Great Writing Requires an Awesome Hat

Awesome Hats

This piece originally ran as part of my Sunday Brunch column in All Things Girl on 12 January 2014.

A few days ago, I made a post on Facebook about how while most of the country had been in the throes of a polar vortex which made temperatures plunge into the sub-zero ranges, I had been in the throes of a writing vortex. I gave the credit for my recent habit of writing in excess of 5,000 words a day to a green hat my friend Jeremy made for me several years ago.

It’s true that this particular hat has been my headgear of choice this winter, but it’s not the first “writing hat” I’ve ever had. It’s also true that was not my first-ever writing vortex, but it’s the longest, most productive such period I’ve had in probably a decade, and that includes at least four successful completions of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

For me, both the hats and the vortices began with Jo March, my favorite character from Little Women, which I read for the first time when I was six. At first my mother read the chapters aloud to me at bedtime, but eventually I grew impatient to know what came next, and I improved my reading ability so I could find out. That was the last book we read together in that way; now we just trade books back and forth.

In any case, the image of Jo with her special writing clothes on, scribbling away in her attic atelier, is one that instantly entranced me, and I’ve been using my own form of writerly cos-play to keep the muse active ever since. Sometimes that includes whole outfits; but mostly it involves hats.

My first writing hat was a black velvet beret, big enough for me to tuck all my hair into (at a time when I had long hair, even) and adorned by a red bow. At least, it had a red bow until the bow fell off, and after that I decorated it with a succession of funky pins – gold stars, silver fairies, a bar pin featuring a jazz trio – things of that ilk. I wore that hat forever, and not just to write. It was a trusty friend through my high school and college years, until I finally killed it by accidentally melting it to death with a curling iron.

In retrospect, the curling iron vandalism might have been a sort of homage to Jo March as well, albeit an unintentional one.

My second writing hat was also black and velvet, but this time it was a baseball cap. I love baseball caps because when my hair is long enough for a pony-tail, I can stick it through the gap above the adjustment tab. This one was pretty plain, but I jazzed it up with a giant dragon-fly pin. Once, I wore it to work (it was a hat-friendly workplace) and my supervisor looked at it and said, “That dragon-fly is scary. And awesome. Carry on.”

I still have that hat, but I don’t really wear it to write any more, mostly because my hair is too short for a pony-tail, but partly because that dragon-fly pin is really heavy.

When I was performing with the Dallas ComedySportz troupe several years ago, I shifted my usual headgear from hats to bandannas – do-rags in the current parlance – collecting them in a wide variety of colors and styles. My favorites include a black one with lavender and green dragon-flies, and a white one with black and gold paisley patterns. I like these “kerchiefs,” as my grandmother would have called them, because they keep my hair out of my face without hurting my scalp (like a too-tight or too-heavy pony-tail can) or being too hot or heavy. I also like them because they make pirate fantasies much more accessible, but that’s another story.

So, why am I now wearing a green hat that can be a watch cap or a beret? Well, first, my friend made it for me, and I miss his daily presence in my life, so this hat is a connection to another very cool, creative person. The other reason is that, until yesterday, it’s been legitimately cold here in Texas (and not just in a cold-for-Texas kind of way – it was 23 degrees earlier this week.), and when you keep your head warm, you retain your body heat. It’s never been a secret that I like to have cool air when I sleep, but when I’m awake and writing, I prefer to be comfortably warm, and the hat has helped keep me that way.

Unlike Jo March in her garret, I don’t use the position of my hat to signal the state of my muse or telegraph my mood, but the presence (or absence) of some kind of headgear absolutely alerts my husband to whether or not my “genius is burning.”

Can great writing be accomplished without an awesome hat? Of course.

But wearing a hat, and channeling a favorite character (even if it’s a character of your own creation) makes writing – great or not – a lot more fun.

“Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex” as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace. Her “scribbling suit” consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally, to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?” They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on; in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew; and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew; and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did any one dare address Jo.”

~ Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Fear

Vintage Typewriter

Vintage Typewriter | Credit: MorgueFile.com | Click to embiggen

I’m working on a piece of writing – it’s only fanfic, but I have readers who are demanding new chapters, and it’s good for playing with structure and dialogue – that is going to a very dark place.

