Posted in Writing

Ready, Set… Oooh! More Research!

My mom, who lives a couple miles from my son’s college dorm, reported this morning that he came over for dinner and laundry last night, but left after only one NCIS episode because he “had some writing he wanted to do.” I’m grinning just writing that. (Christian hasn’t spoken to me in five years, but [sorry, Kid!] he continues to be very ME.)

She noted that he does a lot of research for his fiction, which made me grin again: I spent all of yesterday surrounded by untidy piles of books and my “nerd notebooks” (indexed and topic-tagged!) of information collected for my own piece of fiction. See, Research is part of the FUN! (You did catch that part about being a nerd, right?)

For my story set on a whaler, that means unearthing my sailing manuals; whaling novels, histories, biographies, and news stories; whaling films; websites of whaling museums, historical societies, rigging diagrams, weaponry… I just sent off an email to a model-ship-builder whose website engrossed my attention for two hours last night…

some of the stuff from my (messy!) end of the couch

I know perfectly well that of all this stuff I’m soaking in, maybe only ONE detail will end up on my page.

But man, will that ever be an AWESOME Detail!

And man, do I ever enjoy a good mind-wind tangled through a themed thread of Research. I guess that’s the thing: this Quest is recreational in its own right. Even if I never wrote a word with it.

This evening’s project? FACES! I’m collecting faces. I’ve got a whole ship-crew of blank paper dolls needing features, and I’m pretty sure this is what Pinterest is FOR!

from my “faces” folder on Pinterest…
Posted in Today's File, Writing

“and stuff like that until she died.”

How’s THAT for a strong finish? Thus ended my first book.

Back when “book” meant folded sheets of gradeschool writing paper (blue dotted lines to guide the letter-heights) stapled within a construction-paper cover, illustrated ala Crayola. Come to think of it, “Annie Ant” also became my first published work—-a result of living in a town so small that its news-starved local paper printed the contest-winning, 12-sentence text of a first grader’s “novel.”

My seven-year-old self suffered from no excess of modesty—and so, as easily as that, I assumed my place as A Writer. Not even doubting my right to the title. By Third Grade my self-published works included “Other-Books-by-this-Author” pages. (Not even joking.)

Through all the permutations of things-I-want-to-be, and four decades’ worth of things-I’ve-BEEN, “Writer” remains firmly embedded in the mix.

HOWEVER. The rapid story-wind-up I quoted above does point to a detestable Deficiency in my Practice. I skimp on Editing. No, let me be even more shamefully specific: I am LAZY about Editing.

Annie Ant” shot its wad in the set-up: a girl (named for myself, naturally) found an orphaned ant and named her and carried her around and made her a house from a shoebox and then… “She went to school and stuff like that until she died.” Wait, what?! I mean… I know First Grade didn’t cover “story arc” or anything—but that there is just plain LAZY storytelling.

mug with pens
Printed & ready to Edit…

This week I set myself the task of EDITING my own unfinished novel. For reals this time. Printed pages and actual red pen and all.

Five pages in, sufficiently horrified by how MUCH red pen they required, I admitted to myself that I’ve read those same pages several dozen times without improving anything. Lazy. If I’m not willing to make the most of what I actually write, I may as well just slap a wrap-up on the back end and call it done.

(Oh, I have a good one: “And stuff like that until she died!”)

I should get back to Editing.

Posted in Today's File, Writing

White Space

Junior High Journalism class first impressed the term “White Space” on my mind.

In the context of a yearbook page, it’s just what it sounds like: the portions of page with nothing printed. But White Space took on a life of its own as we created layouts arranged around the White Space Statutes as stated by our instructor. Mr. Bromley (bless him!—the man who put Jane Austen in my hands! ) laid down Layout Law… almost all of which revolved around what one could (or couldn’t!) do with White Space.

For example. Never “trap” White Space in the interior—it always needs an “escape.” Which pretty much means you don’t want a boxed-in block of EMPTY in the middle of your page. Like what I’m doing here: THIS is what you never do. The emptiness in the middle of the page draws the eye away from the content it’s meant to be looking at.

trapped white space diagram

At the time my 14-year-old mind never pondered the prospect of being trapped BY White Space. But I am recognizing it now: White Space has never had a consideration for MY rights on a par with the efforts I have made on behalf of ITS freedom all these decades…

Nothing paralyzes my brain more quickly than a blank page.


A blank screen.


A blank whiteboard.


colored pens and pencils

Case in point: I opened the screen for this post over the weekend, and let it loom in all its BLANKNESS for two days while I tinkered with themes and photos and settings on the blog, all the while studiously ignoring this one browser tab. [Can I call it “studious” when I’m NOT attending to it?]

