A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 6: The importance of writing groups

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: My deepest apologies for releasing this blog Monday rather than sometime civilized on Saturday. Still getting used to the new schedule.

[SECOND AUTHOR’S NOTE: OK, it’s at 12:10 p.m. rather than 12:00 p.m. Still pretty close to what I promised, right?

[PHOTO NOTE: This is not my actual writing group, past or present. This is the first image that popped up when I did a Pexel search for “writing group.” And, there you go.

If you would, permit me to make a small detour into the world of politics.

It was in the middle of running for his second term as president in 2012 when Barack Obama got into a minor controversy over a statement he made on the campaign trail. At a campaign stop in Virginia, he was trying to make the point that rich people don’t become rich just because of their own efforts, but from the help of others, the help of government, and good fortune. He said in part:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

Barack Obama

I bring up this statement not to debate its value (I personally agree with it) nor to explain why it is so. I wanted to compare this idea with another idea that has long been popular – the idea of a writer as a singular artist.

This is an idea that, if it cannot quite be classified as a cliche, maybe could be considered more like a trope. I can remember so many scenes in films, television, and (yes) books as well, scenes of serious, dedicated writers hunched over hand-held notebooks, legal pads, typewriters, or word processors. They’re always so serious, aren’t they, their isolated rooms echoing with the scritch scratch of pens or pencils, the slamming thunk thunk of typewriter keys or the tiki-tak tiki-tak of word processors. Those scenes burned into my brains so much I’ve worn out keyboards for the past 25-plus years. Wasn’t it Sean Connery in Finding Forrester who said “Punch the keys, for God’s sake!” Oh, I lived that idea for many years. It is the reason that all of my spacebars on my keyboards have some worn-off parts, as well as a few other keys.

A writer lends a person so well to being a solitary artist. Not quite sure an idea is going to work out, or if somebody else likes it? Who cares, nobody is going to stop you, right? You are the final say over your story except for those sorry brothers who agree to collaborate with one or more writers. No worries about how much it would cost to render a scene for your reader, no worries about filming budgets or payrolls for actors and crew – you can build any world you want, any characters you want, for the cost of your imagination, your time imagining, and the cost of a workable computer or typewriter if you have a real 20th Century mentality. Especially if you have a nice little writing space, you can shut everyone out and everything out except you and your imagination. You would be the classic, mythical rugged individualist as artist.

However, as Barack said at the start of all this, “You didn’t build that.” Sure, you did build those worlds, those fascinating characters, those wonderful stories. Those are your words on the screen or the page. But, you didn’t get to that point on your own.

If we look into ourselves and understand the real writing process, the real ins and outs of how literature comes to be, we know that we are not just lone gunmen spewing our stories into the ether. There were so many that got us to the point where we were able to tell our stories and share them with the world.

There were other people that helped us to be able to share these stories, these writings, with the rest of the world. It is the same for all you writers out there just as much as it was for me. For me, I admit, I relied on my fellow writers to get me to where I have gotten to today.

I specifically remember the late Aughts of 2007 or so in regards to myself. I was returning to my hometown (Muscatine, Iowa) after a 10-year stay in Clinton, Iowa, and what felt like an equally long hiatus from writing. (I was writing off and on, but in no way consistently at all). In fact, initially I just sat and stewed for a while, which I might have attributed to entering the teaching profession and getting adjusted to that. But another part of that was the fact that I was writing in a vacuum, with nobody I could turn to for advice or guidance.

It was then that I remembered a local writing group called Writers on the Avenue. There were many differences between me and the other members. I was generally younger than most of them. Many of them preferred to work in poetry or mainstream literature, and I was the crazy kid writing thrillers or sci-fi/fantasy. We had differences of opinion on a lot of things about life. But we all had writing in common.

I went off and on between not participating in the group to at one point serving as club secretary. However, the feedback I got from them all about writing was invaluable.

