Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Category: writing (page 1 of 5)

My life as a writer

Writing Process Questions

I’m stealing a meme from Carolee.

What are you working on?

I’m close to publishing two short books: Highway Sky, a collection of road poems; and The Corner of Ghost & Hope, a collection of five short stories. Both have been ongoing and then back-burner projects for several years (I first put Highway Sky together in 2009) but this year I decided to commit to finishing both of them. I’m alternating between them, and they are currently in the proof stage. Once published, I plan to start working on another poetry project, not sure what, but I have some ideas I’m kicking around.

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

This is a really interesting question that I don’t know how to answer without sounding like I’m full of it. I think it’s the type of question writers and other artists probably struggle with answering about their own work. Probably why author bios are written in 3rd person. Having said that, I write about things that interest me. One of the most compelling things to me is the way we interact, live with, and understand our place in nature. I try to let my sense of awe and wonder at the mysteries of the universe come through in my writing. I don’t think any of that necessarily makes my work differ from anyone else’s; plenty do those things and do them better than me. So I have my take on things, my way of seeing the world. As does everyone else. Naturally, I’m forever grateful to those who are interested in and take time to read what I have to write.

Why do you write what you do?

It depends on what I’m writing, whether it be fiction or memoir and what form I’m working in: prose, poetry, small stones… I write to explore, entertain, meditate, pray, discover, remember, understand, honor, educate. As mentioned above, I try to write from a place of curiosity, gratitude, and wonder. I’m reminded of the Grateful Dead song “Lady with a Fan” from Terrapin Station:

The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice
his job is to shed light
and not to master

I’ve always liked those lines, the idea of shedding light and not trying to have all the answers. I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing, that urge to discover and ask rather than answer. I guess I write more what I want to understand than what I already know.

How does your writing process work?

Too many days, I’d say it doesn’t. Sometimes I start with a prompt or an image. I freewrite and then cut away from what I’ve written. Sometimes, a phrase or an idea just comes along and hits me. I wrote this in the comments on Carolee’s blog:

I don’t always know where it comes from, at least not at first. My students ask me these kinds of things all the time when they want to learn more about writing poetry, and I always feel kind of lame when the best I have to offer are answers like “I don’t know” and “It just kind of happens.” I think the best poetry or any writing comes when we’re not setting out to say something but rather to discover something.

Truth is, I really don’t know how I do it. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m the one who wrote something. Which isn’t to say it’s not a lot of work, because it is, especially at the revision stage, but those ideas, that initial surge, just happens. But it only happens when I’m open to it. I have to show up and be there ready to respond. The real work of course, comes later when I have to sit down and turn ideas, scribbles, and drafts into something worth reading.

I’ve recently written two process posts, one about reading and recording other people’s poetry and one about videomaking. So I’ll just end with a quote from the video post that also applies to writing:

[…] maybe this is the main thing I have to say about my creative process: I don’t always intend to write a poem or make a video, but then one thing leads to another: experience, image, something I read, something someone says and then the next thing I know there’s a poem or a video or something waiting to be written or made. I guess it all comes down to being open and willing. And then, as Stephen King says, showing up at the keyboard.

Kindle-izing and Republishing My Old Novel

I’ve been Kindle-izing my first book A Place Without a Postcard. I started it in 1993 on a legal pad and then began typing it into an old Brother word processor, a beast of a machine that was part typewriter, part printer. It had a small screen and a floppy drive too. It was the transition step between typewriters and computers for those of us who couldn’t afford a computer.

Eventually, I got a ’94 Mac Performa and moved the files to that where I was running Claris Works. Then in 2000, around the time I finished the first draft, we made the move to a PC and it went to Word ’95 and then Word ’98. The master file has been through a lot and so the first step in prepping it for Kindle, a device as unimaginable as the cloud when I began, was to clean the source file, which now resides in iPages on my Mac. So I’ve been making changes to the file that never mattered when it was for print only.

But that was the easy piece and was partly a dodge to avoid the real challenge: rereading my ten-year-old novel. Gulp. I don’t tend to reread my stuff once it’s out there, and I had largely forgotten much of what was between those covers, and I shuddered to imagine what horrors I had penned so long ago. Would I want to change it, make major revisions? I didn’t want to.

But I did read it, and it was fun. It was like reading a book by someone else and other than the odd missing comma or unnecessary adverb, I didn’t find that I had to fight the urge to rewrite large sections or change much of anything. There are a few things I might have done differently had I been writing it now, but I’m happy to say I still like the book, and I still really like those old characters, Paul and Sergio and the coyote Mercury for whom this blog is named. I think I told their tale well and did them justice.

