Check out the eschorama substack newsletter for a monthly update, mostly news about recent podcasts I’ve been a part of.
I intended to post this a couple weeks ago, then life got in the way. A new short story about a boy, an imaginary friend, and a lot of other things. It’s a blend of realism and magic realism. Read “August Goodbye” at substack.com.
On keeping a writing journal
Most any book on writing, any writing class or workshop you will attend, will advise you to keep a journal for observations, inspirations, memories, dreams, fantasies, ideas, and plans. A journal is the place where creativity spawns.
When I was 11, I must have made it known to my family that I wanted to be a writer, because Christmas day 1975 I got my first writing journal. It was called The Nothing Book. A paperback of blank pages to fill. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold in hardcover and paperback. I envy the person who came up with this bestselling concept. Maybe they knew the guy who came up with The Pet Rock, which came out in 1975, too.
My entries were sporadic, embarrassing kid stuff and adolescent ramblings. Honestly, those blank pages were too blank. I didn’t know how to fill them. I wondered if I had anything to say. The act of putting something inside those pages felt too momentous and intimidating. The Nothing Book petered out by the time I got to college and lurked in a shoebox until I rediscovered it this summer. I’m writing in it again. It’s cool seeing one page end in 1983 and the next pick up in 2020.
After The Nothing Book, I moved to spiral bound notebooks, beginning with my high school senior year creative writing class notebook. They contain diary entries and reflections, draft poems, songs, stories, and essay fragments. This continued into college and beyond into adulthood. I didn’t have a method, though. The notebooks were scattershot and loosely dated. As I waddled into my middle years, the journaling spread even more chaotically across multiple paper notebooks—a disorganized amalgam of lecture notes, book notes, to-do lists, feverish rants, manifestos, ideas. Like rampant suburban development, notebook sprawl was becoming a real problem.
I thought technology would solve it. I explored the world of digital journaling, tried desktop applications and private posts on Internet blogs, which oozed into public blogs. I feel like I’ve tried and outlived most of them: blogger, Livejournal, Typepad, WordPress, Posterous, tumblr. Technology only made the sprawl worse.
If Marie Kondo were to assess my cluttered, half-assed attempts to keep journals, she would have a heart attack. What a total f*cking mess.
In May I started writing a newsletter about my creative life at substack.com. It contains essays, creative nonfiction pieces, short stories, poems, songs, reviews of books and music, podcast announcements, and talk about the craft of writing and creativity in general. I’ll use this blog to announce new issues, which come out every 7 to 10 days.
If you like what you see there, sign up to receive new issues by email. Go to eschorama.substack.com
Thanks for checking it out.
First installment of my new freeform radio podcast, featuring poems now in the public domain as of January 2019, including “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost and a set of poems by Wallace Stevens: “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”, “The Snowman”, “Sunday Morning”, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. Music featured includes “Russian Snow Camo” by Drake Stafford, “Snow Drop” by Kevin MacLeod, “Snow Ticket” by P C III, “Little Man” by Sonny and Cher, “The Sighful Branches” by Axletree, “Snowmen” by Kai Engel, “String Society” by Jim Esch, “Judgment” by Sister Mary Nelson, “Snowfall” by Steinbruchel
Russian Snow Camo by Drake Stafford is licensed under a Attribution License.
Snow Drop by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
Snowfall by Steinbruchel is licensed under a Attribution 3.0 United States License.
The Sighful Branches by Axletree is licensed under a Attribution License.
Snow Ticket by P C III is licensed under a Attribution License.
Based on a work at www.pipechoir.com
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.pipechoir.com or contact artist via email.
Snowmen by Kai Engel is licensed under a Attribution License.
You go places. You have experiences. You write. What do you make of any experience on the page? Here is a passage from Thoreau worth thinking about:
Let me suggest a theme for you: to state to yourself precisely and completely what that walk over the mountains amounted to for you,—returning to this essay again and again, until you are satisﬁed that all that was important in your experience, is in it. Give this good reason to yourself for having gone over the mountains, for mankind is ever going over a mountain. Don’t suppose that you can tell it precisely the ﬁrst dozen times you try, but at ’em again, especially when, after a suﬃcient pause, you suspect that you are touching the heart or summit of the matter, reiterate your blows there, and account for the mountain to yourself. Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short. It did not take very long to get over the mountain, you thought; but have you got over it indeed? If you have been to the top of Mount Washington, let me ask, what did you ﬁnd there? That is the way they prove witnesses, you know. Going up there and being blown on is nothing. We never do much climbing while we are there, but we eat our luncheon, etc., very much as at home. It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do?
One of the percs of being a professor are the summers “off.” I put the term in scare quotes because it isn’t entirely accurate. Yes, there’s no slogging in day after day to teach your classes and hold office hours and attend meetings; however, many professors use summer to pursue their research and scholarship. In my case, I write. All of these are kinds of work. Even the reading I do tends to feed my teaching. So we are never entirely away from the business of professoring. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a luxury, the envy of many a worker. I don’t take summers for granted. I cherish them.
Summers “off” happen in stages, I have discovered. May is when I wrap up grading, slowly decouple my mind from the semester, reflect and reassess and try to plan ahead for next year. Late May enters that “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” stage. You’re really done, the grade grubbers have faded away, and the whole summer lies before you. It’s spring and warm and flowers bloom.
June tends for me to be a heavy reading month. I sink myself into all kinds of books, for work, for pleasure, for my academic interests. I’m trying to share a few of those books with you on this blog. I also try to ressusitate my writing life. This happens slowly by degrees, generally via rewriting and revision and journaling and blogging. Gradually new work may start get get outlined and drafted.
July is midsummer. You’re still a good ways from going back to work, but you are mindful that you better start buckling down and getting some things done while you have the time. As it tends to be a steamy time of year in Pennsylvania, I will hunker down in the cool areas of the house and turn more towards writing and music. I still keep reading, but I tend to prioritize my productivity at this point.
By August, the summer is clearly on the wane, and attention inevitably turns to the coming semester: syllabi and reading ahead and class plans. But that is then, this is now. It’s July, and I’m writing, and I’m happy about that.
This July, I really want to make progress on my book projects. I have 3 or 4 novels on the stove, none of them are in good shape yet. One is already novel length, but it’s a jumble. The others are more at the idea stage. I want to work on all of them, push them forward. I’m less driven to write short stories, though I won’t rule them out. Probably what I’ll do is salvage some previously aborted drafts, see if I can shape them up. But the intense effort will be poured into the novels. Why? Time and space. In summer, I have the time and space needed to reflect and plan and draft. Today for instance, I put in a good 1 to 2 hours on a synopsis of the novel that I’m furthest along in, trying to see ahead, where the arc is going. Inevitably as I draft and shape it, the story will take on a life of its own, but whereas I used to shy away from planning and outlining, I realize that for novels especially, this is a necessary and creatively satisfying process. You use your imagination just as much at this stage as you do when you’re drafting. Over the past few years I have been experimenting with what is called the “Snowflake method” of novel development, starting with a one sentence summary and extending to a paragraph synopsis, multi-page synopsis, detailed character sketches, and using a spreadsheet to establish and track scenes. It’s a no-nonsense method, and I find that it has helped me to see the big picture before getting too lost in aimless drafting. While it is geared more for commmercial fiction (basic three act structure, plot-driven), I think the snowflake method is easily adapted to the more literary fiction I like to write. Even literary novels have characters, plots, and they need a sense of direction. The model is indeed flexible and adaptable.
So wish me luck. I had a good first day of July, and I wish all writers out there a fruitful July!