They helped shape what eventually became my first published novel, The Holy Fool. They also provided critiques of my other novel projects as well. It was through them that I was able to network and get in contact with groups such as the Midwest Writing Center, where I learned a lot from the seminars and critique groups they had. I was able to network with other writers and get ideas about expressing myself through writing that eventually led me from repurposing an old Facebook page I had used as part of my past journalism career to creating the blog that you see here. I even got into poetry because I kept listening to their work and finally decided to try my hand at it. Some of those poems you can find here.

One of the real downsides of moving to South Central Iowa (Chariton, to be exact), is that I’m not able to meet with those groups on a regular basis. I’m glad now that I have started to settle in and get to be part of groups such as the Iowa Writer’s Corner. I’m hoping to get together with some other writers in the Des Moines area and continue my progress as a writer.

And who knows? Since Zoom has become such a thing, maybe I can get together with some of my old Eastern Iowa writing friends without burning too much gas.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 5: The Writing Environment

You get a certain level of comfort writing being in the same room for a while. That’s not to say that certain place is the best place to write, however. Ever since I turned 18, I have had about six or so spaces that I considered to be my exclusive writing space. I made all of them work, even though each of them had certain disadvantages.

I’ve made various spots my writing dens over the years. When I was a kid and had my first desktop computer for college assignments, etc., I decided to use a small rolling desk designed especially for keyboards and desktop stacks. It wasn’t too private, but not too many people went down in the basement, and there were only three people in the house (Me, Mom, and Dad). So, I made that work.

I had that for a few years, and then, when I moved into my own apartment, I fit it into a second room of the two bedroom apartment right after I got married. I have to admit now, after the fact, that I was not doing as much writing as I aspired to do back in those days. It was a lot easier for me to call myself a writer rather than actually write. I’ve talked about that instinct in some previous Writer’s Biography posts.

That was during a 10-year stint in a town called Clinton, where my job had brought my wife and I there. (This would be the last time any job of mine moved us anywhere, and that was likely the best for me and my family, looking back.) We eventually got a nice older house, built in the late 1940’s, which became the first house that my kids ever had.

Although I don’t happen to have any photos of the place readily available, I remember the first house that I owned quite well, and the place that I decided to claim as my writing space. There was a back room to the house that appeared to be a former four seasons room turned into an interior sun room. There was a patio on top of the room that was connected to my son’s room, and he occasionally liked to amuse himself by running out there undressed. (In his defense, he was… four? Five? Something like that.) Sometimes the room leaked by the door when it rained really hard, but I was able to fit a couple of desks in there for both me and my wife’s laptops, and an old couch and television besides. There was a television in there, as well, and I always wondered if the television would be too much of a distraction for me, as it had been in my first basement lair of my youth. (These were more innocent times, before YouTube and YouTube TV meant that I could watch more or less whatever I wanted while I typed on the same screen. It’s not a home theater experience, mind, but that was never something that I was desperate to experience except for watching the biggest scale movies.)

Again, I got some writing done in that cozy, sunlit little room, but not as much as I wanted to. It was at that point, however, that I started to think that I needed to rededicate myself to writing.

This was my workspace and my room between mid-2007 and up until mid-2020 – about 13 years. The first time I entered this house – the biggest house that I had ever lived in up to that point – I found this room up at the top of the staircase and instantly decided, “This is the place.” I picked up the tiny corner desk you see below, filled the place up with bookcases, and called it my home office.

Yes, it really got dusty sometimes, and it got cluttered, for sure. But, it was mine, and a good place to write.

There were some disadvantages to that room. It was easily the warmest room in the house, and the air conditioning register was stuck underneath my futon. At one point I think I had something like four fans in that room to help with the circulation there. The carpet in there wasn’t in the best shape, and it didn’t get much better in the 13 years we spent there. And, I have to admit that I could have done a lot better job picking up the place. It started getting cluttered there with various papers and notes and various debris. There were plenty of little cracks and crevices in that room that didn’t get cleaned, either. (That was a bit of a mess on our final moveout day.