I realized I’m afraid of it on two levels.

I’m afraid of letting my brain dwell in that darkness for the time it will take to finish the piece.

I’m also afraid I’m not skilled enough to pull off what I keep envisioning.
I only know I have to try.

Writing is so much harder than improv.

I remember when the opposite was true.

Practice (2015 Lent: Day 1)

Cello Practice

My first online presence was my own website, way back in the ’90’s hosted by SDinternet.

My first online writing, however, was at OpenDiary (which is now closed). It predates LiveJournal, and while I played in LJ’s sandbox for a while, I prefer my own space, the ability to write short pieces or long pieces as the mood strikes, and the lack of high-schoolish drama.

For the longest time, everything I posted was essay-length, and now I’m much more likely to do short bits. For the first several years, I posted daily. Now, while I still write daily, it’s usually not stuff I post, but sections of longer pieces I’m working on offline.

I go months without posting here, often without realizing just how long it has been.

A few days ago, I found a site with a suggested list of 47 words (47 because they included Sundays and didn’t end on Maundy Thursday) to be used as inspiration for a Lent project. It asked for people to share pictures that embody the daily word, but I prefer words to photographs most of the time, and as I don’t really belong to the church that suggested the project, I feel funny about participating directly.

Still, I seem to like having some degree of external accountability, even if it’s only committing to a project only I know about.

Today’s word is “practice.”

When I was doing music every day, I didn’t like practicing very much, just like I never liked doing homework, but at least now I recognize the value in the former. (I still don’t see the point of homework.)

This blog, however, was created, in part, to be my writing practice. As I’ve explained more than once, I don’t keep paper journals. I don’t see the point in writing things no one will read. (I do have stacks of notebooks, but they’re filled with fragments of stories, and will eventually get used.)

I’m not promising to be a slave to this Lenten project, but I don’t think it would hurt me to return to a practice of daily blogging.

Maybe it will even help me – I’m between projects, and am always happier and more productive when I have lots of different things going on.

Photo Credit: alenavlad @ 123RF.com

Getting Ready

Writey and Typey and Reclaimy

It’s Friday night, twelve days into December, and my tree is barely decorated (well, it’s about half decorated). Fuzzy has been away most of the week, and without his quiet presence in the house, I just don’t feel motivated to decorate, which is ironic, really, because he doesn’t particularly care if the house is dressed appropriately for the season or not. I mean, he likes the finished product, but he hates the process.

I think I’m finally over the stupid cold/sinus thing that’s been sapping my energy and destroying my mood, but the weather’s due to change again in a day or so, so who knows? In any case, I’ve had a decently productive day, even though I still haven’t finished the chapter I meant to write this week.

On the other hand, I read three books and reviewed three books, and am now reading a lovely book of essays that my friend Becca wrote. I’ve been reading her blog practically since she started it, of course, but reading it all on bound, printed pages is a vastly different experience. It’s self-published, but that doesn’t matter a whit, because she DID IT. She completed it. And you should all read it, because it’s funny and gentle and kind and self-deprecating and insightful and incredibly articulate, just as Becca is herself.

(I was not paid to write all that. I even BOUGHT my copy of her book, and then got all misty when I read the way she inscribed it.)

I am a bit over five years younger, now, than she was when she began this collection of essays on her blog, and I feel like I haven’t accomplished enough, and I’m pretty certain that’s ALSO sapping my Christmas Spirit.

But something wonderful has been happening as I’ve been reading my friend’s published words. I’ve been feeling, to use my own word, really writey. In fact, instead of reading her book straight through, the way I typically read EVERYTHING, I’m having to stop, and walk away and dash out notes or phrases or write a paragraph…

And that’s kind of cool.

I still feel like the Christmas feeling is hovering just outside my perception, waiting for me to be ready, but at least now I have faith that I will actually be ready fairly soon.

Ditto my own writing…two separate projects that have eluded completion.

And I guess, that’s appropriate for the season. After all, advent is a time of preparation, whether you mean it religiously or not. It’s waiting. It’s watching. It’s planning and yearning and getting ready.

Soon.

I’ll be ready, soon.

