I Just Couldn’t Do It

It’s high time I got back to writing.  After five weeks on the road and a family reunion week, I have finally carved out some time to pursue my craft.  And I’m headed to my favorite and most productive writing venue, Amity Coffee.  There I can escape the distractions of home and focus on the words assembling on my computer screen amidst the buzz of conversation and the cacophony of sounds involved in preparing elaborate coffee drinks.  I am anxious to get rolling.

But it feels all wrong.  Sunshine has replaced the earlier showers.  The fresh clean outdoor air contrasts with the closed atmosphere of my beloved coffee shop.  Most of all, the lake beckons.

The shop may not be for me this morning, but I’m not about to deny myself that latte.  “To go, please,” I append my order.  My joy in walking back outside affirms my choice.

Brighton Beach rocksI find just what I’m seeking a mere mile from home.  Rocks.  The Rocks, of Brighton Beach.  Big boulders where I can nestle into a chair-like cranny.  The morning’s wind has stirred up the lake, delivering endless waves bouncing off said rocks.  The sound alone is enough to envelope me.  I feel the solitude despite others clamoring among the rocks around me.  The wind on my face is refreshing, offsetting the warmth of the sun pouring down.  I was right to come here.

Writing at Bright BeachI forgot my sunglasses.  Neglected to bring my camera.  But I remain.  I procrastinate by trying to capture the splashes with my cell phone.  Pen and paper replace my usual keyboard and screen.  And it feels good.  The tactical exercise of forming words manually is in harmony with the natural elements that surround me.

It is yet to be seen what I can accomplish on my self-assigned writing task.  But I enjoy the moment.

I will return to my coffee shop another day. Today, I just couldn’t do it.

 

A Student of Writing

Help!  Writing my way through chapters of my book, I just know there’s a lot more to this than I’m prepared to handle.  I find myself drawn to courses on improving my craft. I drool over every email offering classes with literary talent and fine institutions.  I yearn to learn.  But many come with a high price tag, and dates far in the future.  I’m anxious for more immediate tutoring.

Thanks to a posting on the Lake Superior Writers Facebook page, I found Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s class called “Making a Scene.”  It sounded wonderful – “how to set it up, how to bring out the line of action, and how to intensify the conflict along with the characters for a satisfying chapter end––all of which will keep your readers turning page after page.”  And the kicker?  Only $7 which included lunch.  Sponsored by the Crosby Library Friends Foundation it meant a 100-mile drive each way for the 3-hour workshop, but I was game.  Best of all, it was only a few weeks away.Kate teaching class

With a long history of teaching at the Loft Literary Center, Kate proved to be the seasoned professional I hoped to find.  Her knowledge was extensive, with the ability to call up examples and authors at will for illustrations and further study.  She conveyed her deep knowledge with ease and gracefully invited participation and comments from the 20 students in the library classroom.

It was all I could do to keep up with the rapid information coming my way, scribbling as fast as I could yet trying to absorb the wisdom at the same time.  Tying in a few writing exercises helped us all put it to use immediately, to reinforce her points.

Here are some nuggets from the class:

Think of CATS to remember the four basic components of a scene:

  • Characters – need multiple people interacting
    • Show how the characters are different through their actions, how they argue, things they treasure, family background
    • What attitudes do the characters bring?
  • Acting on a desire – establish what the main character wants
    • Don’t mistake motion for action.  What characters do must have consequences
    • Actions complicate the problem and must make the reader uneasy
  • Tension – a conflict or a problem
    • Set it up early, develop it, have a turning point
    • The problem must matter to the main character
  • Specific place and time
    • Where are they and why?
    • What things are in the room?  How does the lighting affect the mood?  What characters are present?