Due to different circumstances, I would often sleep in that room, too. I think that can be problematic for a writing room, because you tend to either overestimate the amount of time you have to write or it becomes immediately easy to procrastinate there. Once we decided to move to the new place, I determined that I didn’t want to have that as my sleeping place as well, so I stuck to that.

So, last year, we moved to my new home in Lucas County, Iowa, in a 100-year-old home that felt nice and cozy compared to the old place. We made some changes to the place to update it and began to settle in.

For a brief time, I had an office space in the spare front room of our new house. It was somewhat similar to what I had before, except for the hardwood flooring. I was able to get most of my bookcases in there, the old desk, and it seemed pretty settled.

My old desk just before I realized it was time for the trash heap. Oh, well.

Of course, as things happen, things in life happen. My wife and I had anticipated that we would be here pretty much by ourselves when we moved here. My son had moved to the Iowa City area for work in the HVAC field, and my daughter decided to study chemical engineering at my old school, the University of Iowa, also in Iowa City. However, COVID-19 eventually meant that my daughter moved for the next several months back in the room we had reserved for her for online learning. Then, due to other circumstances, my son needed to move back in with us and found some HVAC work in our town. However, he would have to take over our only remaining spare bedroom… which happened to be the same room that I had lovingly converted into my office.

Whatever disappointment that I might have felt with the loss of my writing den eventually became counterbalanced with the urges that had been fueling me for the past several months to simplify my life. I had the chance to further simplify it even further, which appealed to me. Thus, I moved forward with my next step.

So, I now present to you, my new writing hideout.

With our children’s two rooms below, the third bedroom, which my wife and I share, is tucked up into the attic of the house. It’s located up at the top of a twisting, narrow staircase that might worry me a bit if I thought we were going to be living here for the next 30 years. At the top of the staircase, there’s a small little landing that has just enough room for two bookcases, a chair, some storage, and my wife’s old-fashioned desk that she once used for her own business and now has generously lent it to me. I’m also glad for the carpeting, since that makes me slightly less nervous that I might sometime fall down the staircase going a little bit to the left.

There are a few disadvantages, of course. All rooms always have them. There’s no door to shut and I can hear any commotion downstairs, but you would be surprised what earbuds can cancel out. It might get a little warm in the upstairs, so I’m looking forward to replacing the window air conditioner we have up here.

But on the other hand, the staircase means that I get few people bothering me when I do write. I’m surprised that I have just enough space to work and not too much to get sloppy. It’s cozy, it’s intimate, and it is mine. And I do write things in here.

When it comes to a writing space, that’s the most important thing in the end.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 4: On Leaving an Author Behind

There’s always been discussion about whether to separate artists and their behavior in real life from their art. This debate has grown exponentially given the political climate over the past two years, but that is just a reflection of the conflict that has gone on for many years before.

It may be strange that I’m posting this as a Writer’s Biography blog, but I’ve long held to the belief of Stephen King and others that reading other people’s work is nearly as much a part of building a writer as the actual writing process itself. So, something having to do with what I chose to read in the past, present, and future is part of building me as a writer moving forward.

I’ve written before about authors I’ve admired in this series, as well as authors that I’ve fallen out of love with for various reasons. However, I’m finding myself making more decisions regarding what authors I choose to read and what authors I choose not to read.

Basically, more and more new authors are coming out with more and more new stuff. Since I happen to be a newly published author myself, I have made the decision that I want to do what I can with the financial resources that I have to support these types of authors, especially those whose work I admire and/or those who have been a support to me now and in the past.

There are a lot of authors out there to choose from. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to devote my time to any authors that I think are problematic for whatever real life reason. Some that argue the opposite way would say that to do that would ignore many great works of writing. My counterargument to that is, there are plenty of authors out there who are good people. Why force yourself to make moral judgements when there are plenty of great alternative authors and writing out there? It’s too much work and I don’t want to support people like that financially or with attention if I can help it.

One example of this cropped up with me last week, and one particular author. I’m not going to name the author here, but he’s active in the entertainment industry as well as being an author. I had the chance to read a memoir of his, and I thought it was some great writing about his experiences in the industry. It was definitely one of the better books I read during the past couple of years.