The Kindle edition will be out sometime in the next month or so and I’ll also be updating the paperback to a second edition and bringing it to my own Coyote Mercury Press. I’ll keep you posted and let you know when that happens including the free day when I intend to give away the Kindle edition.

Have you ever gone back to read things you wrote and published long ago? What was that like?

NaPoWriMo Redux

For the third year in a row, I attempted the NaPoWriMo poem-a-day thing. I managed 34 poems, one each day, 22 of which were small stones and the rest longer form poems. I always have mixed feelings about this as it tends to upset my usual inclination to do some revision before posting. Not that there wasn’t revision, just very little. Still, I think I have some things to work with.

In the past, I’ve managed to write a few April poems that I wind up liking, but this year I’m not so sure. I’m just happy that I was able to write every day, something of a small accomplishment in and of itself. For a while now, the past year really, I’ve been trying to find a way back into daily writing and now that sleep and restful nights are becoming more common, I’m finding the time to get back in touch with that part of myself.

As I said a few years ago after napowrimo, the time spent not writing is just as important as the time spent writing and that hasn’t changed, but carving out a little time to write has brought a bit more balance and even clarity to my days. I am the sort of writer who writes regardless of whether or not inspiration strikes, but if I don’t write every day, I won’t be ready when it does.

I’m still trying to make sense of writing and my relationship to it. I suppose I always will, but I do know that sitting and writing something—anything—every day is critically important whether what I write is good or a rambling post like this one.

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Kudos to some of my fellow poem-a-day writers: Deb, Angie and Joseph whose poems I read and greatly enjoyed even if I didn’t comment as much as I should have.

I’m eagerly looking forward to the arrival of my copies of two new books: Ancient Lights by Dick Jones and The Most Beautiful Thing by Fiona Robyn.

My Writing Space

I’ve got a guest post up over at AGGASPLETCH. It’s part of mark Stratton’s Writing Space series in which he invites writers to write about their writing spaces. Check it out and have a look around while you’re there. In addition to his own poems, mark also posts a number of interviews with other writers. Mark is the author of Tender Mercies: Poetry.

Plunging Back into the River of Stones

I saw this video Beth Adams posted at Cassandra Pages a month or so ago and keep coming back to it as I start off on another River of Stones challenge. I began 2011 the same way and resolved to maintain the daily practice for a full year, at least. I made it to August 23 and then… school started, I ran out of ways to say the drought was slowly killing my state, it was too hot and the air too full of smoke and ash to want to go outside. Other things to do, and then, the world just went right on. It started raining (not enough, but it did) the weather cooled, I started sleeping again and then the year was at its end.

For the previous two years I’ve picked some favorite stones and made them into a chapbook to give away, but there wasn’t one for 2011. I just didn’t have time, couldn’t make the time (but mark did and he said his lovely Postmarks chap was partially inspired by my gnarled oaks) and then… I don’t know, I just wound up feeling like I’d let go of something important that I hadn’t meant to let slip and that was the practice of seeing, paying attention, and then recording my observations. I don’t know if it makes me a better writer to do this, I suppose it does, but I do think it makes me a better, or perhaps, more thoughtful person. As I’ve done before here, I paraphrase Pirsig in Motorcycle Maintenance: you are the cycle you’re working on. Writing stones isn’t about the writing, it’s about growing by connecting with a world spinning so fast as to seem out of control.

We have bags of clothes our six-month-old has outgrown. When we went to buy him some new clothes, we were shocked by how small all the three-month-old clothes were. Was he ever really that small? Where did the time go and how on earth did it disappear so quickly. It was only just July.

So, marking time, reflecting on it and slowing it and me down enough to really reside for a few moments in its stream… those are good reasons to start afresh observing and writing stones. As the video above reminds us each year is a collection of days, each kind of the same but passing quickly, sometimes too fast for the eye to take much of it beyond the larger picture. Thus the beauty, the importance, of small stones and the kind of awareness they engender when we set out to really pay attention.

Thanks, Fiona and Kaspa, for the river. I’m eager to dive back in.

I post my stones at my other blog, a gnarled oak. Please stop by and hopefully I’ll make it beyond August 23 this time out.

Resolving to Walk into Writing

Black vultures on the neighbor's roof

I want to get back to my practice of taking (at least) weekly walks down the neighborhood trail. I have missed that quiet, open time that had been such a part of ’09 and then dropped almost as soon as ’10 was in the door. I suppose that without the commitment to count birds once a week, it was too easy to find other things to do. Too easy to be too busy.

Lately I’ve been realizing what an effect this not-walking the pond trail had on me: I felt more rushed and hurried and short of time last year. Too often empty when I sat to write poetry and telling myself that I was perhaps just too busy. When I walk and watch birds, investigate trees and follow butterflies, everything else slips away. There is a sort of purposeful emptying that occurs and yet, I also feel full when I get home. Not full in the sense of having overindulged, but full in the sense of fulfillment.

