He could feel them back there, forgetting already.

The Man felt that pressure again, this time from below as well as above, and he kept on kicking. The pair of legs below him looked puckered and vaguely trunk-like – two great pumping albino fish that propelled him forward through the universe.

He thought of other blue things: the glass eye of his father, the glittering, manic-depressive sheen of a Kansas Summer Sky, the achy blue of his toes after a pre-adolescent afternoon lost in a Michigan snowstorm.

Something was yanking him, from all sides. He stopped kicking momentarily and lifted his head out of the water, just to see. The boat was further to his right, but he thought he might be getting closer.

Again he waved, with a little more urgency. The captain was still busy with his line and the caught fish was now flip-flopping on the deck in a ghastly heat.

The Wife was plastered flat to the boat’s rear deck like some great, blubbery starfish, her breasts cutting points against the horizon like menopausal mountain peaks.

He was still too far out, but he would not panic. The Man dipped his head back into the water and started to kick again. The low, mean rumbles continued under the water as he plowed on, albino legs pumping, the pressure keeping pace at his side like some ghostly companion.

He stared down and saw in the rippling water the bed in their hotel room, with its blue flower-pattern spread. Or was it a duvet? He pictured wife’s hand sweeping across those tropical petals. Hibiscus? No matter.

He thought of lobster for dinner, and drinks on the beach, later.

He thought of breakfast. The ghost was poking at him, now, an accusing and bony finger sharp in his side.

The Man stopped again and pulled off the mask. The eyepieces were clouded over. He spit into it, as The Captain had taught him, and rubbed at the plastic casing.

The boat seemed even further off to the right.

“Hey!” he cried, throwing his garbled voice upward.

His breath was coming in sharp, angry pinches. He thought of his hotel breakfast, the eggs and the sausage, and he felt the sickness rising.

He angled his body until he until he was floating on his back with his belly rising out of the water like some beaching, bloating thing.

He needed to catch his breath, to rest for just a minute.

He closed his eyes, but a new session of waves came washing suddenly over him, splashing into his nose and mouth until he coughed and sputtered.

He was just so tired.  The Man kicked his legs back down and felt his stomach heave with a sudden jerk as he popped upright. The ghost was in his throat, now, in his chest, plowing its fists against his insides.

He wretched into the infernal blue water, once, then twice. Eggs. He kicked his feet against the pain, moving away from the sick, and felt one red flipper drop off. Peering down into the water, he saw it drifting slowly toward the ocean bed.

Never, ever, ever had he seen a thing so blue as this.

He hurtled himself forward violently, paddling full-force in the direction of the boat. But those tiny waves kept coming, pushing him to the right, too far out, farther out than he’d ever meant to be.

It wasn’t working. He started to splash, balling his fists and smacking the water.


He was screaming.


His Wife was still splayed out. The Captain didn’t turn.


The ghost had become a part of him. His heart felt too big for his body, his blood was too heavy and too much, his stomach was contracting.

The little waves kept coming. He was treading water.

He thought of the hibiscus bedspread and threw his chubby arms skyward. The tropical sun was a tiny, angry eye a million miles overhead.

The first mouthful of water was surprisingly salty. He coughed and choked in protest as it washed down his throat. Spitting and gurgling, he cried out again.

A lucky gust of wind sent the sound hurtling toward the boat.

The Wife and The Captain looked up in unison. He saw The Wife leap up from her perch, the sarong dropping, as the captain threw down the fishing line and dived for the engine.

More water came.

The man heard the tiny boat engine roar to life as he caught the third mouthful of saltwater. He choked and drank and waved.

He noticed that the other flipper was also gone, and that he was still gripping the mask in his left hand, and that the mouthpiece was still hanging near his chin.

He splashed and kicked and felt the current picking up, and carrying him. He bit down on the mouthpiece and took another mouthful of water, and a gasp that sent it into his lungs.

So terribly, terribly blue. He let the water pull him under. Far, far below, the two red flippers waved softly in the current.

Time slowed, and The Man found he could examine his thoughts one by one.

Down at the bottom, the flippers were waving at him. Yes. Or maybe clapping?

Two orange fish swam past, a few feet away, and he watched their little mouths pucker as if they were deep in discussion.

Long strings of seaweed wrapped themselves around the boat skeleton banked far, far below. Mermaid’s hair, he and his brother used to call it when his sister gathered strands from the lakeside and braided them into elaborate knots. Green, green mermaid’s hair.