However, I was on social media and I found him making some profoundly unfunny jokes about people, and it was apparent from other posts and information that he’d turned into some sort of right-wing crank. Within a half-hour, that book was no longer in my personal library and I put him out of my head. It was that quick.

I regret that the guy turned out to be someone I couldn’t approve of, but I don’t regret my decision. You may have to work with and live near people whose personal philosophies you disagree with, but there’s no requirement to have to rely on them for entertainment and reading joy. Both reading and writing are my passion, my escape, and my art. I have no problem having what I read reflect my passions and views just the same as my writing does.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: For a while on my blog, I’ve been posting stories about my past that helped build and mold me into the writer and person I am today. You’ll be able to find these (and a couple of other stories) in the Biographies category section of my blog. Here’s a direct link, too.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 3: About that writing journal

There were more than a few things that I had to think about for a while when I wanted to try and become a more consistent writer. One of those things was accountability.

When I went for years, at times, without writing, nobody really asked me why I wasn’t writing. I had told a few people writing interested me, like my parents, my wife, and some others, but there really wasn’t anybody hectoring me to get to writing if I had stopped for a while. Yeah, there were people reminding me to mow the lawn (wife) or play with them for a while (kids), but I realized that if I was going to get back on the writing track, I was going to have to be the self motivator.

A couple years after I started to get back into the swing of things, I began thinking that it would be a good idea to try and record how much I tried to write on a daily basis. I had heard of writers who had posted stuff on places like Reddit’s r/wordcount. I made a couple of half-hearted tries at it for a couple of years, but nothing happened. It was too much of an ask for me at the time, trying to be that dedicated every day.

I started keeping a record of the amount of writing I did every day beginning in 2013. There were many days when all I had to write was “zip” because that was exactly how much I wrote. But, I was no longer regularly going weeks, months, even years between writing. When I had a dry spell, it usually never went longer than about three days. (The most I have ever taken off from writing or revising since starting the journal has been 3-4 weeks. Those times are unusual.)

It immediately began to pay off. When I first started my journal was when I started doing the first draft of the novel that is just beginning pre-publishing now. My writing process has grown exponentially since then. From beginning the rough draft of my current WIP to now heavily into beta reading and revising has just lasted two years.

Whether I will be able to learn anything from past years might be problematic. I have often said to my students that I have yet to come up with the perfect planning system after 20-something years of trying. It’s taken me about five years to refine my writing journal.

For anyone who saw my first journal on this site, you’ll realize that I was just counting the amount of words I was writing for my books. I was not counting blogging toward those totals, even though some of those blogs were just as creative as anything in my novels. Also, I has no idea how to properly gauge the amount of work I was doing on revising. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I finally settled on daily writing/revising goals and have stuck to them.

But, the minute that I thought of creating this blog, I decided I had to publicly hold myself accountable with how much work I did do and how much work I didn’t do. And it’s worked for me. I have no idea if it would work for you, but I know that something can work to motivate you to write if you really want to be a writer.

I’ll be interested to see the new numbers in a few years. It would be great to see the production take off.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 2: On nonfiction writing and abandoned projects

I was going to tell you a story, right? But, I got distracted by explaining some back story. Honestly, though, I probably needed to explain that back story to understand some of it myself. Apparently I’ve been writing a memoir for just over a year and I didn’t realize it.

(OK, that’s it for the hyperlinks. 🙂 EDIT: Sorry, lies. (see below))

I’ve had experience writing nonfiction as a journalist. I think that I’m doing well as a writer of fiction, and I’m a fan of writing book-length works.

However, when faced with the opportunity to write book-length nonfiction, I considered it for a while. At the time, it seemed like a great idea for a book.

In the end, though, I wound up walking away from the project for more than just one reason. Even though that project was not a story I eventually wanted to tell, the story behind that story might be worth a post.

