Undertake the Crazy

Writers get to create every detail in a story. It’s a big responsibility, and, truth be told, a lot of fun. Characters, families, histories, motives–whole worlds get created and it’s all up to the writer. (For the most part, anyway. Well-drawn characters typically begin to tell their own stories.) But this work makes you look at the world and always think that you can effect a change.

I’ve been noticing lately that many of us are asking questions deep inside ourselves. We wonder if we’re doing the right things, making the right choices, living in the right place, working at the right job… And I think: We can’t possibly be right all the time. Typically it’s doing the wrong thing that helps us learn faster and better, anyhow. So, as much as our insides are begging, “Right? Right? Right?” I’ve also been noticing that if we quiet that anxious voice and listen, the answers are coming. We’ve indeed been receiving answers all along.

Things don’t always go our way in life, and yes, there’s plenty of negativity to go around. But with a slight shift in focus, sometimes life is just downright magical. The shift can be as simple as this: If you look for the good, you typically get good. If you look for something to laugh about, it could very well show up.

Undertake the CrazyThe thing to do–and I can’t believe that I’m saying this–is to look at the world like a writer. Start by dreaming up and creating your own life, listening to that inner voice, the instinct that tells you which way to go. Populate it with the characters you want, with the job you want, the story you want to live. Create your world much the way writers create the ones for the storybooks. And then dare to undertake the crazy, the lofty, the grandest thing you can imagine, the thing you believe is hovering just beyond where you think you can go.

Go ahead, reach for it. It’s your world, after all.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

Distilling Complicated

Distilling ComplicatedHumans are complex individuals, intricately woven together, and even our day-to-day decisions are often layered. In most situations, there’s what we thought, what we said, what we did, and who dealt with the effects of it all. Still, whenever I hear, “It’s complicated,” I roll my eyes and think, “Oh, here we go.”

I think this because more often than not, the complicated part is not what was said or done or the effect of such things. Instead, the complicated part is that we don’t acknowledge how we feel in the first place.

A life in writing means that the writer examines his or her heart constantly. We look for where it all boils down and seek out the crux of the matter. Under all the layers, usually one emotion is hiding deep within. Typically, it’s not even a difficult or painful emotion, but simply because it’s been hidden it causes turmoil, spoiling the writing and frustrating every stroke of the pen. Yes, this is where the dreaded Writer’s Block sets in.

The moment you shine the light on what’s hidden, though, those fibers deep within loosen their grip. The logjam breaks and the words flow smoothly again.

In creating stories, writers weave convoluted plotlines. Yet when talking with non-writers about matters of the heart, writers don’t see complications. We see motives, hidden and open, and we see them not with judgment but with their potential to make a great story.

Writers can be wonderfully analytical and can handle convolutions with grace, charm, and sometimes with plot graphs. Most of the time, when non-writers label a situation as “complicated,” they’re applying a death sentence to open communication–or to open storytelling in the writer mind.

Writers seek to unearth the heart of the matter in all things, because that’s the thread holding it all together. The rest is just subplot and details. We bravely jump down the rabbit hole, perhaps because we think we can write our way out of anything.

Or maybe, it’s that we think we can write our way in.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

The Tossing of Powerful Words

The Tossing of Powerful WordsEveryone has their pet peeves, and writers are certainly no exception. We get grumpy about poor word choice, shortcuts in spelling, and especially about grammar mishaps. We put so much time and attention into these things that we forget that others don’t. But with all these gorgeous words around us, why choose to say something that’s been so over-used that it ceases to mean anything at all?

Case in point, my pet peeve: Love to death, as in, “My best friend Sally? Oh, I just love her to death…”

Yes, I get that you love Sally, and yes, I get that you’re not trying to be literal. But then, why say it? You just wasted an opportunity to say something real by grasping at a melodramatic phrase instead. If it came down to it, in the truest setting, would you lay down your life for hers?

If you have to think twice about that, then stop saying it. Let’s get rid of the dramatic death love, and just love. Words have power, and tossing them around like a salad dilutes their meaning. If, on the other hand, you’d trade your life for Sally’s in a heartbeat, then by all means, say it. And say it like you mean it so that anyone listening feels it.

