My Jar of Fireflies

I wrote the essay below a couple weeks ago, when I was feeling melancholy. Nothing particularly painful caused the melancholy, it was just a mood I was nursing. That mood extended into some doubts about writing, and the feeling I’m sure many writers have, where they wonder if the words they write are better kept to themselves. Writing the essay below helped me feel better, and in line with its thesis, I wanted to share those words with you. I also want to add a P.S. to other writers reading — I hope you’ll share your words as well. Have a good Tuesday, everyone.

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My Jar of Fireflies

When I was little, one of my favorite summertime activities was catching fireflies. I was fascinated by bugs that glowed neon green as they flitted by. I had to catch them in my hands, watch their wings unfold and shine their light upon my palms.

Like many little girls, I liked collecting bugs in jars. Fireflies were no different. I’d place them in a jar with holes on top, making sure my flying lanterns could breathe. I put the jar in my room one night, hoping for a night light. This didn’t work, as the fireflies began to climb out of the holes. I took them outside before they could escape in my room. I knew a holeless lid was out of the question, as the bugs would suffocate and not light up at all.

I accepted that the best way to enjoy the fireflies was to catch them, then let them go. They glowed their brightest when they flew from tree to tree, sparkling in the blue summer nights and cutting through the fog of humidity that defined July in the southern areas I grew up in. To this day, a wide smile will cross my face when I walk home and see the familiar green glow of a firefly cross my path. It’s the first sign of summer, and the beginning of nights warm with light and conversation.

I found myself remembering the jar of fireflies as I thought about my writing. My thoughts tend to float in and out of the air, and sometimes, writing is the only way I can catch them. I write them down, place them in a paper jar, then hold that paper jar with all my might, keeping it in my room and hoping the lid will keep them safe.

I know deep down, though, that that is no destiny for ideas. In order to glow, they have to be released. I can poke holes in the lid, and the ideas can seep out in bursts — a stray quote to a friend, reading a couple pages to my husband, discussing ideas with my editor. But in order to fly to their highest peaks, they need to be released.

It’s something I try to remember as two of my pieces approach completion. It can be hard to let go of something that brings me such personal joy, especially into a world where they’ll fly free of my own hold. But removing the lid, and learning to let them go, is what will ultimately help them glow — and make me smile when I see them flying by.

5.10.17

Watching Stories

In On Writing, Stephen King recommends that aspiring writers avoid television lest they slog their creative brains with drivel. One moment I remember clearly from John Irving’s The World According to Garp was Garp walking by a living room and sighing as he saw the blue glow of television shining through people’s windows because, he presumed, it meant that people weren’t reading. These passages were written long ago, and I would be curious to see what these authors, as well as (many) others who are averse to television, think of the state of TV now.

(I do follow Stephen King on Twitter, and he seems to be less averse to the glowing blue box than before)

The way television has grown as a storytelling medium has fascinated me. I was never averse to TV, but I never considered it a superior storytelling medium. I preferred film – especially as I grew older, and became more familiar with independent and arthouse films which told excellent stories in ways I never thought possible. I shifted almost entirely to film by the time I was in college. Television just didn’t do it for me.

Then television became more cinematic. Premium cable channels started making more of their own shows, which could push the limits that the FCC and advertisers alike placed on broadcast networks. Services like Netflix pushed those limits even further, taking series that wouldn’t see the light of day on established networks and were given chances through a medium that not only wanted to show these stories, but could afford to. I’ve loved seeing the increased diversity and story themes across shows on HBO and Netflix, to the point where broadcast networks announcing pilots with more of the same (cough CBS cough) makes me wonder how far you have to bury your head in the sand before you become one with the dirt.

Reading is classified as the best way for a writer to learn their craft. I agree, but I think the current state of television is a close second. The way a series can flow now, with strong connections from one episode to the next (thanks to us being able to watch repeats, and on repeat whenever we like), and without commercial interruptions, gives them not just a cinematic feel, but the feel of a book unfolding through cinema cells (or digital pixels, with the current state of film). The writing and content is also fantastic. Yes, there are still plenty of shows that are trash, just like there are plenty of books that are trash. But it seems in the past several years that there are many more shows which defy the limits of either the medium itself (such as Game of Thrones) or the ideas of the people in charge of that medium.