Continue reading “A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 2: On nonfiction writing and abandoned projects”

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 1: What made me start writing again?

black click pen on spring notebook
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The title of the piece is the big question. I might have alluded to this turning point, at different times during this blog. But I really haven’t described the process behind going from someone who talked more about being a writer than actually someone who wrote. It’s probably about time I talked about that, right?

In the movies – hell, in plenty of novels – there usually is some sort of turning point scene, one moment when the protagonist’s life pivots and moves in a new direction. It is one moment of clarity, after which that person’s life has forever and irrevocably changed.

It wasn’t really like that for me. In looking through old word document files in my “fiction” folder, I see several starts and stops among the last decade. Some of them I talked about before; others fell stillborn after a few months of typing and procrastination. Then there was the anonymous blog I ran for a few months somewhere in the past decade. However, it really didn’t have any focus except as an emotional purge, and I eventually decided that I needed to shut it down to avoid any static in my real life.

But like St. Augustine once prayed during his youth, “Oh, Lord, make me chaste… but not yet.”

I think things started to coalesce in my head right around 2010. That was an interesting year, to be frank. I’m not planning to get into in here, but there was a bit of turmoil and uncertainty in my professional life. For a brief moment, I had a dream of becoming a college writing instructor full-time rather than teaching for a couple thousand per class. I say a dream rather than a goal because I only had a vague idea of what the job involved and how I would achieve it. (After a few years and different circumstances, I’d set that idea aside. An earlier version of me – maybe the guy featured in Volume II of this series – would have been disappointed. Nowadays I barely remember the idea.)

Recently, I had a chance to read through a notebook I was writing in for about three months or so back in 2010. I tried to read all of it, but it was a cursive scribble stream of consciousness. It was lists and lists of various things I was both positively and negatively obsessed with, among other things.

In reading through that notebook, I think I did what we used to call in journalism “burying the lede.” Others, like writing teachers, might call it an implied main idea. What I think I was describing in those entries was being addicted to distraction. Anything I could use to procrastinate from doing anything, thinking about anything, I’d be into.

I’ve discussed those tendencies before. But there was a time in my life that they would dominate me. For several years of my life, it seemed being entertained, being satisfied in whatever way, was more important than anything else that wasn’t my family.

Around 2007-2010, right after I moved back to Muscatine, I really started heavily surfing some backwaters and little-known areas on the Internet. It may have given me a couple of writing ideas, but mostly I was looking for, as I normally did, for a distraction.

Back in those days, I often read the web site Postsecret. It allows people to anonymously send it postcards on which they write their deepest and darkest secrets that they would not tell anyone. Around 2010, I read this postcard on the site:

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For me, that had two effects. First, it gave me hope that it really wasn’t too late to get started (or restarted, whatever you want to classify it as) on my dreams of becoming a writer of novels. I always heard about people like Frank McCourt writing their debut books when they were in their 50’s, 60’s, or beyond.

Secondly, it was a prod in the butt, something that said yeah, if you’re about as old as this guy, why not get started now?

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So, did Liegois actually take the postcard’s advice and Rollins’ advice and move forward?

As I said at the top of the article, nothing that dramatic happened. Someone’s personality and habits – at least, not my own for sure – is not something that can change direction like a fighter aircraft or speedboat. The process more resembles having to maneuver a jumbo jet or mega-tanker a few degrees off course.

Did your life actually change?

Over time, yes.

It was soon after that time that I began to reminisce about some of my days in journalism, what was happening to newspapers in this country, and the weirdness of the time specifically around 2008. Going by my computer file history, I’d have to say that I started to play around with the idea of doing a journalism/political thriller around 2011. By 2013-14, ironically when I was taking one last adventure into journalism, was when I finalized a rough draft.

It was somewhere around 2013 that I began keeping track of the word count that I was getting done on a daily and weekly basis. Although not effective at first, I think that having to keep track of what I am actually writing or revising has helped me be accountable to myself and have goals to work for, even though I rarely have weeks where I meet my daily goals throughout the entire week. (This is probably worth a separate post at some point.)