Another concept that’s quickly losing its meaning is gratitude. True, undiluted gratitude, it seems, needs to follow a pattern:

  1. Feel grateful for something
  2. Realize that what you’re feeling is gratitude
  3. Full of feeling, say, “Thank you”

I think these steps get skipped a bit. Most times it’s just a quick “thanks” that we toss around to one another, which is certainly better than nothing. But the other steps are so very important: feeling gratitude and realizing that you feel it. I’m convinced that the immersion into this feeling is what opens the door for more good to come. And if there’s no feeling behind it, “thanks” becomes just another word. Don’t let that happen to thanks. Put the emotion back into it. Open the floodgate.

On this eve of Thanksgiving, put your heart back into what you say, and reclaim the strength of your words.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

The Case for Wisening

The Case for WiseningOn our way for sushi today, my friend tells me today, “Sometimes being cynical is a good thing.”

“I don’t think being cynical is good,” I say.

“Yes, it can be a good thing, Brown. Not always, but it can be good. It can save you. Well, not save your life, but…”

“Save heartache?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says. “Say you hear someone likes you, and you’re cynical about it and choose not to pursue it, and then you find out that that person was never into you in the first place. See? Being cynical just saved you.”

And in an instant, I think: Saved you from what? From taking a chance? From being embarrassed? From feeling exposed?

And I wonder, less in words and more in pictures and feelings: Is this the way people think? Is this how I would think if I didn’t write and take that exposed chance every day? Artists aren’t out there trying to suffer to create art, but they aren’t protecting themselves from life, either. You have to put your heart out there, and sometimes it gets stomped on, and that’s okay because you pick up the pieces differently each time and you grow in vast new directions and look at the world through ever clearing and ever wisening eyes. And even though wisening isn’t a word, it should be because wisdom is a process, and one you can only walk, putting one foot in front of the other deliberately, not with rushing force, and certainly not by standing still grasping at cynicism as life moves along without you.

The light changes to green, and I come out of my wisening mental argument, and we proceed on our way to sushi.

“The saying is ‘live and learn,’” I say. “The ‘live’ part comes first for a reason.”

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

The Clear Choice

The Clear Choice

Emily Hanlon’s Writing Retreat 1999

As promised in yesterday’s post, Not Set in Stone, here is the story told to me by artist Aleksandra Kasuba.

I met Aleksandra years ago at Emily Hanlon’s Writing Retreat, where we instantly liked one another’s writing and became fast friends. Years before this, as Aleksandra told the story, she had been one of five finalists to design the plaza for the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. Aleksandra was the only woman competing, at the time, for an honor typically given to a man. She knew this. She also knew what she could do.

She built a model of the Old Post Office, but she did not design a plaza. She designed three. And when it was her turn to present her design to the panel of judges, she began with the model, surrounded by her first design. She pointed out the features of the design. The panel was impressed. Then she pointed out the features of the Old Post Office and showed the judges why that first design didn’t work. Then she did the same with the second, first selling it and then picking it apart and in effect, teaching the judges to look through the eyes of a mosaic artist. Finally, she presented her third and best design, and this time, the judging panel led the discussion as to why this design was far superior, point by point, and why it was the clear choice.

Aleksandra was chosen to build her plaza, some 7,000 square feet along Pennsylvania Avenue.

I think of this story often, and especially when I need to figure out a way to do something. Getting back to yesterday and the whole reason for telling you this story, one can easily look at the layers of analysis that go into writing a story and the snowball effect of changing one detail early on and wonder, Why not just write it right the first time?

Well, quite frankly, because stories can be like puzzles, and you learn so much more from putting puzzles together different ways (and even from taking them apart and starting again) than you do by laying them out perfectly and moving on. When everything can be used as a learning experience, you can take chances, make bold moves, and be fearless in your work. Aleksandra taught me that.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

All That Paper and Ink

All that paper and inkThis morning, I heard a story on talk radio about two young women in Pennsylvania who wanted a community market in their town so they could get good groceries, fresh produce from local farms, options for gluten-free diets, etc. Their neighbors shopped at the local gas station. And though gas stations have come a long way in their options, the kids in their neighborhood rarely ate fresh fruit and veggies, opting instead for items that used to be vegetables at some processing point. So, these women took it upon themselves to open a community market. As I listened to this story, I daydreamed about opening a bookstore, for many similar reasons as the market ladies.