Other tidbits:

  • Think about how to make your story as tight as you can for the reader.  Don’t give them anything they will skip.
  • Be as specific as possible.  Get descriptions into your nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs.  “She slammed down her coffee.”
  • Using flashback or description – does it break up the flow?  You may need to get it in through dialog or imply what happened.
  • When ending a scene, you need to leave a character frustrated, his or her needs not met.  There needs to be something more that will pull the reader along.
  • Worry is your friend in writing.  Give readers a reason to read further.
  • Let yourself write badly.  It takes many drafts to get ready to submit to an agent or publisher.  In your first draft you are writing the story for yourself.  In the next draft, you can shape it and use the ideas you generated.  Refine it in subsequent drafts.
  • Read aloud to get the feel of your story.  It’s best to read to an audience; you can tell immediately where it needs tightening.

Making a Scene writing classKate made sure to connect with each of us personally.  She was happy to talk to me about my book, gave me some thoughts to consider before class started, and answered my more specific questions at the end.  The three hours went by quickly, and I left with new tools in my writing skills repertoire as well as renewed inspiration.

There is much to be gained from these short learning opportunities.  Each time I connect with a writer, I learn something.  I aim to take advantage of as many of these local offerings as I can.  And I can’t help but continue to dream about the in-depth classes.  I’m still very much the student.

Note: Kate St. Vincent Vogl is a fiscal year 2017 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Grant recipients are asked to use their talent to benefit the community. In this case, local writers were the lucky beneficiaries!

Tropical Writing Retreat

This is true vacation. Two weeks away from the trappings of home life, immersed in a different culture, and transported to a Costa Rican tropical climate is enough to slow down and let life just happen. Or is it?

Molly on SUP

The realities of the intense sun and heat relegate any rigorous exercise to the early hours of the morning. We're talking 5:30am, to get the maximum amount of pre-sun time. It plays perfectly into my preferred workout routine, so I happily hit the trails for a run at first light. The ocean is at its quietest in the mornings, so I plunge in for my open water swim. I may follow that with a kayaking adventure, boogie boarding or my first attempt at stand up paddleboarding. But even after all that, the clock barely registers 10:00am.

Molly with latte

I linger over breakfast then stretch out my daily latte at Pura Vida Ride with some solid reading time in one of the shaded wooden rockers overlooking the beach, basking in the rising ocean breezes. I'm doing pretty well at this relaxation thing, I think.

And then it kicks in. The need to do something. That irrepressible drive and desire to accomplish. Afternoons are best spent out of the sun, engaging in less strenuous pursuits. What could be more fitting than doing a bit of writing?

Being practical, I have carefully arranged story deadlines around this juncture. Yet here I am with time on my hands that needs filling. I soon find ways to incorporate my vacation surroundings with writing. New venues for pursuing my craft materialize. Inspiration springs forth. And the occasional iguana saunters by.

Writing on the beach
Beach view while writing
Writing with iguana

One contest entry and two magazine story submissions later I'm feeling pretty good about this writing interlude. I'm right on target with my goals to get my writing in front of new editors and contest panels each month. And I've done some tinkering on my book as well.

Who says vacation has to be all play and no work? I'm quite pleased with my tropical writing retreat.

 

Just Press Send

book-coverWorking on my book definitely has its ups and downs.  I was really on a roll for a while.  Cycling stories were accumulating quickly, and it felt like good progress.  I could whip out a vignette each time I sat down, and I thoroughly enjoyed reliving each one of those days of cycling.  But I couldn’t see where it was going.

Time out for research.  Time to do a little studying up on what makes a good memoir.  What makes a compelling read.  How others before me have done it.  Then back to writing.  Progress feels slower now, but somewhat more focused.  Or that’s what I tell myself.

There is no doubt this is a long haul project.  So I have decided on some shorter term goals.  I am aiming to submit a story to a magazine each month, preferably one of my finished chapters.  The idea is not a new concept.  Even before I started my book, I envisioned targeting new publications and pitching my work.  But I always chickened out in the face of writing that query letter.  The process was intimidating.  The odds felt daunting.  The one time I did follow through, I received a prompt rejection.  It wasn’t that failure that stopped me from trying again – the editor was kind enough to point out how I had missed the mark on the magazine’s audience.  And he was right.  He did me a favor in guiding my future submissions.  I just couldn’t get up the gumption to put in the effort again.