I’m certainly not the only writer with this particular hang-up, though I maybe carry it to extremes. As I do with most things. I think it’s why I gravitate so strongly to color. I’m no artist, but on my desk I keep mugs full of rainbowed pens, pencils, highlighters, oil pastels, brush markers, Post-its.

I paper my planners with stickers and doodles, color-code my lists, collage my office door with cards and decals, decorate my desk with washi tape, paint with stencils on my wooden furniture.

You won’t even find a white wall in my house. I have vanished every one of them, so WHITE SPACE never overshadows me.

If you think that takes a literary conceit a little far, well, I just won’t invite you to sleep in my turquoise guest room.

Truthfully, I wasn’t thinking of pages when I painted. But also truthfully: White Space traps me if I let it.

And MOST truthfully: I recognize the only true escape from the empty page… WRITING on it.

white board writer's notes
The only “White Space” left in the house: my office closet door…
Posted in Writing

The 2020 Sailor’s “Gam”

As a kid I often imagined my bedroom into a boat. I planned to sail away in solitude and self-sufficiency…

I would stockpile “important” things in my room—often things I wasn’t allowed to have in my room (food!)—in preparation for my imaginary cast-off, and I would invest quite a lot of thought into (and derive quite a lot of pleasure from) this made-up scenario of having everything I wanted within reach at once. Before the word “Prepper” was even invented, I was practicing it with my play.

Fast-forward some decades, and I get to play “Boat” for real. Setting aside for a moment the horrifying reason why FOUR BILLION people are Playing Boat, I’m kind of acting out a kid-fantasy here. And—Bonus!—the invention of the Internet in the interim makes it even easier to “nest” contentedly in my home.

I feel that same sense of harbored hideaway–though the “important” items have shifted in form.

Forty years ago I was curating a different set of belongings, a different perspective of priorities–though with some definite overlaps. Back then I gathered up my teddy bear Toots, my blanket Pinky, my Nancy Drew collection, my diary, “Mr. Sketch” scented markers, flashlight and sleeping bag, Fisher-Price medical kit, a Triple-A “triptic” flip-book of maps, the contraband snacks… The Lutheran hymnal (filched from my parents’ shelf under the misapprehension that this was the “holy-and-important” church-book)…

My Kodak Instamatic camera and our Fisher Price tape-recorder (because even though I didn’t yet know the word “journalist,” I wanted to document my expedition)…

And stationery. I intended to write home.

Why am I reminiscing about this? Because suddenly we are living in the 2020 Pandemic, and we are SUPPOSED to Play Boat, all of us. Stock up with whatever you consider “essentials” and stay self-sufficient while hunkering down at home. We “go ashore” to provision (properly masked, gloved, wiped, and sanitized) and then we stay aboard our own boats. With only our own shipmates.

Toilet-paper jokes abound: this has been THE “panic purchase.” Inexplicably.

(By the way, that plaque was in my bathroom before the Great TP Privation of 2020. Just think: we can tell our awe-struck grandkids how toilet paper used to be so expendable we’d festoon teachers’ whole yards with it!)

Fortunately, I do have TP. And coffee. And laundry soap, eggs, deodorant, coffee creamer, kitty litter, prescription meds. Mini “Cutie” oranges. We haven’t been to the grocery store for more than two weeks, so the bananas are gone. And I’m out of Diet Dr. Pepper.

But we do have a new electric teapot, and we’re trying different teas. We have two-player games. I walk, in increments of time measured by “Outlander” episodes (I promised I’d ONLY watch when I’m on the treadmill!—Yes, I bribe myself). I have a “puzzle mat” to roll up an in-progress jigsaw and preserve its pieces from our cats. I’m working my way through archives of New York Times crosswords and a cache of logic puzzles on my iPad.

And hey, Toots is still aboard!–>

And LOTS of books.

No stationery, perhaps, but still an urge to write.

I’ve been posting blurbs on FaceBook every day, jokingly labeling them as entries in a “Captain’s Log”— carrying on my game of imagining my home into a boat. (An anchored boat, to be sure; my Google Maps cheerfully reported I traveled six miles in March.) It’s a string of the little goofy observations about Isolation Life (Day Twenty-Seven, by the way)….