For one, people need bookstores. They need a literary place to hang out—not just an empty room with a stage and a dank smell of yesterday’s spilled alcohol as they make their slam poetry dreams happen, they need a real store, with real, hand-held books, and shelf upon shelf of books that remind us that it can be done.

For another, we need rooms of ideas collected from diverse people who came up with them and believed in them enough to write them down and had agents and publishers also believe in those words enough to make them into books. Big books, small books, books with pictures, books with thick pages and large words, books with cool, smooth pages and small print, and that enchanting scent of all that paper and ink!

On Friday, I walked from shelf to shelf, opening books and breathing them in. No one stopped me. No one snickered that I must be a weirdo for doing it. No, book people get it, and they’re the ones enjoying their neighborhood bookstore, a store to which—and this brings me back to the community market girls–I had to drive a half hour just to reach. A half hour is too far for the nearest bookstore location. I’m surprised the kids in my town aren’t walking around saying, “What’s a book? What good is a book?”

My bookstore daydream continues. Yes, we can live without fresh food and without paper-and-ink books, but when you bite into a carrot and discover its sugary sweetness and when you open your own book to reveal a whole world within, ready to explore, your senses are opened to the difference. And you just can’t go back.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing. For more bookstore love, see the post Bookstore Camping.

Ten Pitfalls of the Writer Brain

Writer Brain PitfallsThe Writer Brain never truly shuts off. Its constant analytics allow for great story-making, but also tend to run against the grain if left unsupervised for too long. Below are some interesting (and unfortunate) ways the Writer Brain trips up in polite society:

1. Writers talk about murder [of characters] openly on public transit.

2. Telling a writer an interesting factoid will get you the response, “I just blogged that the other day…”

3. Writers correct their friends’ Facebook posts. They don’t bother to privately message in case others have had the same grammar issue.

4. Writers can wait at a stoplight and realize they’re getting road rage, not from traffic, but from the misspelled bumper sticker on the car in front of them.

5. Writers can sit in church, listening to the sermon, and think, “I’d re-word that last line a bit for better effect. You’re gonna lose this audience.”

6. Writers carry a pen so they can take notes, of course, but mostly so that they have the ability to correct signage and textbooks because really, these days they can take notes on their phone, tablet, laptop, and digital recorder that they almost always carry everywhere.

7. Writers stop someone in the middle of a story about their day to point out the proper/improper grammar usage just exhibited, accompanied by a “Don’t worry; it’s an obscure rule,” or a “Good job!” depending on what was just said.

8. Asking a writer a question will get you a sigh, a headshake, and a, “You didn’t read my blog today or you’d know this,” answer.

9. Writers hear improper grammar on a commercial, roll their eyes and say, “See? Everyone needs an editor,” even if no one’s around to hear it.

10. Writers can walk across campus after someone they really liked just admitted to having a girlfriend/boyfriend, and as soon as the Writer Brain realizes how low it feels, it thinks, “Ooh, how do I write this?” and suddenly the disappointment has become an experiment in literature, causing the writer to feel great about feeling bad.

True stuff.

Or so I’ve heard.

Jody Brown~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler with a love of human interest, irony, and wild encouragement. Her current writing projects, including this daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

The Dividing Line

photo-3Once upon a time, two girls rent an apartment together in D.C. Let’s call them Thelma and Louise. No, let’s call them Laverne and Shirley. Yes. One day, Shirley decides to set Laverne up with her friend, uh, Baxter. (Squiggy was way too interesting.)

Laverne agrees to go out with Baxter, and they proceed to have a decent time. (Yes, decent. Uh-oh is right.) They go to art gallery and then to dinner where they discussed the art they saw. Baxter was an architect, if Laverne remembers correctly. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Laverne is a writer. It matters, in this case, more than architecture, because while Baxter got a degree and went to work every day and did the work asked of him and returned home every day, Laverne had gone to Writer School and now went to work every day with her head full of ideas, then she worked all day long on a variety of projects, some written and some not, and after work she’d find a place to sit and write and people-watch and then she’d return home to write more and dream about more ideas. There’s nothing wrong with architecture—except that Baxter just did it to do it. He had no passion, and for that, it could have been something entirely less a fusion of art and physics and might as well have been pushing paper from one side of the desk to the other.