I think of Master of None. My husband and I just finished the second season. That show is so good that it makes me seriously question producing more content. Why try when this exists? (I still want to produce content) It’s a show that I believe never would’ve seen the light of day if it weren’t for Netflix. It tells stories that corporate boardrooms insist we don’t want to see, and does so in ways that are almost painful in how creative they are. I especially love how cinematic it is – the homages to Italian cinema this season were an especially nice touch – and also the way the dialogue flows. The series unfolds like a book, with one-off chapters and an arching theme coexisting nicely in a tale of one man’s life among many, and the many lives that make up the stories of our world. Stories that need to be told, and need to be told well. I’m glad that television has become a medium where that story can be told well.

I could write extensively about many television shows, those shows’ respective merits, and how they inspire me as a writer. I probably will, down the road (coming soon: an ode to Mystery Science Theater 3000). Television – at least now – inspires me to not only write, but to write better. It shows me many possibilities on how a story can be told, and how it can be written. Never get comfortable. Never get stagnant. Challenge yourself, and not just to write a story, but to consider how that story can be told.

Music to Write Stories To

Like many of us, I play music when I write. I play music when I do a lot of things, and you can always count on various rock and pop songs to ring from my desk while I work (sorry, cubicle mates). If I’m not listening to music, I’m usually singing to myself. Songs help me move through the day, and many times, they help me move through a story.

I always enjoy reading what kinds of music different authors play when they write – especially when they share my preference for loud rock or metal. I think rock music is perfect for writing. It gets the adrenaline up, gives you confidence, and has lyrics that are garbled enough to blend into the background as white noise. Typing and head-banging are two motions I often do at once.

I listened to a lot of women-led rock and punk music while writing Please Give. Beth is a fan of that style, so listening to that helped me get in her head while writing in her voice; but I also listened to it because it’s driving and makes me feel motivated (I also like that style myself, though if I share music tastes with anyone in the book, it’s her love interest, who prefers heavy metal).

Other music I listened to while writing the book ranged from ’70s AM Gold to ’10s adult alternative, with a few styles in between. I usually listened to the same songs, though, as it helped the music blend into the background as I wrote. It also created a musical space that I would associate with working on, or even just thinking about, the book. This was especially helpful when I wasn’t able to write, like when I was at work. I could listen to the songs I played while writing, and keep the story fresh in my mind for when I could return to it.

The songs above are but a few of the ones I listened to while writing the book. I still listen to these songs a lot, even though I’m no longer writing it (I am making revisions, but still, not as heavy of a focus as before). I also tend to gravitate towards these styles as I write other pieces, as I associate their sound with writing. Music is a wonderful writing companion, and like stories, I’m glad I can carry it with me through my computer, my phone, or even in my own head.

Progress Report: Reading Right Along

Footloose and fancy-free …

moving

Well, maybe not entirely fancy-free. I am making edits (but only a few – I’m doing my best to leave most of the editing to Evelyn Duffy, my editor).

I’ve begun reading Please Give from beginning to end. This is the first time I’ve done this since starting the book. It’s been an interesting experience, as during the writing process, I wrote out-of-order. I read through sections when I was pressed for new content, but I still wouldn’t read in order. I’d skip around the book, usually focusing on sections devoted to characters I still needed to write about.

I wrote the book in a similar manner. Please Give is an ensemble centered around Beth, and I tended to write all the pieces where she interacted with specific characters all at once. A week spent writing chapters with her work friend. Another week on chapters with her roommate and her roommate’s girlfriend. Many more weeks spent on the pieces with her love interest. There was some overlap, but one theme in the book is Beth’s tendency to compartmentalize the people in her life – one of many inadvertently isolating behaviors on her part. I’m aware of the bit of meta irony in my own tendency to compartmentalize their sections of the story.

