Sunday, October 18, 2009

Who says my socks have to match?

I don't remember the first rule I learned. Probably to not reach out and grab something that would burn, cut, sting or otherwise endanger me. I know that, by the time I was three, I knew not to touch 'things'. I remember, probably more because my mother enjoyed telling the story than any true recollection of my own, that as a child I could be taken anywhere and I would not touch other people's things. I'm told we visited my mother's friend one day. The woman collected ceramic figures of birds. Her coffee table was covered from end to end with brightly colored glass and ceramic birds. I stood and stared in awe, my chubby hands clasped tightly behind my back. When her friend asked if she should put the birds out of my reach, my mother replied, "Oh, no. She won't touch them. She's trained not to reach for things."

Hmmm. Well, that could explain a lot—things I won't venture into here. My purpose here is to address the rules that hold us back from testing, discovery, and creativity. Just as with the rest of life, writing—so I have learned—has rules. I've never been good with rules—except that one about not reaching out and touching. And, thank God, I've matured enough to dismiss that one!

What I want to know is, who says my socks have to match? Who says I can't wear white after Labor Day? Who says I have to color inside the lines?

My first novel was written in total ignorance of rules. I knew the basic rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, and I followed those. But I was clueless about the rules I've learned since—about point of view, conflict, a sagging middle (well, I won't go into what I knew about sagging middles), and happy endings. I wrote with passion and abandon. I loved my characters and their stories. I could sit for hours at the computer setting those stories into print. It was as if I stood before that coffee table filled with bird figures and picked up each one to examine its color and texture and form.

Then I learned the rules. You have to maintain point of view. If you shift point of view, it must be a smooth transition. Your characters have to have insurmountable conflicts and find the inner strength to overcome the conflict. And you must, above all else, have a happy ending (if you write romance, that is.) There are other rules, too. Rules that, when I think about them, tether my hands behind my back—just like when I was three years old. I stand and stare in wonder at this story that is unfolding in my head, but hesitate to write it down. What if I'm not in the proper point of view? What if my characters don't have really big conflicts, but just the normal, ordinary kind most of us face from day to day?

Then my writing becomes an engineering project. Maybe I could kill someone off, someone close the protagonist. Or I could give her a potentially life threatening illness. And so it goes. I begin my search through the sock drawer to find the perfect match.

You know what? My feet will be equally warm and cozy if one sock is brown and one is black. Maybe I'll risk coloring outside the lines, writing outside the rules and, in so doing, stumble upon something uniquely my own. My own voice. My style.

Right now, I need to go and change my left sock.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

It's That Time of Year Again...

It's October...the one time of the year when I get homesick. I miss the chill in the morning air, the way you can see your breath and the cloud of steam rising from your cup of coffee as you step out onto the back porch. I miss the crunch of leaves beneath my feet and the palette of color that sweeps the hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania. I miss the smells of autumn--rich soil damp with dew, woodsmoke from a distant fire. The warning scent of the winter that is to come.

If home is truly where the heart is, then my October home is in those hills some eight hundred miles away where the Youghoigheny River winds through the Laurel Mountains, spilling over rocks worn smooth by time. I close my eyes and envision my feet carefully settling on rocks and stepping over tree roots as I climb the Buffalo Nut trail that rises above the river in Ohiopyle State Park. I feel the burn in my calves and the sting of cold air in my nostrils and throat.

Sunlight bathes the hillsides splashed with varying shades of red, orange and yellow. The river gurgles along until it reaches the waterfall where it roars and splashes, sending a mist to anoint anyone standing at the river's edge. And I stop and close my eyes to accept this baptism of nature. Looking down from a rock ledge into the roiling water, I feel my smallness, my vulnerability. One misstep, one slip...

The sun kisses my upturned face and sends warmth through to my toes. Leaves rustle, some falling, like unparachuted skydivers, to land in the water where they create a floating tapestry. Near the base of the waterfall, a kayaker paddles against the current, then turns his kayak to let the rushing waters drive him while he skillfully navigates the rapids.

I am consumed by this moment, by the contrasting chill in the air and the warmth of the sun, by the silence that lies beneath the rushing water and the rustling leaves. It is in this silence that I once again know. I know that I am not alone. I know that I have a purpose. I know that there is someone or something greater than myself orchestrating this moment. I know who I am.

As writers or artists or musicians, we have to dig deep and give ourselves over to that which is more than we sometimes feel we can bear. We do it for the sake of our art. We do it for love. Inspiration is all around, if we but shift our eyes from the computer screen and our minds from the words we labor to link together--and we just look and listen.

Take an hour. Sit outside in the stillness. Breathe in the smells, hear the sounds and the silences, listen to the earth around you preparing for the little dyings that will, in another season, produce new life. Let yourself be in the moment.

Then write!