But today I gave it another try.  I found a cycling magazine that looked like a good fit, read dozens of stories from prior issues and cooked up two ideas that I thought would intrigue their readers.  A short email exchange with the editor was encouraging so on the strength of that I went into action.  I pulled together summaries of my proposed stories and compiled samples of photographs, maps and writing experience.

Naturally, all this took time away from actually writing my book.  I’m not sure if this was actually a diversionary tactic or productive work.  Time will tell if it is rewarding or discouraging.  Helpful or just a detour.  It’s all a big learning curve to me.  For now, I can still hope.  I just pressed Send.

 

The Year of my Book

It’s been rumbling around in my head for some time now.  Having progressed from blog to magazine stories, might the next step be to write a book?  There is no denying it is the ultimate writing accomplishment.  And I rarely begin something without going all the way.  This would be the marathon of writing.

Through the course of several memoir writing classes and workshops, I’ve pondered several topics.  It was only last fall that the idea crystallized.  And suddenly it was so obvious.  I would write about our cycling trips.  Between my blog posts, detailed journals, photographs and Rich’s trip reports I have a wealth of material.  My passion for the adventures will fill in the rest.

Feeling a bit timid about the idea, not to mention being a complete novice, I hesitated to mention it to anyone much less start the project.  So I set my sights on a writing retreat.  I would be spending Thanksgiving week with my son Carl and his wife Chelsea in Milwaukee.  With three full days to myself while they were at work, I had the perfect opportunity to dedicate myself to writing.

Sinclair Lewis tableCarl was the one who delivered the ultimate push.  He reminded me that their dining room table, which he inherited from his Grandpa Hoeg, once belonged to Sinclair Lewis.  What better place to begin my writing?  That did it.  I assembled my resources and notes online in preparation for the trip.  In the quiet household, I brewed myself a big mug of hot coffee.  I fired up my laptop and sat down at the famed table.  And began.

Molly and Rich near PerceBy the end of my three days, I had several short chapters written.  I could feel this book.  I knew my intended audience, and what I wanted to give them.  In my collection of stories, I will convey the good, the bad, the ugly and the funny about our version of cycle touring.  It should satisfy the curious.  Inform the wanna-be’s.  And entertain those with a travel bug.  For now it will be known as America at 12 Miles an Hour.

Clearly I have a long way to go.  A lot more writing to do.  A ton of learning, editing and selling. Even just admitting my goals here makes me feel vulnerable.  But if I don’t give it a try, I’ll never know if I can do it.  So far, I’m enjoying the challenge and reliving all the memories from the 10,000 miles Rich and I have toured via bicycle.

If my blog posts are sparse, now you know why.  My writing is focused elsewhere.  No matter what ultimately becomes of it, 2017 is the year of my book.

 

A Writer’s Invitation

This is not where I expected to spend the afternoon. Sitting at a rough old wooden desk, I look out the window on on a field of grasses and wildflowers, all competing for space. In a clearing is a fire ring, with tree stumps for seats. Old metal porcelain coffee pots and ceramic mugs hang on nails from a post. A garden of rusted worn-out typewriters adorns the edge of the clearing. Inside, the sun streams in across the floor, and I hear little critters somewhere within the walls. Apart from that, silence. I am in author Norbert Blei's chicken coop.

Old typewriters
The Coop

A few hours ago I'd never heard of Norbert Blei. Randomly scanning the tourist booklet in our motel room in Door County, a photo of this iconic shed caught my eye and I read its story on the adjoining page. Considered to be Door County's best known writer, Blei spent over 40 years writing in this converted chicken coop. Following his death a few years ago, his family donated the Coop to the Write On, Door County center for writers.

I believe things happen for a reason. The Coop is available for anyone to use, as long as it does not conflict with other needs. A quick phone call informs me that the current writer in residence is away for the afternoon. We just happen to be staying in Egg Harbor, only 4 miles away by bicycle. And I have no other plans. I was meant to spend some time here.