Still, I was careful to bring them all together as I made small revisions during the writing process and dropped each chapter into the master document. One of the more satisfying parts of the writing process was seeing that master document grow, and also getting to a place where I stopped writing the chapters separately and just started filling in that document. It was becoming a book, and now it is one – one that I’m reading. One that I wrote. It’s still a little weird thinking about it that way.

It’s weird, but it’s pleasant. I’m a little more than halfway through, and I’ve enjoyed reading it. Nothing’s made me cringe, things have flowed well, and most of my edits have been word choices or tightening up dialogue. It’s also been compulsively readable. While there’s always a bias in being able to read one’s own stuff, I don’t approach all my pieces with a desire to keep on reading and get to what happens next. I do with this one. I hope that’s an approach that’s shared.

One key difference, though, is finding out what happens next. I know what happens next, and want to keep reading to see the story get there. My editor and readers won’t know that, and I can only hope they’ll want to once they read it.

But first, I must read it – and now it’s time to get back to it.

Verse: Ocean Blue

Today is the 7th anniversary of meeting my one true love. To celebrate, we went to Miami Beach. Below is a quick poem I wrote for him. Happy Monday, everyone.

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I look across the ocean
Am blinded by the blue
I turn away, my heart grows full
Upon the sight of you. 

Hello Old Friend: Visiting Old Drafts

In the process of writing Please Give, I did a lot of revising. I once went on a revision bender where more than 50 pages were removed from my master document. All these changes were for the better, even with the pain of removing weeks of work with the simple stroke of CTRL+X.

You’ll notice, though, that the removal came via CTRL+X, and not DELETE. I have a folder of lost chapters, and 90% of my removed pieces live there. At first, it was home to original versions of chapters that went through such a significant revision, the old version barely existed. As I progressed towards a finished first draft, I began putting more items in that folder, namely snippets and passages that I wanted to remove but didn’t want to delete. I subscribe to the “Kill your darlings” mentality, but rather than kill them, I prefer to put them in cold storage, where they’ll either find a new life in another book or stay preserved in my memories to remind me of where my pieces came from.

The value of the latter is quite great, especially when one is having doubts about their pieces. On a lark, I decided to revisit the first piece of writing I did for Please Give. It wasn’t in its original form, but it was close — it was the second-oldest document to be modified in the folder, and hadn’t been touched since November. If you recall, the first scene I wrote for the novel was the first date between Beth and her love interest, as well as a moment they shared where he revealed something about his past. As originally written, this was nine pages/4500 words, and very conversational in tone. As the piece stands now, it’s been divided into two chapters, and features more dialogue and a greater expansion on characters aside from Beth — namely in the lines they get.

I read it to remind myself how far the piece had come, and also with a bit of masochistic desire. First drafts are never good, and this one was no different. There are a lot of sentences and asides that, even in first person narration, don’t belong in a book. It also shows that while I knew Beth pretty well, I didn’t know anyone else much better; as she does all the talking and the other characters only get a few lines or, in Writing Don’t 101, get their thoughts explained or assumed by Beth. How would Beth know what they’re thinking? She’s not God, nor a psychic (though writing a story about a psychic may be fun someday).

While a few pieces made me cringe, I was pretty surprised by the lack of pain upon reading it. It was actually kind of fun, and while not good, it certainly wasn’t the worst writing I’ve ever done. As desired, I also saw how far the piece had come, and gained a new sense of confidence for when I revisit the book next week and read it from beginning to end. If reading that original draft wasn’t (completely) painful, then reading the result of months of work and revisions will probably be pretty good. I hope so, anyway.

My favorite part, though, was being struck by the lines that stayed. What started as nine pages, one chapter, and mostly Beth explaining things conversationally has grown into two chapters, Beth narrating as opposed to explaining, more words from the other characters, and a better connection between the ideas in that chapter and the rest of the book (something a lot easier to do when you actually have the rest of the book written down — who knew?). The text is very different now, and little has remained of what I first wrote down in September. That makes the little that has remained all the more rewarding. I found myself smiling as I read lines that were familiar to me, especially since I knew where they ended up: in a better home, surrounded by better neighboring words.

Store your darlings. You never know when you may want to visit them again.