Taking Research on the Road

Research is necessary for the writer. We research everything from the right kind of devices for writing, publication procedures, literary agents, publishing houses, facts versus fiction, writing markets, coaches, editors, people, professions, places – the list is almost endless. Research is essential for us to find the right fit for our work, and often it can take as much time, it not more, as the time we put into the act of writing.

Today’s technology, as distracting as it may be, it a most useful tool. I spend a lot of my time travelling from one place to another – the advantage for me living in a congested city is that I rarely drive, so most of my travel is as a passenger on public transit. The time it takes travelling from one place to another is the perfect opportunity for me to log onto my smart phone and browse the internet for information on the topics I am currently researching. The worldwide web is our door to almost anything we need to study – but I there is also another way to explore our writing world, and that is to actually get out into it.

My favorite kind of research is the type that takes me out on road trips. Recently my partner and I stole a weekend and travelled out to a historical ghost town a few hours from where we live. We spent an entire day following winding roads over majestic mountain passes, invigorated by fresh air that always holds a touch of fall even in the midst of a blazing hot summer. Eventually we turn a corner and dip down into the dry desert terrain, where an unforgiving heat smolders over sagebrush and sand.

We find our tiny little ghost town exactly as we expect – silent, hot, dusty, and almost devoid of human life, but the for the pockets of houses still occupied amid the sleeping debris. I took pictures of the past, walked through deserted streets rousing my imagination to absorb the sights, smells, and sounds. I had an impression in my mind of what I was looking for – I didn’t find it. There was a moment of disappointment. I brushed it off, content to accept the day as a great outing with my partner, when suddenly, I discovered a new insight that would prove to be a most striking revelation for my current project. It was a simple observation that was overlooked in all the previous investigations and research, but it was one I would not have found had I not gone on this journey.

Travelling and exploring the world around us is both invigorating and challenging. We don’t always find what we’re looking for – our research can often lead us to dead ends, creating frustration and a feeling of having wasted precious time, but this is not always the case. There will always be those moments that offer us an opportunity to discover new components that would not have been obvious to us in any other time or place. Those are the moments we celebrate. They wipe our previous defeats, rejuvenate our passion, and validate the path we chose.

I won’t tell you what it was I discovered. It is my fervent hope that one day in the future you will have the opportunity to read about it from the book I hope to place in your hand.

Happy travels.

 

Why Everything Falls Into Place

Still Sweeping excerpt by J.G. Chayko (published 2011)

A writer friend of mine posted on his social media page: “some days I feel like everything is going wrong and some days I feel like everything falls into place.”

Most days of writing can be a struggle. It takes work to craft that perfect piece we finally deem ready for the public eye. While we all want those easy days where the right words come in the right order at exactly the right time, I realize that our successes would not be quite as sweet without the struggle. It’s because of our failures and frustrations that we achieved success in the first place. Those labours are the core to our success – they are our passions, our efforts, our desire and our inspirations. Without them, it wouldn’t feel nearly as rewarding. It’s those frustrations and setbacks that drive us to keep going. They teach us to dig deeper, push harder, take a second and even a third look and make us question if it is really our best work.

Life would not be stimulating if everything was just handed to us. We would lose our ability to imagine, we would lose the remarkable creativity that defines us. What would we learn if we never had to struggle? There’d be no impetus to do the things we love if we sat down and wrote a perfect piece every single time. What would happen to our curiosity that took us there in the first place?

That’s the roller coaster, the topsy-turvy unpredictable world of an artistic life. We will, and should, have these days – and when we achieve the triumphs we worked so hard for, we can be thankful for those times where everything seemed to be going wrong.

 

 

Working It Out

20161128_151932Contrary to popular belief, writers actually do (and must) participate in a life outside of our own secluded world – I can’t always be at my desk, but no matter where I go or what task I am currently performing, my mind is constantly in motion, spinning out chunks of dialogue, visualising settings and chasing plots. I write down as much as I can when I’m on the road, hoping I can call it up again when I’m ready to work. It doesn’t always turn out that way – sometimes I come to the desk and my muse doesn’t. Those incredible images that were filled with color two days ago are black and white; the fantastic dialogue has silenced; my characters are nowhere to be found.

This happens to all of us at one time or another. We show up for work but our muse and our literary characters have clearly made other plans. It used to be that when this happened, I walked away from the desk and went back to daily life, just hoping my muse would reappear in a glittering shower of inspiration. Nothing is more frustrating than showing up at my desk and staring at the screen for two hours, wondering if there was something else I could have been doing instead of wasting time – as it turns out, there is.

In his book “On Writing”, Stephen King states: “if you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot”. It so happened that one day I came to the desk and the words didn’t come with me, so in an effort to spark some motivation, I picked up his book, opened it to the page where this sentence was written (page 145 for your reference), and stumbled upon a new awareness: reading is not only an enjoyable pastime, but it is a big part of my work as a writer. I am learning about my craft and staying in my writing mind when I come to the desk.

Now I don’t get frustrated when the words don’t come – I use that time to read. It’s another way for me to keep coming to the desk. It’s the purest form of research. It’s enjoyable, inspiring and most important, it keeps me focussed. Reading about writing or reading about the experience of other authors, will ultimately ignite a road flare that summons my muse back to me.

 

 

 

Writing My Life

Screenshot (12)“Is there a blanket ban on writing about my life if it involves anyone else?” – Brooke Wyeth, Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz

I began writing stories in my childhood. It started with writing in my diary, then graduated to the more intricate skills of writing poetry, essays and short stories. I wrote about anything my imagination could conjure, but when I look back now, I see most of those stories and poems evolved from moments in my daily life. My characters were shaped from the people I knew. Plots and stories evolved out of the things I observed. Real life seeped into my writing whether I was aware of it or not.