But, back to the date. It’s not an entire flop–not yet, anyway. They got to look at some art, after all. But on the Metro ride home, Baxter admits to writer Laverne that he believes that all the ideas have already been done. They’re all used up. Everything worth doing has already been done, and artists are now just looking to re-use old ideas.

(That was the end of Baxter in Laverne’s eyes. At least, until 10 years later when she wrote a blog about it.)

Laverne had realized this school of thought was out there. But she’d never heard it spoken by anyone who actually believed it. And Baxter is so sincere, she wonders if he has a point. She pushes off the feeling of hopelessness that his words caused, and she thinks it through. It doesn’t take her long to find her proof.

Laverne is an avid journaler, (and maker-upper of words like journaler) and has been known to write down lists of newly released songs that she likes in the margins of her journals. But each time she looks back at old writings, she sees the periodic lists and marvels at how many new songs are now listed in the margins of today’s journals. And then: She’s glad. Glad that she didn’t expire long ago before she heard the new lyrics that now speak to her and glad that she’s discovered the new books being published with their gorgeous turns of phrase that she underlines and stars and absorbs. (She writes in her books, yes. She writes on everything.)

The point for Laverne is: Creativity keeps happening. It happened yesterday, today, and will happen tomorrow as long as the creators are out there doing the work.

When Laverne arrives back the apartment, Shirley is waiting up. She hears the details of the date and is bummed to learn that Laverne doesn’t want to go out with Baxter again. She presses the issue, and lists Baxter’s good qualities.

“But, Shirley, I write,” Laverne finally says. “Baxter doesn’t even believe in writing. And I can’t waste my time with a non-believer.”

Ten years later, Laverne is a panelist in a writing workshop when a fellow panelist says the infamous words to get the audience reaction: “What do you think of, ‘It’s all been done’?”

Heads begin to shake. “No,” is heard.

Then, “No way,” is heard.

“Certainly not.”

Some even laugh, “Hardly! No.”

“I don’t think so!”

No, no, my goodness, no. Music to Laverne’s ears.

My first book, Upside Down Kingdom, is available on Amazon. I’ll sign it for you.

Purity of the Pen

A Friday rant: I was talking with friends yesterday who told me that they haven’t read a book in years. “Maybe since grad school,” one said.

Friends, I can’t tell you how disheartening this is. I realize there are work schedules and kids and family obligations and things that come up, but to stop reading altogether??

I hear similar stories now and again, and no one ever thinks to explain themselves. They never stop and say, “Oh, you’re a writer, that’s right… Uh…” And they don’t think to lie awkwardly to me by saying that they’ve given up all reading except for mine. (I’m reminded of the Julia Roberts line in Pretty Woman when Vivian says, “When I’m with a guy, I’m like a robot, I just do it.” Then she looks at Edward and rolls her eyes and says, “Except for you.” And he smiles and says, “Of course not with me.”)

And every time this happens, I’m in polite company where I can’t exactly grill the non-reader on the whys and hows and ins and outs of their refusal to read. But mark my words here and now: I’m going to stop being so polite. I’ll start asking. My world, my love, depend on writing and knowing that there will be an audience there to gravitate to the words.

When IBM fired the bulk of their electrical engineers and logic designers last summer here in Rochester, they left a lot of very smart people out on the street to reinvent themselves. Is that what writers will have to do? Will the movies and videos of the world push us out so that if we’re not writing for the big screen we’re not being heard? Will we, gulp, go see the movie before we read the book?

The stark question presents itself: Will the writers write when there’s no one left to read?

photo-3That’s a sad state of affairs. But, ultimately, I think: Yes. We’ll continue. Bigger and better, even. We’re frivolous like that. We’re hopeful like that. We’re pure like that. Ultimately, we like to line the words up on the page. It doesn’t matter who’s looking.

With words, I can build worlds, solve puzzles, escape to new realms, fire up dormant emotions, and immerse myself in my own imagination. Some people need music, or art, or sound, or alcohol to do this (and more) for them. I get these things. I get launching into another place and allowing full possibility.

I remember learning to read as a small child and loving it. Life clicked for me. And I understand that some people don’t have the same love experience. We all know someone for whom reading is such a chore, and it’s possible that their numbers are increasing.

Please excuse my extreme curiosity here because I’m not trying to be rude but rather I just don’t know:

Where do they go in their minds?

What—what are they doing in there?