My visit is nearly derailed when I step out the door into the pouring rain. The promised afternoon storm had materialized as I was preparing to go. Unwilling to give up, I pedal through the last remnants of a shower which turns to sunshine as I cruise the tree-lined shores of the peninsula.

The Coop is bigger than I expected. Despite its worn wood floors and some wet stains on the walls, it has a modern feel with its slanted ceiling. Spartan in its furnishings, with what I assume are a sampling of Blei's knickknacks and bits of art tacked to the door and windows, it bears little resemblance to the picture of this space in his day. Surfaces piled high with books and magazines, walls cluttered with pictures, and one of the beaten up typewriters on a desk, only a small amount of space remains for Blei himself. It is clear evidence of his journalism background, in addition to being a former teacher.

Inside Coop
Coop knickknacks
Coop window
Coop door

I myself prefer the modern version of this space. I find it tranquil, and it's emptiness allows my ideas to expand. I am a novice writer, in the presence of a seasoned and prolific author. It gives me time to think about my writing. It validates my interest in writing. My need to write.

I love the idea that this is here for anyone. No credentials are needed. I didn't even have to plan my visit in advance. All I had to do was ask and come.

I must learn more about this Norbert Blei. More than the quick web search and scan of his obituary I did before coming. And I find Write On, Door County very appealing. Their support for writers of all levels is welcoming and encouraging.

Sitting in a writer's retreat is the last thing I expected to do on this bike trip. But that's the beauty of cycling. Plans are fluid and I am more open to spontaneous opportunities. Like this one. After 27 days and 1,100 miles, why not? Thank you, Mr. Blei and Write On, Door County for the invitation.

Sign on Coop

 

Staying after Class

Writing Class

Class was dismissed, time to head home. Or so I thought. It was the end of a wonderful 4-day stint in Grand Marais, rubbing elbows with real authors and nascent writers at the inaugural North Shore Readers and Writers Festival put on by the Grand Marais Art Colony. My time there was jam packed with workshops, craft seminars, entertaining speakers, readings by authors and book related special events. I left with a head full of inspiration, myriad ways to improve my writing, and great role models among both presenters and attendees to fuel my ambition.

The noonday sun shone brillliantly in the deep blue sky. I shuffled through the fall leaves while breathing in the brisk air, listening to the waves crashing against Lake Superior's shore as I walked back to the motel. After days indoors perched on chairs, listening intently, thinking and practicing writing, the outdoors felt envigorating. So when Rich proposed staying on for another day, it didn't take me long to overcome my natural inclination to stick to the original plan and agree to the extension.

Northern Lights Lake Trail

In short order we headed up the Gunflint Trail. With hunting season just opened our hiking options were limited, but Rich assured me no sane hunter (or deer) would choose the steep trail up alongside Northern Lights Lake. The trail rose steeply rewarding us with nice views of the lake through the trees. Navigating the path required careful attention to where I was going. Avoiding slippery rocks, wet mud and tree roots kept my eyes riveted on the trail. Perhaps that's what brought the forest floor into such sharp focus, with all its intricate detail. There the lichen spread its delicately patterned fronds over the green mossy ground cover. From a distance, it resembled a field of cauliflower. Up close it was like fine lace.

Lichen along the trail

Similar looking decor proved to be something else entirely…snow! Just a gentle reminder that winter is not far away.

Snow along the trail

The silence of the trail was a calming influence. With only the wind rippling through the trees as accompaniment to our falling footsteps, it made for a relaxing retreat. My only regret was that the trail wasn't longer, to prolong our foray into the woods.

With the fall days rapidly growing shorter, by mid-afternoon the shadows were lengthening and dusk was already beginning its advance. We chose to spend the remaining hours of golden sunlight at the harbor, watching the waves crash on the rocky breakwater. By then, I was grateful for bringing a warm jacket, gloves and hat. On the North Shore, one can never be over-prepared for the weather.

Grand Marais harbor

As the sun set behind the lighthouse, casting its fiery glow, I knew we'd made the right decision. It was worth staying after class.

Grand Marais sunset