Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems.

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NaNoWriMo – Day 3

According to Chris Baty, Founder of NaNoWriMo, most Wrimos (the nickname for participants in National Novel Writing Month) hit the creative wall during the second week. After screaming through the first week, creative juices flying everywhere (I know: Ew.), it seems second-week Wrimos suddenly screech to a halt during Week 2. They see plot holes. Their characters refuse to develop beyond anything but fuzzy old Polaroid photos. They have no idea where to take the story next.

Or, if you’re me, it happens on Day 3.

OK, it wasn’t quite that bad. I mean, I did have what I’m affectionately calling the drunken Alanis scene (think: “You Oughtta Know”) between Jaqi and her ex-boyfriend to write. And I wrote it with great gusto, plunging in and letting Jaqi pour out her rage at Adam in all her drunken glory, with Demon (an internal demon who has somehow become an “outie” kind of demon) poking and prodding her and whipping her up into a fine frenzy before Adam delivers his final line and Jaqi passes out on the sidewalk.

I sat back. I stretched. I yawned. (This NaNoWriMo stuff requires later nights than I’m accustomed to!) And I did my word  count.

584 words.


I wasn’t even halfway to the recommended daily word count, much less to my personal word count goal for the day, in order to meet the 50,000 word requirement. I had two significant hurdles to cross.

Hurdle 1: All that pesky (but fruitful) dialogue

Now, I’ve already been plagued by the fact that my novel-in-training is mostly written as dialog, with little description. It was, after all, supposed to be a play script, not a novel, so the writing I’ve been doing in my head over this past year has been in scenes (e.g. the “drunken Alanis” scene; the why-the-heck-is-there-a-demon-in-my-apartment” scene). So dialogue is natural. And I’m pretty good at writing it because I sort of experience life as a series of scenes. Besides, a lot can be revealed through dialogue, which is why theater and film can make people laugh and cry and think. But a novel needs…more.

The problem with “more” — description, back story, character details — is that trying to insert it into my writing at this point would mean having to stop and think. Stopping and thinking defeats the purpose because it decreases word count. OK, it’s not all about the word count, but the word count is the tangible measure of novel-writing progress. The point of NaNoWriMo is getting the darned novel out of one’s head and into some kind of format to be read by other humans.

In No Plot, No Problem, Chris Baty offers this bit of advice: “[D]on’t worry too much about lending an enormous amount of realistic detail to the tale’s backdrop. In the same way that a theater set will use two or three potted trees to suggest a forest, so should you leave much of your setting to the reader’s imagination in the first draft.” Oooo! I thought. Advice with a theater spin, which is apparently both my curse and my “out” on this detail thing!

So, for the moment, dialogue is keeping me moving forward on my (very drafty) draft.

Hurdle 2: Now where did I put that plot?

So, now Jaqi is passed out on the sidewalk, where Adam has just left her, and I somehow have to explain how she gets home. This really isn’t something Demon can accomplish by itself because no one can see it, and a floating Jaqi would likely get her burned as a witch or something. I’m guessing most taxi drivers in this day and age would conveniently remember another fare in another city, rather than take responsibility for an unconscious woman, and I’m really not ready to have Jaqi spend a night in the drunk tank. So…now what?

I hadn’t actually planned on having Jaqi pass out. She just sort of did it. And that’s something else Baty predicts: Characters take on lives of their own and move the plot forward in surprising ways. He provides this little gem: “Just focus on creating vivid, enjoyable characters, and a plot will unfold naturally from their actions…and there’s something uniquely thrilling in that moment when you see them take charge.”

OK, I thought. Jaqi’s out cold, and Demon is more-or-less a figment of her imagination. Adam just drove off with his new girlfriend. Who’s left?

The valet, who happens to be dating a cabbie and who convinces his boyfriend he’ll clean out the cab should Jaqi barf all over it or something.