The water came in, more and more, until he could no longer tell if he was breathing or drinking or eating it, until the roar of the approaching motor grew quiet, imperceptible above the strange symphony of blips and blups, as he sank into the in-between place.

The ghost had retreated. Now, there was only quiet, a feeling of being held.

The man opened his mouth and watched a little row of bubbles floating out. The thing delighted him, somehow. What was he becoming? All mermaid hair and blips and bubbles.

His fists opened with his mouth and the snorkel fell away, moving in a slow, uncaring trajectory toward the bottom. It hit softly, kicking up a little sand.

Everything settled. The Man’s eyes grew heavy. He was all light and air and water. He felt his body only vaguely, the uncurled fingers and toes, the tickle of hair, the heaviness of the chest where a heart and lungs once worked furiously. Things were slow, blessedly slow.

Above, a dark shadow loomed, something strange and foreign that The Man could no longer place. His ears registered the sounds of a vague and distant chaos, the splash of a body breaking through the surface far above.

It was all so terribly, terribly blue.

Notes on File

Notations from my somewhat mixed up files as of late … I am bursting with weird and questionable ideas for creative projects.


• It would be cool to make little stop motion videos spelling out things with stuff like beans and macaroni pieces. I got the idea when I introduced my slightly younger roommates to The California Raisins the other day, and I felt my age for sure. Also, gave myself a mohawk a few weeks ago and noticed some little gray hairs coming in around my temples. I guess I don’t really care because I still get carded for everything from lottery tickets to beer, but …


• I’ve got this genius idea for a serial blog where I post conversations I’ve overheard in Portland. I think I’ve got nearly enough to make my first post, but I’m always accepting entries, so send your weird, wacky wonderful Portland overheards my way. EG:

Overheard at Anna Banana’s on Alberta, April 23, between a chunky female barista and a sorta femmy middle-aged patron:

“Different is Good”

Guy: My parents were the original hippies from the ‘60s.

Girl: Mine were too. Mine wore flowers in their hair.

Guy: Well I spent four years living in a colony in Southern Oregon.

Girl: Oh.

Guy: My mom told me I was this close to being named Sunshine Freedom.

Girl: That would be kind of fun though!

Guy: Yeah. Two names I always liked were Cassipoea and Orion.

Girl: Different is good.


• Author Ray Bradbury says he doesn’t mind getting old because he’s “collecting truths” along the way. I really, really dig this.

• What if we have it backwards when we see ourselves as living forwards? What if we’re all of us just reverse engineering everything all the time?


• I gave in and bought an iPhone the other day. I am the last Portland Creative Type within a 20-mile radius to do so, which makes me tragically uncool, I know. What can I say? I am cheap and poor. However, my terrible, terrible Samsung Galaxy had turned on me in recent months, and I felt I had no choice when it began to actively sabotage my text message conversations. For example:

Changing the word “Lego” to “legislation” repeatedly. As in:

“Eli is wondering if he could possibly play with your legislation today.”

Which sounds weird and pervy although I’m not sure why. And, yes, my text conversations do occasionally involve discussion of Legos.

Also, in an infinitely more disturbing development, every time I tried to type “I went” autocorrect changed it to “I queefed.” So not cool, phone.


• Finally, from a piece I am working on about love:

“This morning was the first day of May. The sun came up too soon and I couldn’t sleep, so I got up early and I went to the kitchen and I decided to make myself a poached egg.

It doesn’t embarrass me to admit to you that I almost couldn’t believe in myself enough to do it it. At the last minute, I almost backed out of the endeavor and reached for the frying pan. It takes such a leap of faith, every time, to poach an egg. A second of magical thinking before you have the guts to crack the shell and let the messy contents drop into the bubbling water without losing heart. How does the water know to hold the egg together so gently? How can one substance will another into a new form so entirely without the whole thing just dispersing into nothing?

I stared at my poached egg awhile before I ate it: the pure white edges unfolded like messy petals, the middle membrane so thin and delicate you could see right into the yellowy heart of it. And then I gobbled it up, without time for regret or delay.”

Big sleeps, tiny diamonds


One of my dayjobs involves editing academic manuscripts. It’s normally pretty dry, pretty esoteric medical and scientific research-y kind of stuff that I spend my days dealing with, but once in awhile, I come across something that captivates me and gets me thinking about myself and my surroundings in novel ways.