I’ve come to realize that these walks along the trails, the regular path to the pond and back, the place I always veer from the path to look for certain snakes in the summertime or certain birds or a deer bone that moves from time to time across a meadow… all of this adds to a sort of ritual (dare I say prayer or communion) that I have missed this past year.

And so, having learned my lesson the hard way (is there any other?), I suspect I’ll be taking those (at-least) weekly rambles again. I started on New Year’s Day, as if to make a statement to myself and also to collect a few stones, and it was a great half-hour. So simple, a half-hour-a-week, but those half-hours accumulate like compounding interest into so much more than just thirty short minutes.

Regarding my writing, I’ve felt uninspired lately. That’s not to say I’m not writing. I am. I’m just not happy with what I’m coming up with. It feels like wheels spinning, forward motion only a dream or perhaps an illusion. I’m not a big believer in writer’s block. It seems an excuse. I mean, I can write. I do. It just hasn’t been flowing. Doors open, and I’m ambivalent at best about going through. As though I already know what’s out there, and without surprises, why not just stay home?

Perhaps getting outside on the little trails between the streets will help me find my way back to Mars—or at least the parts of Mars where the end of my novel still hides beneath billion year old sands. I know it will help uncover those things that make poems more than just words and line breaks.

Jumping into the river of stones has reminded me of the importance and, yes, pleasure of discipline in writing. Of being ready to meet the muse, if you will. That was my intent when I started a gnarled oak two years ago, but I slipped away from the discipline of doing that too and it became a too-sporadic thing. I plan to continue this daily practice when January rolls to a close. The kind of close observation and paying attention required is exactly the sort of practice I need—meditative and prayerful (there it is again) in some sense that goes far deeper than simply writing 2-3 lines of poetry or prose.

And it’s bigger than writing, of course, this walking and seeing. More important somehow than just a door to words. It’s a door to discovery and a deeper knowing of myself, the world around me and my place in it. Somehow, all these small things add up to so much more than the sum of their parts. Is it magical that so little time can be transformed into so much living? I feel like it is sometimes, I admit it, and so I resolve to perform at least a little more magic this year, careful always not to endanger anyone or turn myself into a toad.

(There are still a few gnarled oak chapbooks left. Let me know if you want one. They’re free and I’ll send them anywhere.)

Detail in the Shadows

I shot this walking back from my day in Central Park when we were in New York back in October. I was looking through the pictures with my wife the other night, skimming through them, and this one caught her eye. I’d glanced at it quickly before, but the more I looked, the more I liked it, probably because of the detail hiding in the shadows. Hidden details. We don’t always see them in our own work, do we? There’s a good reminder, I thought, of how valuable it is to have others checking out your work, seeing it differently and sometimes more clearly than we might ourselves.

Click the picture for a higher-res image.

Organizing

Lately I’ve been trying to clean house. Not the physical house where I live, but the metaphorical house of my writing. It’s easy to write a bunch of poems and not do anything with them or send them out and not keep track of where they’ve gone and so they never get submitted or posted here.

It’s harder to forget a novel I’ve written, but easy to forget where and to whom I’ve submitted queries and pages. So I’m getting organized and in the process I’m realizing I have a lot of projects hanging: three chapbook manuscripts, two novels and one short story collection finished. Various poems in need of polish, submission, posting or all of the above. One novel halfway finished. A Place Without a Postcard in need of digitizing for ebook readers. A couple of videos to make.

That’s a lot to square away and finish (starting is so much more fun than finishing) and I’m also considering doing NaNoWriMo again. The question on that one, then, is what to write next month. I’m vacillating between finishing the unfinished novel I started last November and have hardly worked on since, or starting something altogether new that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

In the meantime, while weighing this decision, I’m trying to get the non-writing portion of my writing house in order. Trying to figure out where to begin. I suddenly realize I’ve opened all these doors (or perhaps cans of worms) and now have so many open, I hardly know where to begin. This is why companies hire project managers. Or maybe why they invented Ritalin—wait, gotta go, there’s something bright and shiny outside my window.

Practice and Product: Reflecting on NaPoWriMo

Back in the days before digital photography, people sometimes asked why I write poetry (or anything else for that matter). My answer was usually something along the lines of “Because film is too expensive.” That was partially true, I suppose, and also a flippant way of not having to admit to being, you know, a poet. But nowadays pixels are cheap and still, I write.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few weeks of doing the NaPoWriMo poem-a-day-for-thirty-days thing, and that’s got me thinking about practice and product. Thinking about practices that require craft and some degree of clarity reminds me of the way Robert Pirsig describes working on his bike in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance wherein he writes that the cycle you’re working on is you.