Tah-dah! Jaqi wakes up, safe and sound, with Demon tormenting her in her hung over state. Even better: The unexpected exchange between Jaqi and Demon opened the way for the first real conversation she and Demon have about her inability to stay in a relationship. Which is kind of the point of the story.

Characters took charge, and the plot moved on.

Oh, and my final word count for the day was over 1,800 words. Go me! (And The Demon Project cast.)

Day 4 dawns bright

Late tonight, I’ll plunk down in front of my laptop for Day 4 writing. I still have to get Jaqi through the weekend. She still has to have an uncomfortable scene with the Nice Guy, whom she stood up for coffee because she was too hung over. Her best friend needs to see the ruin that was once her apartment, and some backstory about their relationship would be helpful, since it will impact Jaqi’s relationship with Demon — and, frankly, everyone else. Tall order.

But I’m learning: Trust the process. Or, failing that, let my characters take charge.


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Day 3: The 12 Days of Discovery

The Creative and the Productive

These posts are taking forever to produce! I grumbled to myself in frustration. I’m lagging behind by several days now. My 12 Days might as well be 20.

Well, Self huffed back, that’s because you’re creating, not simply producing.

Well played, Self. Well played.

“Make it pretty”

It’s become disturbingly easy for me to confuse creativity with production. My day-to-day activities for almost two decades have been conducted in environments where creativity is under-valued — or not valued at all. Creativity, in these environments, equates to “making it pretty” (for the visual designers I’ve worked with or (for writers like myself) “making it sound good.” In each instance, the expectation is not creativity but a kind of decoration. Often we are asked to take some piece of dreck produced by someone else and fix it up so that it won’t embarrass anybody. And that, frankly, is generally the best we can do.

The situation — and the attitudes that form it — is frustrating for a number of reasons. First, it completely misses the communicative impact of what we do. “Pretty” isn’t just color or form or shape or size — it’s a delicate balance of all them, which moves people to feel and think and, ultimately, do something based on those feelings and thoughts. In fact, “pretty” isn’t even the point. Persuasion is, even if whatever it is we are “prettying up” isn’t perceived as being persuasive. Everything we design or write is persuading someone to do something:

  • believe we are credible
  • get excited about our ideas
  • want to hire us
  • be a better person

Equally irritating is that the idea that creative people are there to “make it pretty” dismisses us as educated professionals, reducing us to production adjuncts armed with crayons and thesauruses, ready to leap cheerfully to spiff up that presentation or add a bit of pizzazz to that web page headline. We’re reduced to afterthoughts, the “finishing touch” on a project, rather than an equal partner with professional knowledge having an important bearing on its outcomes. The fact of the matter is that, because we understand communication and persuasion, we can make things that work well work even better. And we can motivate people to do things they might not otherwise find appealing. And we can make things easier to use. And we can construct our message or our design so that it works smoothly with the medium that delivers it.

“Pretty” is the least of our concerns — albeit, still a concern because we value our art, take pride in our professions. What we do requires more than adding a splash of color here or a clever turn of phrase there. While what we do might, for many of us, be a labor of love, it’s still a labor.

“It needs to be creative — fast!”

However, because our work is seen as just the frosting on the cake, it’s also seen as easy to produce. As such, it’s afforded little time on the project schedule, which derails the creative process — you know, that time we waste “playing around” — and reduces it to mere execution. And, by golly, we need to execute the requested masterpieces on a tight deadline.

The problem is that creativity requires what we “creatives” are often not afforded — or even perceived as needing: the time to think, the freedom to try things, and the permission to fail. Wait, let me bullet that out for you so you can really drink those three things in:

  • time to think
  • freedom to try things
  • permission to fail

Where software design and production, for instance, assumes iterative passes and multiple forms and rounds of testing, visual design and copy-writing are expected to just flow out of the creator. Perfectly. The first time. (OK, maybe with a slight tweak or two, after getting feedback from the client or requester.) For this reason, creativity shouldn’t take much time. And if it does, the designer or writer is obviously either lacking talent/skill or is “overthinking it.”