The universe threw me one such bone this morning. I found myself editing a paper on hibernation, or more specifically, the metabolic processes that cue an animal’s body to go into hibernation when the temperature drops, and, later, to emerge from it when the world begins to thaw. The profound sleepiness associated with hibernation is technically called “torpor,” and it describes a state of intense lethargy. Low-grade stupor, all-encompassing apathy. The being shutting down all but the most essential functions. The heart and stomach slowing to a crawl. The absence of movement. The hold cue.

I can relate. I’ve spent much of the fall in a sort of creative hibernation. Doing my work, but without great enthusiasm. Biding time. Staying in more than usual. Sleeping lots. Shirking ambitions of any sort in favor of rest and inertia. Thinking way more than doing. And not even really thinking that much. A stack of books on my nightstand, barely touched in a month. And a shameful litany of terrible, shamey movies and shows sitting half-watched in my Netflix queue like a bunch of greasy fast food wrappers.

It’s bothered me a bit, this amotivational bender I’ve been on, but I haven’t known how to shake it, except just to ride it out. I’ve been here before. Point in fact, it happens like this, to me, semi-regularly.

Now it’s December. Something about the end of a year always kickstarts my soul to super-duper-high-gear and it’s been the case again this butt-end of 2012. I’m picking up extra projects, getting out more, pondering New Year’s resolutions, and prepping to head to India Dec. 30. All life-affirming and very non-hibernatory kinds of activities.

As far as personalities go, I fall begrudgingly under the category of “L-C-E-O-P.” That is: “Lazy-Creative-(Substitute “Critical” and toss out “Creative” every third day)-Emotional-Overwanking-Perfectionist. Unsurprisingly, this combo of traits creates a fair bit of crackling static when it comes to my self- and world-conceptions. I expect a lot out of myself. And then I refuse to capitulate. And then I am disappointed in myself. Then, cue flurry of activity: I write and draw and take pictures of some stuff. And then I think it’s crap and rework it for 60 hours. Some stuff emerges. And then … Intense torpor, hibernatorial tendencies, sleepy sleepy sleepy.

I think we are the lot of us mostly just great, shaggy bears. Compelled to repeat ourselves in neat, endless cycles, for good or bad. Behavior patterns, as the sociologists and the psychologists like to call them. Ways of being that we hew to, usually because they seem to work. They feed us.

Lately, I’ve felt myself waking up. Sitting a wee bit straighter. Dreaming more vividly. Thinking about new projects. The stirrings of the soul and whatnot.

I could wax poetic about such fuzzy concept as “renewal” and “spiritual regeneration” and “winters of the heart,” but I find myself far more inspired by the warm, unburnished metaphors that simple biology proffers. The bloody, hairy truth of who we really are: thinking, creating animals navigating infinity from within a breakable, lazy and very finite body. It’s a fundamental incompatibility, and this creates tension. Sometimes you can mine that tension and come up with a fistful of sharp little diamonds, perfect and precise. And sometimes you’ll just roll over and go back to sleep.

Both are acceptable responses. Cause the thing about hibernation is it postpones life in order to preserve it. It is the body and mind commanding itself: “Will you fucking sit still a minute? Enough with your tiny plans and your roving about! Be still!”

Of course, you’ve got to have the will to rouse yourself after the resting spell is finished. That’s the secret. There is a time for quiet contemplation and slow digestion. And there is a time for jumping and shouting and wailing and cursing and eating that shit straight up. Life, I mean. All of it. Every bit. That’s my revelation on this fine Thursday. It’s December. It’s getting cold. And I’m restless. Restless and fucking starving.

NaNoWriMo – with reservation

So today is Nov. 1. Which equals: post-Halloween-in-San-Francisco hangover, the threat of full-blown winter, and, also, incidentally, day one of National Novel Writing Month. I claimed, a few months back, that I’d be participating in the effort this year. Even though I’m strictly, normally, a non-fiction writer. Even though I am in California visiting my sister for the next two weeks and really don’t have time or space to hole up and tap at keys. Even though writing a novel has never, ever interested me.

I spent the afternoon editing manuscripts in a coffee shop in Oakland and battling a red wine-Crown Royal-Makers hangover on account of last night’s festivities. At 4 p.m., with the editing finished and my head fuzzy, I’d about decided to chuck the whole NaNoWriMo idea and go for a walk through sketch Oakland instead.