Like trying to swipe open my grocery list at the store but my phone’s “facial recognition” doesn’t work with the mask. Or that our 2020 Home Projects list is unexpectedly done—so now what? Or how my mom & I exchanged pics of our propped-up feet and TV screens, watching the same Netflix show “together.” Or that my daily social life consists of greeting the mailman and UPS guy through my glass door. Or which is the more important protective gear when we took the motorcycle to the store: the helmet, or the mask? Or the difficulty of conveying an emotion with the “masked” emoticon. Or What the hell DAY is it? (With the follow-up: why would it matter?)

On the high seas of the nineteenth century, a cry of “Sail ho!” on a whaleship often augured a GAM–a social ritual of pulling alongside another ship to exchange news and mail.

But what is a gam? You might wear out your index-finger running up and down the columns of dictionaries, and never find the word. Dr. Johnson never attained to that erudition; Noah Webster’s ark does not hold it. Nevertheless, this same expressive word has now for many years been in constant use among some fifteen thousand true born Yankees. Certainly, it needs a definition, and should be incorporated into the Lexicon.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

These days, of course, you can find the word in twenty seconds on Dictionary.com or practically any glossary short of UrbanDictionary’s. And if you pause there with your hand on that mouse… You are, in fact, possessed of the mechanism of the modern gam. (Possessed by it, perhaps—but that’s a whole different conversation.) That’s right, let’s hear it for Zoom gams, because my boat-ride could feel a lot more isolated than it does.

Posted in Writing

Setting Sail: the Launch of a Serial Novel

I’ve been writing “creative nonfiction” for years–-my Master’s thesis in poetry, essays (for introspection), freelance articles (for pay), and  this blog (for joy)… But I haven’t touched fiction-writing since I was a schoolkid.

Until last summer, when I did.

Not sure exactly why, but this person called Gayla wanted to go whaling, so I let her. And she turned out pretty stubbornly not to fit in to the century in which I’d placed her, so I threw in a little time travel to explain her. She’s a whaler wearing a sports bra instead of a corset—an anomaly in more ways than one.

Time & Tide by Kana Smith
She’s still growing, and I’m still writing her journey. I’ve been releasing one chapter at a time to a small circle of friends and family who have been reading along (and keeping me writing!) and I got to thinking that it’s the READERS who really make this art form work. If I’m writing in a “black hole” by myself, I’m not going to last for long–and that would be a bummer, because I’d never find out what happens with Gayla.

So I took it into my head to publish as I go, rather than waiting (for what?) to finish this whole tale. Charles Dickens published many of his works as serial stories in the newspapers of his day… I’m no Charles Dickens, but I do have this great medium we call the internet. So here we are.

And I have an idea that blogging about the book as I write it (and as readers receive it) might provide some interesting introspection into my own writing process–so I’m hoping this becomes bigger than just the book.

All that said… I’m launching this book. Before it’s anywhere close to finished. As of this writing I’m at 67,636 words–and I’m not posting all of those today. But I’ll start with Book One and a teaser to Book Two, and I’ll invite you along for the ride. Along for the read.

And none of this is set in stone (I go back to edit as I get to know Gayla and her story) so I very much welcome critique and feedback. In fact, I’m more interested in what doesn’t work than what does–because that’s what’s useful to a writer. I’d love to see my online community function like a larger version of the “workshop” classes I took for my Creative Writing degree. I’d love to grow in my craft and become a better writer. I’d love to see where this story takes me. Will you sail with me? It’s a free book… if you have patience to wait for an ending!

Time & Tide

whale tail

Posted in Writing

Playing Sims (and Questions of Free Will)

It’s a little like writing fiction, or at least that’s what I tell myself is appealing about it.  If you haven’t played with Sims (I hadn’t before this week), it’s a simulation game where you get to create and dress up little people, build and furnish their houses, send them to jobs, prompt them to interact, and so on.

Sims
At first glance it seems like a pretty limitless array of options for play, given the many different objects you can place, and the many different ways your little people can interact with those objects… But the inherent limitations to its interest have already become eminently evident.

There’s no creativity, and no content, to the actions and interactions here. I can make a Sim “read fine literature,” but there’s nothing really to be gained from it. (Why am I not picking up my own book instead?) I can make a Sim “phone a friend,” but there’s no content to the conversation. (Why am I not picking up my own phone instead?) I’ve imagined different personalities and proclivities for my various characters, but that’s only in my head. (Why am I not picking up my own piece of unfinished fiction instead?)

In short, the shine has already worn off my little game. It made me think, though, that I understand God a little better. Sometimes people ask why God gave us Free Will when he could have made the world perfect by orchestrating everything himself. Well, I can give you one good reason: it’s tiresome telling your creations to go potty or eat a sandwich so they don’t make a pee-puddle or fall over from malnourishment. It’s not interesting or fulfilling to make them do everything they do.