Thinking (our first bullet) is, after all, not strictly “productive.” Goodness knows you don’t want to be caught doing too much of it, especially if it’s accompanied by — *gasp!* — research. I mean, what could a designer possibly have to think about or research? They’re creating, for pete’s sake, which means it’s just sort of…coming out of them.

Trying things (our second bullet) is ok if you are a techie or a scientist or someone with a “real” degree or occupation. But then we call it “iterating” or a “release schedule” or “experimenting,” which gives it validity and weight. Noodling around with pencils and markers, trying to get the phrasing right or stretching the limits of shape and color is a waste of time.

And, naturally, those science-y folks are allowed to fail sometimes (final bullet), as long as they cheerily chirp, “Well, back to the drawing board!” and head off to erase the second blackboard from the right or add something a little more stable to that compound they were creating or paste in that bit of code they missed on their first pass.

Because, you know, those folks have real jobs.

Production value

Production — putting words or imagery on screen or paper as a final, consumable product — has often been the only part of the process valued by most of the companies I’ve worked for. And it is, in fact, a valuable part of the process. What we finally produce is what gets delivered, approved, paid for. But it’s not the only part of the process, and even mentioning process in relationship to creative work inspires eye-rolling, smirks, or both on the part of the people who don’t see past the pretty. The problem is the disparity in our definition of production for, say, programmers versus the one we use for graphic designers. For the former, it includes (even assumes) time to think/research, try different approaches, and even fail. For creatives, however, scoping and planning the work generally starts with production and cuts out the most vital (in the richest sense of the word, meaning alive) part of the creative process: the thinking, experimenting, and failing. We force our designers to try to hit the mark by producing a single design concept. We expect our writers to delight with the first draft of their copy.

If they fail to do that, they are deemed incompetent.

 Resistance isn’t futile — but it’s difficult

As I’ve been unpacking this “if it’s not easy, you must not be good at it” attitude, I’ve realized how many parts of my life it’s touched. I often find myself firing off answers to questions quickly, often in the form of additional questions so I have a little time to think about what’s really being asked of me. I cope by churning out rough drafts so I can use the time I’m waiting for feedback to try new and different approaches to my next draft, to which I’ll add the feedback before sending it out. Behind the scenes I whiteboard and sketch and scrawl on scraps of paper before committing my writing to the computer, discarding my failures before anyone sees them and more carefully crafting iteration after iteration until I find the intersection of satisfying my professional pride and satisfying my client — wherever that’s possible.

Still, I feel the pressure of production, the expectation that perfection shouldn’t take all that long because I’m “only writing.” Because, after all, any fool can type words into a laptop.

(This rant required 4 drafts on the computer and one on paper, 3 complete reorganizations, 7 trips to, 2 trips to, 2 Advils, 6 different headlines, 5 different subheadings, two rewrites of the synopsis for sharing, and 14 hours over the course of 8 days to write. In case you wondered.)


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Day 8: 12 Days of Discovery

Marquin, the Rebel Poet

Many of us have trouble valuing what we do and the faint traces of ourselves we leave on the other lives we touch on our journeys. As I’ve sorted through the voluminous stacks and files of paper that have clogged my office for years, I’ve found various notes and cards that have filled me with humility, tinged with a kind of wonder. Why would something so small mean so much to this person? I ask myself again and again. Who is this person they see in such a light?

And, then, I found an echo of my own voice from long ago, in response to one of those notes. Because it’s so present, I’m publishing this day’s discovery out of sequence.


I was once a teacher, a graduate assistant for more than six years, responsible for helping freshmen and sophomores learn to write in the university setting. Many of my students had entered higher education as a gamble. Their grades weren’t high enough for regular admission, so many of the classes they took were essentially remedial classes. One of the classes I taught was a remedial writing course. I learned a lot about myself, about teaching, and about life in general.