My first real introduction into the surprising and complicated world of creative non-fiction was about five years ago. I published my first story about my great-grandmother’s farm and the struggle to keep it out of the hands of developers. I found it was easy to write from my memories, enjoying the challenge of painting a picture from a possibly bland topic. After I was diagnosed with RA, I created a blog that described my journey through the day-to-day management of living with chronic illness. From those stories arose the desire to expand and write more about other aspects of my life, and I discovered that it’s sometimes impossible to write my own truth without grazing the lives of others.

It’s a complicated business writing about other people. We own our stories, but we don’t own the stories of others. I have a responsibility to be as honest as I can in my work, but I need to know where to draw the line. No one else can see my truth, just I can’t see someone else’s truth. In my fiction and poetry work, I draw on my own experience and borrow behaviours and personas from the people I meet, disguising them in a hybrid of my own imagination, but in non-fiction, it can be difficult to disguise them. I know that without them, my story would be dry and colorless, so I need to tread carefully, and find a way to respect them without compromising the strength of my work.

It’s a fine line to tread and full of controversy – whether writing about our life or the lives of others, we face the possibility of encountering criticism and objections in how our version is presented. It is the risk we must take as storytellers. We can write the truth or create our own, but we must do it with responsibility and integrity.

A New Way to Write

DSC_2114 (2)Over the years I’ve used all sorts of writing tools. It began with a pen and a notebook being carried around in whatever bag I had at the time; then for a little while, I started carrying a tiny recorder so that I could record ideas as quickly as they came before losing them while looking for my pen. Then cell phone technology evolved and I was able to replace my recorder with the voice technology in my phone. All of these techniques worked well for recording my ideas and rough drafts – and then arthritis came along and attacked my hands, making handwriting a difficult task on some days, until my occupational therapist introduced me to a new method of writing – telling stories with my voice.

Voice technology has come a long way. Now we can activate programs in our computers and talk to them, watching our words pop up on the screen. I often find myself expressing random thoughts out loud and my voice technology helps me reproduce that amazing phrase right at the moment it arrives. Of course there are always challenges with writing with your voice. Technology doesn’t always recognize the words and some major editing is required after using voice technology. This can sometimes be time-consuming, and it can make you feel as if you are writing the same story all over again. I find voice technology works well for micro pieces and for collecting initial thoughts and ideas that will grow into something more. Just like with writing, voice technology takes practice – over time it will become accustomed to your voice and begin to build its vocabulary.

Right now, I’m wearing my microphone and pacing the room while talking out loud. I can capture the words right at the moment in all their original glory. Another delightful aspect of using voice technology, apart from giving my arthritic hands a break, is that I can move around while I work. Movement helps to stimulate my mind and frees me from the “sitting duck” syndrome.

Every method has its virtue and its shortcomings. I still use a variety of different techniques to tell my stories – in the end, it doesn’t matter what method you use – the only thing that matters is that the work gets done.

A Creative Mess

 

11025736_336682103191483_6577734102002945746_nI am a neat freak by nature – my home is immaculate. I dust, vacuum, and wash on a regular basis. Everything has its place and everything is in that place. Of course, there is always an exception and mine is my writing desk. On most days it looks like the aftermath of a hurricane; on really good days it resembles what my imagination perceives as the aftermath of the apocalypse.

My desk is not the only thing that exhibits the delightfully messy beast of creativity. There’s that telltale blue (sometimes black) ink smear permanently tattooed along the outer pinky of my left hand, the fuzzy smudge bearing the mark of the left-handed writer. And on days when arthritis steps in to thwart my mad scribbling across the page, I turn to my headphones and the glory of voice dictation. But don’t be fooled by this trim compact contraption – it too, bears the tangle of chaos in the messy world of writing. I must be precise and even with all its high-tech capability, it may not always understand what I mean to say. My final product with voice dictation will still be subject to rigorous editing (and sometimes translation) to return it to some semblance of my original account.

Creativity is a messy beast and we should let it wander across the boundaries of our modest decorum. Inhibited creativity will never produce the same quality, discoveries, breakthroughs or rapture during its process. We should let it upset the apple cart, frustrate us, make us dizzy – it should take our neat concept and fling it like a deck of cards around the room, forcing us to crawl through the beautiful chaos it creates. In the midst of that chaos we will find our reward, and only then can we reign in the power of its destruction and produce the brilliant entity we envisioned.

 

 

The Ebb and Flow

DSCN4318It’s natural for our writing to change. It should change. If writing remains the same, we will lose our curiosity and opportunity for growth and discovery. It’s fascinating to compare the changes in one’s writing from last week to ten years ago. I love looking back on the diaries and notebooks from my childhood when I first started writing; I even found an old manuscript on dot-matrix (some of you younger people might have to look that up). It’s stimulating to look back at my first essays, stories, and poems and marvel at how much my style and subject matter have changed over time. I can see my progression in the pages, watching age and wisdom creep into my work. By surrendering to changes over the years, I have discovered different approaches to the development of new projects that keep them fresh and exciting.

Like the ebb and flow of the ocean, writing should continually surge into new territory, carve out a new shape and then recede, allowing the writer to adjust to the flow. Even when writers have established their comfort zone, there will always be subtle shifts and we shouldn’t be afraid to explore the new direction it takes – in this way, we can keep our stories as fresh and inspiring to us as we expect them to be our readers.