One of the many joys of writing is the way it facilitates discovery, leading somewhere unexpected, to some insight I didn’t even realize I was looking for. In this way, writing poetry is as much and maybe more of a practice than it is a chase for a completed product. It is a way to see the world under the light of a different sun and then perhaps to understand this thing called life in new and unexpected ways.

Practice isn’t everything, though, because I’m not writing just for me. I like the connection between myself and those who read what I write, and I enjoy the creation of the thing. My about page says “I’m driven to create,” which is true, though I prefer Dale’s way of expressing it as a need to make and share beautiful things because that’s a truer way of putting it, and it encompasses the way time spent in the kitchen can satisfy that need too.

What I like about making poems—about writing, really—is that process of discovery and feeling of channeling things from somewhere else that I then share with others. When I go back and read something I’ve written that’s actually good and brings me or someone else enjoyment, my initial response is always “Wow, who wrote that?” Maybe I should ask “Where did that come from?” but either way, the answer is I don’t know, and that mystery is a reminder to remain open, which is where I fell out with NaPoWriMo: it upends the balance and turns poetry into a mad quest for product.

I have cranked out 46 poems (25 micro-poems posted at a gnarled oak and 21 longer poems posted here at Coyote Mercury) this April and I haven’t had time to process more than a few of them. I like to write, think and revise, but NaPoWriMo dispenses with the last two in its demand for numbers. So I’m glad it’s over.

For me to write anything worthwhile, I need to remain open to the world and to experience. The time spent not writing is just as important as the writing, I suppose. Still, I completed the challenge (because I’m obsessive) and now, I’m looking forward to going back to my nice slow poem-or-two-a-week pace, getting back to my balance between practice and product, and also just walking around, seeing, and trying to pay attention to the world around me, which is where it all begins.

The Decision to Self-Publish

Writing that guest post for Author! Author! on my thoughts about self-publishing got me thinking about the experience and something I didn’t address in that post: how I came to the decision to go the self-publishing route with my first novel, A Place Without a Postcard.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s how I got there.

I’ve been asked many times why I self-published Postcard back in 2003. Rejected by every agent and publisher in the land? Nope.

It had more to do with my own entrepreneurial streak and maybe some inspiration from the indie films and punk rock albums I’ve always loved. A Place Without a Postcard is about neither of those things, but its journey is related.

It started as a screenplay for an indie film I imagined I’d someday make with a bunch of friends and a stack of credit cards. I never did that, but a few years crewing films taught me my talents, temperament and passions lay with the pen. Well, okay, the word processor, but that doesn’t quite have the proper poetic ring to it, does it?

I submitted it as my writing sample to the graduate screenwriting program at The University of Texas at Austin. I got in and it even won me a James Michener Fellowship from the Texas Center for Writers.

Not bad for a quirky story that straddles the worlds of science fiction, mystery and modern myth.

In grad school, I wrote a number of scripts and work-shopped Postcard in a revisions class. Somewhere in grad school, though, A Place Without a Postcard became a story that needed to be a novel and so after I graduated, the screenplay became notes. Because the protagonist is blind through much of the story, I wrote most of it without any visual descriptions. The experience taught me a lot about how we hear and smell the world, and in the end I had a solid manuscript.

By 2002, and after many rounds of revisions, I noticed new things in the publishing world. Print on demand (POD) technology was going to change everything (and I suspect it still will change a lot by reducing the inherent risks of large print runs) by democratizing publishing. POD only required minimal resources and a firm belief in one’s vision. My friends in bands were recording their own CDs. Filmmakers were making and releasing their own films. All without anyone’s permission. Could POD be the key to allowing publishing to go DIY like music and film?

I learned about xlibris and iUniverse, the two main self-publishing POD companies at the time*, and liked what I saw. Their services weren’t bankrupt-you expensive—they were much cheaper then—because only books purchased would be printed, a fact that also appealed to the tree-hugger in me.

In December of 2002, I made my decision and decided to trust myself. In January, my book was available on the iUniverse website and within a month, it was available through Barnes & Noble online, Amazon, Book People and Powell’s (though with weirdly mis-colored  cover art on those 2 sites) as well as most other online booksellers.

Then the selling work commenced. I got interviews in a couple of local papers, a review here and there, did a radio interview, a reading and signing, and even got a small indie bookseller to stock it. I sold more copies that I expected and even made my money back, which they say is hard for a self-pubbed author to do. I met a lot of people and learned more than I could have imagined.

In all, it’s a decision I’ve been happy with.

*If I were to do it again, I’d look at createspace and lulu and the many other options out there now.

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