Sunday Brunch: School Figures

natural_skates

It’s my turn for Sunday Brunch again over at All Things Girl.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve been thinking, lately, about how I used to be a daily blogger, and now my blog is nearly an afterthought. I still write every day, but it’s typically writing for a specific purpose, not just chatty musing. I don’t keep a journal, partly because I don’t understand the point in writing things no one will ever read, and partly because without an audience to keep me accountable, I find other things that pull my focus.

But daily blogging, in many ways, was my version of skating school figures. They’re not particularly pretty to the uninformed, but they teach discipline, help you hone technique, give you stamina…and sometimes you do something when practicing a basic figure that informs or inspires a larger piece – leads you to your long program.

You can read the rest of this post HERE.

Image Copyright: vkovalcik / 123RF Stock Photo

Music for a Rainy Day: Interwar Duets

Cello, Leaning I’m not sure when I found the Interwar Duets, a collection of music for cello and violin from the period between World Wars I & II, but they’ve become a sort of favorite of mine since sometime last fall.

It began, I think, with a search for something two characters could be playing in a fiction piece I was working on then (and have laid aside, but will go back to soon). I wanted something interesting, something with a story, but something the average listener would probably not be familiar with.

It’s hard for me to listen to anything with lyrics when I’m writing, because I get distracted by the desire – no, the NEED – to either sing along, or get up and dance, or both. The thing is, I’m not good with quiet either, and my writing studio doesn’t have a television any more.

Whatever the reason, these duets have become ingrained in my being, and I find them particularly haunting in dismal, gray weather like today’s, probably because they were inspired by a rather dismal, gray, state of being in Europe.

Never heard them? Here’s a RHAPSODY LINK.

Image credit: demian1975 / 123RF Stock Photo

This Is the New Year

2014

Happy 2014.

I woke this morning to the crying of a puppy who was in dire need of marking the New Year’s start by, well, marking, but once I left our bedroom I was greeted by the first rays of true dawn, and the intoxicating smell of nearly-cooked brisket (We marinated it in espresso and JD BBQ sauce, and it’s been in the oven at 225 since midnight (The coffee helps tenderize and provides a smokey undertone.).).

I spent yesterday feeling overwhelmed by having so much to do and learned several small lessons, the most important being that even when the Parking Goddess smiles upon you it is far wiser to avoid CostCo on New Year’s Eve.

Between cooking and chatting and shopping and wrangling dogs I wrote 5,000 words of a story. It’s just fanfic, but it made me happy to write it, and it was posted just after midnight, and I consider the fact that I greeted the new year at my keyboard in a happy, writing groove to be an incredibly auspicious sign.

Well, I would if I believed in signs.

Today, in just a few hours, we’re having friends come over to celebrate with us by sharing food and laughter. And possibly the champagne we never bothered to open last night, because by the time midnight rolled around we were exhausted, and couldn’t see the point in opening bubbly for three adults when one of them doesn’t even drink.

Instead, we toasted the arrival of 2014 with glasses of Mexican Coca-cola, and went to bed with smiles on our faces.

The puppy and the chihuahua have now finished outside, and the big dogs are having their morning romp. I’m going to go take a shower before I feed them.

Happy New Year.

Have a song to get you into the spirit of things, it’s a recent favorite of mine: “This Is the New Year” by Ian Axel:

Image Credit: Yulia Glam

Dear Santa…

Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

It’s that time of year again – the time that I write you a letter. I’ve been doing this for as long as I could read and write…do you remember?

When I was little, my mother served as your elf, writing my name in glitter on packages signed from you, and once, even leaving a trail of red construction paper footprints leading from my bedroom to the back of the couch, where the stockings were hung (we didn’t have a fireplace).

It’s because of her that I’ve managed to retain the ability to suspend belief, to find the bubble of magical delight that exists deep inside all of us, and to send it forth, sharing it with the world through words – essays and stories and songs – and yet, I never write these letters to my mother, Santa. I write them to you.

I don’t have a long list of “I wants” this year, Santa. Oh, there are tons of things I’d like to have – like the hoodie designed to look like a Star Trek: The Next Generation uniform, and this set of mugs I really like, but those aren’t things I need.

