All Out Of Ink

May 7, 2011

Can You Say “Mama?” (or, The Words You Don’t Have)

Filed under: Writing Tips — Laynie @ 10:08 pm

Em is a little over a year and a half old. (Almost 20 months, for those of you who divide by 12 easily.) She has words she likes to say. She enjoys using the words she knows. I’ve caught her falling asleep at naptime singing “Juice, dog, cookie, moon, juice, Dad, cat, ball…” though it seems her favorite song is “Cookie cookie cookie….” When she wants to know what something is, she asks, “Dat?” When she wants to be picked up, she asks “Up?” And when she wants to be put down, she asks, “Up?”

So we’re still working on a few things.

I think she gets aggravated sometimes with the number of words she doesn’t know. Sometimes, she’ll pick up something she knows the word for, such as her stuffed cat, frown at it, and tentatively try a word that isn’t right. “No,” I can see her face say, “That’s not it.” And she’ll try again. And again. I can see her confusion, her frustration, as she realizes she can’t remember. That’s a frustration I wouldn’t will on anyone.

It’s also a frustration I know all too well as a writer. “There’s a word for that,” I frequently say. “There’s a better way to say this.”

I try a word, a phrase, a paragraph, a few pages… only to come back to my original problem. I just know there’s a way to say this, and it is illuding me.

The first bit of advice I have is not to get hung up on that one thing. Give it some thought, frown over it a little. And then, move on. Like they used to tell you in school, if you don’t know the answer, skip that one and come back to it later. There’s no reason to let go of everything past this snag. Make a note in the margin, leave yourself a parenthetical message in the text, draw a blank line where that bit should go, and move along. After it sits in your mind a while, the right words might come to you. If not, you can struggle over it later when the next section of your piece is not at stake.

The next suggestion I have is to try saying it the wrong way. If you know there’s a right way but you can’t remember how, then put down the wrong thing and tell yourself you’ll come back to it later. When you look at it again, you might realize the “wrong” way is closer to your original intent than you thought.

Another (rather novel) idea: Look it up. For those times when it is a single word, I have a couple of best friends. Dictionary and Thesaurus. When it’s not convenient to lug extra books (even small ones) or I’m too lazy to walk across the room for them, I pull up dictionary.com for all my spelling, definition, and thesaurical needs. (No, thesaurical is not a word. I’m taking my own advice and saying it the wrong way because I’m not sure there is a word for that.) I like that site in particular because it is easy to remember, and it has dictionary entries from several sources for each word. Plus, you can click the Thesaurus tab at the top to switch instead of having to pull up another page. I’m all for simplicity. It saves time. And as we know, when the baby wipes are being gleefully yanked out of the package one by one, every second counts.

The bottom line here is that writers have moments like Em does, where we know there’s a way to express ourselves, but it’s just out of reach. There are words we don’t have, but that doesn’t mean we will never have them. Even if we keep stumbling over the same snag over and over, we’ll eventually get it. Just like one day, Em will point to me and say “Mama,” instead of “Dat?” She knows what I am. She just doesn’t have that word yet.

May 5, 2011

The Wall

Filed under: Writer's Block,Writing Tips — Laynie @ 9:17 pm

There are many entries in the Great Phone Book of Life for The Wall.

The Wall, Hang a Picture On
The Wall, Arrange the Furniture Along
The Wall, What Color Shall We Paint
The Wall, Another Brick In

Each of those has its own listing. My number, however, has multiple entries.

The Wall, Clean the Crayon off of
The Wall, Beat My Head Against
The Wall, I Said Do Not Lick (I only wish I was kidding)
and the one that hurts the most:
The Wall, I Was Writing and I Hit

Throughout my writing life, I have hit many walls, some of them repeatedly. Usually, I experienced a period of great frustration, re-discovered my direction, and pressed forward with renewed determination (which is never as simple as that sentence makes it sound).

One day, as I was making rip-roaring progress on a book project, I ran into a very little wall. This wall was 19.75 inches tall, um, I mean 19.75 inches long. She arrived by scheduled c-section one Friday morning. When I saw her, I said, “Hello. Are you confused?” I knew how confused I felt much of the time, and I’d had 29 years to adjust to the variations of life. For her, the world was suddenly much bigger than she’d realized, and it wasn’t very comfy. Poor little thing.

I didn’t wait for her to answer. I passed out.

When I regained consciousness about a year later, I was unpacking in a new house. Boxes of notebooks, journals, legal pads, file folders, presentation portfolios, and plain old stacks of paper filled with my writing. I prepared to put them in attic storage, but my husband, Chris, stopped me. “You’re not putting that stuff in the attic.”

“I never use it. Besides, if I want it, I know where to find it.”

“But it’s your writing. You wouldn’t let me put my writing in the attic.”

“No,” I admitted. “But you actually write.”

“Why don’t you?” he asked.

Right about that time, a little blond giggle came around the corner, bumped into my leg, landed on her bum, looked up at me, and smiled. I didn’t have to say anything else.

Chris had a point, though. I couldn’t put it all away. I’d lost a lot of bits and pieces of individuality since Em was born, but I couldn’t sacrifice being a writer. It had never been just something I did. It had always been something I was whether I was actively writing or not.

It’s the same for every writer who suddenly finds herself (or himself) in charge of a small person (or persons) and filling more bottles than journals. You haven’t stopped being a writer. You’re a writer who’s doing something else right now.

Do you remember how easy it was before? How effortless it was to sit down and say what you meant, how simple it was to make the time? If you think you can remember that, you need to forget it. Creating something was never that easy, and it never will be. It is difficult. And if you think it’s harder than it used to be, remember you’re a different kind of strong than you once were. You can handle it.

You’ve experienced a period of great transition; now it’s time to reorient yourself and push forward again. I know it’s not as simple as that sentence sounds. That’s why I made this blog: for ideas that work, ideas that don’t work, frustrations, solutions, successes, non-successes, and everything in between. It’s the new entry in the Great Phone Book of Life:

The Wall, What to Do When You Hit

My book is coming along, by the way. But if I’m going to finish it this summer, I better get back to it.

More soon…

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