But. Then I started to feel like a pussy. I’ve lately felt lackadaisical about pursuing personal writing projects. Since moving back to Portland in August, I’ve mostly just been towing the line instead. Doing the minimum and pondering my next move, career-wise. Trying to catch up on sleep. Running lots. Writing little. Which is why NaNoWriMo appeals. It’s a reboot of sorts. A quick-and-dirty approach to jump-starting one’s creativity.

So, with mild assignation, I opened a Word doc and I started typing.

Normally, I think and write in disordered chunks. I usually approach the construction of a story as if it is a gigantic puzzle whose pieces I construct and fit together at random. Title always comes last. So, too, often, does the opening paragraph. This time, I’m going totally linear. It felt like a revelation to start the whole thing off by creating a title page with an actual title on it. Sort of brazen. Who am I to write a crappy novel in 30 days? We’ll find out.

It’s called “The Man Drowning.” And, you guessed it. It is about a man drowning. I made it to 1,500 words today. Chapter 1 complete. Janky and stilted and in need of a few sharp metaphors, for sure, but it exists.

Wish me luck.

Oh, yeah, and I was Charlie Chaplin for Halloween. In case you wondered.

NaNoWriMo 2012

Sooooo … I am seriously thinking about participating in National Novel Writing Month this November … That’s NaNoWriMo to you, buddy. 30 days to finish the Great American Book. Check that shit out and let me know if you’re in!

NaNoWriMo is kinda an interesting turn of events for me, seeing as I haven’t written fiction of any sort in probably a decade. I did make one semi-spirited attempt in 2003, when I was living in Mexico and had neither television, nor Internet, nor friends to distract me from my art. Captive audience, hey? I wrote about a lonely girl obsessed with travel. Total fiction. Really. Before that, as a creative writing major in college, I took a short novel class and did manage to finish a 180-page story about a girl named Maya and her boozehound mom named Lorraine and life in the ’60s and ’70s. I called it “Moon Food.” I can no longer open either file. Sadly, those efforts occurred at the tail-end of those halcyon disc drive days, and thus, my literary efforts have long since been relegated to technical obsolescence. But, all past.

This effort will be a creative departure, which makes it fun to ponder and prepare for. I’m sort of thinking I want to try something different and bizarre. Magic realism takes a good measure of art to get done well, so maybe I’ll just settle for flat-out surrealism with a touch of Dada thrown in? Beats trying to drum up a coherent narrative thread that won’t bore me half to death before four weeks are out. I’ve always wanted to write about a character called Selius Crowe. I feel like he would wear a top hat and maybe be homeless or itinerant? I’ve gotta think on that one.

Who’s with me? In the meantime, here’s some sage advice from some very sage-like writers:

Petits Cahiers

A recent list – Erin J. Bernard

As a writer, I am forever scratching out lists.

During the past decade, I’ve become religious about carrying little miniature notebooks around with me in which to capture all my random, bizarre-ass story and essay and art project ideas. I even keep one in my nightstand for those occasions on which my dreams are so particularly strange and wonderful that I am afraid to fall back asleep and forget them forever.

There is, in fact, an entire episode of Seinfeld devoted to this bedside notebook concept, in which Jerry wakes up in the middle of the night with some hilarious comedy bit having come to him fully formed in a dream. He quickly scratches it down, and then wakes up to find that his writing is illegible, which of course sends him into paroxysms of crazy. It’s pretty hilarious. I digress …

I’ve kept a journal since I was five, but I guess I probably inherited my religious fervor for the pocket-sized notebook in particular from one Madame Henrig, an only-just-ever-so-slightly-unhinged French teacher I studied with when I lived in Paris back in 2002.

Am I lower class? Erin J. Bernard

She called them her “petits cahiers” – little exercise books – and she loved nothing better than showing her students all the weird shit she jotted down in them throughout the course of the week while waiting in line at the post office, riding the metro, sitting in her apartment, which I always imagined was filled with cats and ashtrays and empty wine bottles: Grocery lists, new vocabulary words, the run dates for art installations and shows, particularly touching song lyrics.

We rolled our eyes at her abiding Frenchness (that and the huge hunks of lipstick and toilet paper that clung inveterately to her chin and teeth), but she forced us to purchase and use our own petits cahiers, and it quickly became a prized habit for me.

By now, I’ve amassed a whole multi-colored collection of little notebooks full of the detritus of my 20s. They are studies in abject randomness – little love and hate letters to various boyfriends who would become exboyfriends, social observations, recipes, threads of  particularly interesting conversations that I hope never to forget.