Okay, that’s the flippant answer, but it’s a peek at the bigger one. Writing fiction is more interesting than playing Sims, because it doesn’t have the limitations—I can create everything about the world, the relationships, the conversations. Having children is more interesting than writing fiction, because (these days) the people I’ve created say and do things without any orchestration from me, and they’re always interesting and surprising.

KermitWhen my daughter squeezes me in one of her long-lasting hugs, it’s rewarding because she did that on her own. I didn’t click a “hug button” to make her do it. Similarly, God made us to love him. Voluntarily. Without being compelled, which would make the “love” meaningless. I know I do a shoddy job of it overall, but I like to think God delights in every moment that I do turn to him (like asking for help against my alcoholism)—the same way I delight in spontaneous affection or requests from my offspring.

Well, the game—and the weird role of “playing god”—got me thinking about all that. But there’s still one more question of free will…

I’ve already determined that this game isn’t rewarding or fulfilling, and yet… I keep orchestrating my little people to meet each consecutive task and challenge presented to them. I can’t seem to put the damn thing down.

My addictive personality pops up in far more areas of life than just my alcoholism. I’m an all-or-nothing girl. This week I’m obsessively playing with my Sims. The couple weeks before that, it was “Words With Friends” (a glorified Scrabble set—though at least that has the virtue of requiring some mind-exercise). For a couple months this summer, I was obsessively working on the first 59,000 words of my nascent novel—which has since been sitting virtually untouched while my mind has skittered across other serial obsessions in the intervening months.

writer's blockThis morning my husband challenged me to find a way to get my mind back to the book—“or even a blog-post”—during this rare day-off-both-jobs. So I’m here with laptop open and coffee-cup to hand, with a DVD playing of the “writers’ commentary” on one of the Hobbit movies (I think I’ve mentioned that writer/director Peter Jackson is one of my story-telling heroes—I always feel inspired by the “how-it’s-made” extras on these movies). I Am Writing.

My phone with its insidious Sims-game is out of reach on the charger, and I am determinedly wielding my Free Will against its compulsive draw. (Let’s be honest–the reason it’s on the charger is because I was glued to it all morning.) I Am Writing.

And I’ve just opened up my computer file of “Whaler’s Wife” (working title) to see what I can make happen.

I can be stronger than my addictions (even the silly ones). I Am Writing.

Posted in Work & Job, Writing

Learning Curves

Home Depot bucketSitting in a “town hall meeting” of Home Depot employees last week, several of us broached the subject of training with our store manager, Jeremy. The Home Depot offers some incredibly structured online training modules (I’m especially grateful for the interactive “Cashier’s College” that helped me weather my first days at the register!) but several of us felt our on-the-ground training had been rather haphazard. Invited to critique our experiences as employees, we gave voice to what we saw as gaps in the training process.

Jeremy is a master at the positive spin, and he proved as much in the town hall meeting. While he acknowledged the concern and validated our experiences, he also spun our critique into a pep-talk of a learning-moment. “Well, it IS a do-it-yourself store,” he said with a laugh, after acknowledging our concerns, and sharing the challenges inherent in employee training—“and sometimes that do-it-yourself culture will apply to learning too.” He talked like a teacher, speaking of Pushed Learning (like the online modules that are “served up” to the learner) contrasted with Pulled Learning (when you seek out the new knowledge for yourself).

Essentially he was inviting us to consider whether we’re content with limiting ourselves to what gets served up on a platter, or whether we want to take charge of our own experience. I came away feeling inspired to demonstrate that I AM invested in my own learning.

image
An orange-apron learning-journey… saying goodbye to the Garden register

It was a timely pep-talk for me, because I’m embarking on a whole new learning-journey with my move from cashiering to the Service Desk. While I’m excited about the move, I’m all too aware that it’s a steep learning curve. There’s a whole new (complex) computer system and a load of new procedures and services for me to master before I’ll be effective there.

All in all, it’s the perfect time for me to feel inspired.

I applied some of the same attitude to last weekend’s three-day motorcycle class. The classroom segments were definitely “pushed learning,” but the range practice required more. No one is guaranteed a completion card just by taking the course—in fact, several students failed the skills testing—but I can happily report that my completion card will be in the mail this week, and I can officially add the motorcycle endorsement to my license when it arrives.

In order to accomplish that, I had to get past the step-by-step verbal instructions being shouted to us and feel the bike. Stopping. Swerving. Weaving. Cornering. (This is a venue where the “learning curves” are literal curves!) Continue reading “Learning Curves”