Going through the files that have accumulated over time, I found a response  I wrote to an email a former student sent me several years after he graduated from college. I don’t remember many specifics about Marquin, but I do know was a self-proclaimed rebel. And I do remember that, despite his initial distrust of us all, he emerged a leader in class, asking his fellow students insightful questions and encouraging them to answer honestly. He was a big fan of Tupaq Shakur, as well, and although I never warmed to the music, Marquin’s explanations of the sources of Tupaq’s lyrics opened up a whole new understanding of some of the students who took my classes.

In his email, I remember, Marquin thanked me for inspiring him to become a teacher. He sent a poem along with his note. His email and poem have long been lost — to a faulty hard drive, if memory serves. I’m not sure how my response to him survived, but I’m glad it did. Because it reminded me that, no matter what I’ve ever given, I’ve always received so much more  in return. Marquin, like so many people who have passed briefly through my life, gave me a window into an otherwise foreign experience and made me think differently about the way things work.

Maybe, it’s like Tupac said:

I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.

In any case, here is my answer to Marquin — email for email and poem for poem. It’s a small peek into the heart of a woman in her early 30s, struggling to understand what was being asked of her and where its edges rubbed against other ways of thinking and being in the world. And, perhaps, also finding there were some things she couldn’t know until she’d written them.



Dear Marquin,

I figured that if you had the courage to write a poem to me to tell me how you felt about school and about life and learning, I could find the courage to write one back to you to tell you how I feel about students like you.

It isn’t easy teaching rebels, you know. Teachers like me want to “help” you by diagnosing your writing problems and forcing you to fit the forms that are acceptable in an academic institution. We want to give you formulas for success, but sometimes we forget the politics that those formulas privilege. We forget about the other voices that could be heard, if only we would silence our own educations long enough to hear them.

Not long ago, I decided that the best service I could give to my students was to make them more confident in their writing. I decided to try to give them strategies that would help them help themselves, ways of making decisions for themselves so that they would not need to rely on formulas to get them through school, but on their own minds, on their abilities to make decisions about their writing and thinking. It isn’t that the formulas are unimportant; it’s just that they are of secondary importance to real thinking and learning.

It’s not that I don’t struggle with myself — frequently — over this decision. I often worry about whether or not I have done you any service at all by giving you the kinds of freedom I give you as students. I woner just how many voices I should listen to. I agonize over whether or not confidence counts as much as being able to write in the ways the university expects. Always, I return to my original stance: Thinking and learning are primary; I must teach you how to learn and to think about your own writing. And that, I think, is what I do best.

That’s why I can make some room for the rebels, Marquin. I know that you walked out of my class a little more aware of things like audience and form — and even grammar — than you were when you first crossed its threshold. And I am a little ore aware of the politics of my teaching. It isn’t easy teaching rebels. So I try to let them teach me. And you have.

Good luck in your future endeavors, Marquin. I think that the part of yourself that you hold to yourself is very important. Thank you for trusting me enough to give me a peek at it.

Rebels and Poets

for Marquin: You are not as fortunate in your teachers as we are in you.

True to their natures,
they turn up unexpected
and largely uncooperative,
overturning our well-considered plans,
capsizing our lessons and forms and figures,
leaving us awash in our frustration with them
or leaving us crawling onto some safe, solid shore
of approved knowledge — clawing for assurances
at our books and degrees and certifications,
the things that comfortably tell us who we are.

They, though, need no such confirmations;
they have created themselves
out of the images they find around them,
and they will fit no mold we make for them.
They reject our expectations,
our lectures, our notes, our diagnoses,
our aspirations for them — or
for the someone we think they should be.
They defy our categories.
They defend their boundaries.

And we should count ourselves blessed
when we encounter them.
If we can find the courage
to unclench our own fists long enough
to take the hands they sometimes offer,
we will learn the lessons they have to teach us.
If we can find the integrity
to listen to the words and rhythms we foolishly seek to tame,
with open ears and willing hearts,
we will hear the freshness of their perspectives
and learn to let go of ourselves for a moment.

We should, in fact, count ourselves teachers
only when we can find the humility to remember:
Rebels are also often our finest poets.

— DD, 2000