(In fact, one of the best conversations I ever had, years back in a bar in Korea, is still retrievable to me at least in summary thanks to the following scratchy lines: “Mob mentality. Shame teaches. Visually distinct.”)

These are not journals, mind you. In fact, the finished products bear little resemblance to any kind of full-sized journal into which one might pour one’s most personal thoughts. They are, by nature, slipshod and messy and therefore lack the abiding self-consciousness that often creeps into journal entries. They are a record of the immediate, the pressing, the mundane.

Ideas – Erin J. Bernard

Just yesterday, I came across an essay idea I’d forced my sister to jot down for me while I was driving us around Seaside two years ago.

It said: “Soul patch: 20 year increments.”

This nonsense phrase is a reminder that I would someday like to write a piece about those strange cultural trends – such as soul patches – that enjoy brief popularity every few decades or so before being re-relegated to the Incredibly Not Cool camp. Haven’t done it yet. But someday.

It’s like words are like these magical little breadcrumbs we throw down to help us grope our way backwards in time, to help us remember who we were, and who were in the process of becoming when life intervened.

Because really, it’s so easy to go off track. It’s so easy to wake up one day and to realize – to your own private horror – that you are running away from the thing you swore you were running toward, whatever it was. I swear it happens to me like every two years, right on cue. Man.

To be sure, it’s a rather imprecise and one-dimensional method for capturing one’s experience of a dynamic reality, and like Jerry, I make myself crazy sometimes trying to figure out what in the hell I was semantically pointing to when I scribbled down certain words and phrases.

But even when they lose some of their coherence, words are unchanging. It’s only we who have changed. Words can’t lie, don’t lie, and that’s somehow comforting.

More Words – Erin J. Bernard

The other day, I was thinking about how my life might be different if I never wrote a single thing down, if I didn’t have this infinite storehouse of extentional memory, if I were illiterate. The thought was sort of hard for me to wrap my brain around, but really, it’s not too much of a leap to consider a life without the written word – the literacy rate in many parts of Africa falls below 30 percent. In the Middle East, it’s barely over 60 percent. Some people can’t even sign their own names, let alone tell their day-to-day stories.

I think if this were the case for me, I would most certainly have a different sense of myself as an evolving being, and perhaps far les insight into who I’ve been at previous moments. Anyone who has ever had the experience of reading a story or letter they wrote as a six year can likely relate. You look at the big, loopy lettering and the simplistic lines of reasoning and think, “Who is this strange little person with my nose and eyes and first name?”

I guess if I didn’t write anything down ever again, I’d probably focus on the future more and on the past less, which might well be a very good thing. But a life without written words also reads like an eternal present, and the Zen Buddhists might well smack me on the back of the head for saying so, but how dull would that be?

Creating a writing plan

We’re discussing writing plans in the creative writing class I teach, and I worked up this questionnaire to get my students thinking more carefully about just what it is they’re after as writers.

What will it take to keep you at the keys?

The Writing Plan

Whether you’re after literary fame and fortune, want to see your byline in a newspaper, or are simply hoping to establish a satisfying personal writing routine, setting down your realistic intentions on paper is key. We can take a cue from a famous business maxim:

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

Five questions to help you work out a plan:

• What are my (tangible and intangible) long-term writing goals and how do the complement/contradict each other?

• What small actions can I take on a weekly basis to help me achieve them?

• How can I measure my progress, and how often should I measure it?

• What is likely to make success difficult and how will I overcome these roadblocks?

• A year from now, what would success look like to me?


And now, to help you ponder, a few thoughts from a very wise writer:

“What separates writers from those who want to be writers? Writing.

 What encourages consistency in writing practice? A plan.

 Any writer who has stuck with writing likely has a plan. It might not be one fully formed and articulated on paper, but a plan’s a plan, no matter what form it ends up taking. When you get to the end of any structured writing experience—a class, a critique group, a weeklong conference—it is always a good idea to take a moment to think about what you will do next.

Writing is an activity that doesn’t have inherent deadlines and a focused structure, so it is your job to take the time to create a structure and set your own expectations and intentions. If you have set goals or intentions for yourself in the past, now is a good time to see how much closer you are to meeting those goals or how much you have followed through on your intentions. Finding out that you have largely forgotten about them is a great wake up call, and a nice excuse to create a better, less avoidable plan of action for the future. On the other hand, finding out that you have met some goals you made gives you an opportunity to see how you can meet even more in.”

-From “The Craft of a Plan” by Brandi Reissenweber