Other people, though, have real needs, so if you could transfer whatever allotment of North Polar magic I’m due to them, I’d really appreciate it. I even have some ideas:

I’m fostering two pit bull mixes right now, Santa. Madison is a two-year-old spayed female, and she’s as sweet as can be, though she prefers to not be around other female dogs, or any cats. Marco is a male puppy, who was born in a shelter and lived his whole life there, until he came to stay with me a week or so ago. I’d love for them to find forever homes with people who will love them as much as I do, but they’re safe for now.

More than that, I’d like for there to never be an unwanted puppy or kitten in the world. I’d like breeding mills and fighting rings to become things of the past. I’d like it if senior pets were either taken care of until they died naturally, or eased out of the world in the arms of the people who loved them.

I had a whole page and a half of other things to discuss, Santa, but I deleted it because I realized I was using my letter to you as a soapbox, and that wasn’t my intent.

And really, everything I wanted to talk about, even the animal issues I’ve already discussed, boils down to one thing:

COMPASSION

Compassion for each other, compassion for ourselves, compassion for the animals in our care, and those who exist in the wild, and compassion for this planet we call home.

We’re not, as a race, being very good stewards of the Earth or of each other. We’ve become cold and callous, embracing a “me first” attitude that is more than a little unpleasant.

It will be the end of us, Santa.

Already, friends and family members cease communications because they disagree with something they see in social media.
Our government representatives don’t cooperate with each other, and are smug about their non-cooperation.

It’s really sad.

And really scary.

So, Santa, please, bring us all a box of compassion this year. You can make my parcel a bit smaller than some, maybe a tiny bit larger than others, and I promise to share it, because the whole point of compassion, is that you do extend it to others.

I know in the past I’ve asked you for other intangible gifts. Love, generosity, patience – those are all things we still need in massive amounts.

But they come within the guise of compassion.

So, thanks, Santa, for listening, and considering my request this year. I wanted you to know that I’m completely over the whole wanting-a-pony thing. I mean, I have two huge dogs who are roughly the size of ponies already, and it costs a small fortune to feed and vet them. (Not that I would trade them for anything.)

But, if there’s a little extra Christmas magic, maybe whisper in the ear of my muse? My writing has been kind of hit-or-miss this year, and I could use some extra help.

Okay, extra help and the Star Trek: The Next Generation hoodie. In command red. Because even though Data was my favorite character, ops yellow makes me look sallow.

Image Credit: The Messy Desk of Santa Claus

Dog Days of Podcasting: The Swimming Lesson

Dog Days of Podcasting

It’s almost midnight, and I had no plans for anything specific to post today, but then I wrote this right before friends came for dinner.

Here’s an excerpt of The Swimming Lesson:

“Don’t let go, Dad!” The boy shrieks as his father tugs him further away from the steps.

“I’ve got you,” the man assures. “Kick your feet. I promise I won’t let go.”

The boy kicks furiously, sending frothy water in every direction, while his father holds his hands, and walks backwards in circles, providing momentum and balance for his child.

You can hear me read it at SoundCloud, or play it via the applet below:

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/104905604″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Lazy Leo Gets Wake-Up Call

Leo I’m not a hard-core believer in horoscopes, because, just as with most forms of prophecy and divination, we use our imaginations to make the predictions self-fulfilling. Mostly, I read them for entertainment.

Once in a while, though, a horoscope will be more than just a neat read. It will be a nudge from the universe, an echo of the smaller, less insistent voice of my own sub-conscious mind.

Today’s LEO advice from one of my favorite syndicated astrologers, Rob Brezny, is one of those cosmic nudges. For the week beginning tomorrow, he writes:

Renowned 20th-century theologian Karl Barth worked on his book Church Dogmatics for 36 years. It was more than 9,000 pages long and contained over six million words. And yet it was incomplete. He had more to say, and wanted to keep going. What’s your biggest undone project, Leo? The coming months will be a good time to concentrate on bringing it to a climax. Ideally, you will do so with a flourish, embracing the challenge of creating an artful ending with the same liveliness you had at the beginning of the process. But even if you have to culminate your work in a plodding, prosaic way, do it! Your next big project will be revealed within weeks after you’ve tied up the last loose end.

I spent a lovely ten days in Mexico, and have been pretty much avoiding the computer since I came home. But my brain and Brezsny’s can’t BOTH be wrong.

In the words of my favorite fictional American president, Jed Bartlet, “Break’s over.”

Time to get to work.