It took me until 2016 to get another draft of the piece I was now calling The Holy Fool done – I had to do a little bit of cutting to trim it to well under 100,000 words. By 2017 I had revised it into its current form and had begun shopping it around to agents and publishers. I’m now awaiting the publishing process.

Also by 2016, I had worked up the courage/willingness/audacity to write a novel about someone who played a sport I hadn’t played myself since elementary school and located in both a state I hadn’t lived in since I was five and another country I had never visited, much less lived in. However, I was ready for the challenge, and by the next year, I already had a rough draft in the bag for my next project. By this year, I’ve gotten deep into the revising process with it, and I’m liking how my refined techniques have sped the writing process along.

Would I say that I have fully defeated my addiction to distraction and procrastination? Not by any means. I still exhibit those behaviors today, in doses both big and small. However, I’ve just started to get to the point where I’ve been able to manage this addiction to the point where I’ve become a productive writer. And I want to stay that way. I’m not exactly sure how long I have or how many books I have in me, but I want to make that time count.

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(Btw, I take horrible photos so I put them through some weird effects like what you see below. Enjoy if that’s your thing.)

Tuxpi photo editor: https://www.tuxpi.com

Anyway, welcome to the start of the current writing experience. That’s it for now; I’ll write more later.

Unplanned Posts

There’s been a few times when something I’m writing has turned into something totally different. Usually that’s been a good thing for me, so I’m hoping it’s a similar situation here. It’s the first time it’s happened to me blogging.

Remember how I mentioned about that one blog post that I was planning on writing last week? The one about the thing that happened with me about an aborted project?

Well, now that’s turned into no less than three Writer’s Biography pieces.

Let me explain.

Without giving away the entire story before I write it, a few years ago I began initial plans for a nonfiction book, which was the first time that I had ever thought of doing anything like that. Essentially, the lure of fiction called me more than the subject I had been researching.

Last week, the guy who had passed the project off to me asked for some files that he had given me a few years ago because another writer was interested in it. No problem there, I thought.

So, that planned visit got me thinking about the differences between fiction and nonfiction writing – a difference I was familiar enough with from my dive back into fiction and my years in journalism. I thought it was at least worth a post.

Then Dale, the writer who first mentioned the project to me, came to my house last Thursday. Our conversation went into old journalism days, long-ago projects, and other related topics.

That got me thinking about three things. First, I realized that it’s been since last May when I last wrote one of my A Writer’s Biography posts. For those not familiar with this blog, those have posts that have looked back at my life and my experiences with writing and literature. Some might have noticed that I’ve broken them into Volume I and Volume II. Volume I has covered my experiences as a kid, while Volume II explored experiences I had as a young man. However, to my surprise, I’ve read through all of my Volume II posts and I have not yet written any post specifically about my years in journalism. Considering that I spent 12 years overall working full or part-time as a journalist, I though that was a bit of an oversight. So that’s has to be worth a second post.

That led me to my third realization, which was that I have yet to write a Volume III entry. I’m going to classify Volume III as stories from when I decided to rededicate myself to writing in middle age to the present time. It would make sense to add the whole nonfiction book story to that list, since that just happened a couple of years ago. It would be a good Part 2 for that volume.

Why Part 2? Because I also realized that Part 1 had to be an analysis of how I turned things around and got back to my passion of writing. As I considered this, I really tried to search my brain and try to recall a single instance where I decided to get back to what I considered to be my passion. I’m not sure there was such a moment, but I think there might be enough for me to talk about it in depth. Creating this blog was a big part of that gradual turnaround, but I haven’t discussed it head on before.

[EDIT: If you’re interested in (rough) timelines, etc., I’d estimate that Volume I covers 1980-1995, Volume II covers 1995-2010, and Volume III covers 2010 up until the present time.]

So, that means that I now have enough stories to last the entire month. Not sure about what order I will post them in, but they will be related to each other. It’s been a bit since I’ve been excited about upcoming posts. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of the process.

That’s all for now; I’ll write more later.