The Wordsmith’s Forge


Think “blacksmith” and you’ll probably get an image in your mind of a burly man in a black apron hammering a fiery piece of metal on an anvil. Now think “wordsmith.” What do you see? An image may be harder to find, or you may see nothing at all. It’s all right. This isn’t a test and no one expects you to see anything, because there’s nothing to see. Wordsmithing is something that’s done in private without the familiar sights and sounds that blacksmithing conjures up. But I promise you, it takes a lot of burly strength of mind and imagination. It’s not for the weak or dainty writer, it’s a craft no less hard come by than forging iron into steel. It takes muscle and it takes heat, and it takes a lot of endurance.

In the past, my writing practice has been more like building a piece of furniture. I write a scene or a chapter and then work it until it’s right, and only then do I move on to the next scene—in carpentry you must make sure all your pieces are shaped evenly before you can fit them together. At the end, after all of the scenes and chapters have been nailed together and the continuity has been sanded smooth, I go back for the Big Edit. I’m used to this routine; it’s what comes naturally to me. But writing my memoirs is a different matter entirely. With A Polite Little Madness, I’m writing straight-shot through, no editing along the way, no tallying the word count, and no re-reading what I wrote the day before. When the rough draft is finished I’ll go back to the beginning with a bottle of Chianti and hone the emotional details—the pathos and the humor—that I only alluded to in the first write. This will take several sessions, and I expect to consume a fair amount of aspirin and Tagamet during this phase. Then I’ll start over once again and temper it by exchanging weak words with strong ones, and by removing cliché, schmatlz, and other unnecessary crap. Then comes the plunge into the cold water. The Big Edit. At last, the final read during which I rub everything to a high shine.

This is my plan, anyway.

I’ve no idea why I’m following this practice for this particular book. Probably, like anything I do, I’m simply following my instincts. One of the reasons I pay no attention to other writers’ rules is because I prefer to create my own sword, one that carries my personal stamp. This doesn’t mean I don’t take inspiration from master wordsmiths out there, I just don’t follow their routines. I prefer to create my own rules and techniques. As in blacksmithing, one must apprentice for a long time, reading great books, learning the elements of style, and picking up on tricks of the trade. But there comes a time when we must leave our apprenticeship behind and open our own forge, a place where we develop our own rules and put them into practice, building on what we’ve learned from the masters, not mimicking them. This takes confidence and faith is one’s craft. There are too many writers out there just mimicking their favorite authors. At some point we must find our own voice and our own style. Then we can hammer our personal stamp into the steel. Then, when another smith examines our work, they can say, “Yes, I know this particular styling. This is a work by _____.”

Writing about your own life is an excellent way to find your own voice, because to mimic someone else’s is to be dishonest with yourself and with your readers.

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Some Private Room in the Heart


Until fairly recently I never gave any thought to what  inspires me to create. It’s a drive, an instinct that I’ve taken for granted over the years. It was always there, always prompting me, always gnawing away at me. For a long time, though, it went away. For years nothing inspired me and nothing I did revived it. While writing A Polite Little Madness, I began feeling it again so I’ve taken a little time to analyze what it is, exactly, that inspires me to sit down and write every day. I figure, if I know what it is I won’t have to flounder when it goes into hiding again. I’ll know where to look for it.

The truth is, people inspire me. I don’t mean other people’s creativity inspires me, I mean future readers. People who may learn something or benefit from the experiences I write about. And I certainly don’t mean an audience inspires me; that actually scares the crap out of me. I mean people at home living their lives and getting some small enjoyment from my story.

It’s also the people I care about who inspire me. To know that my family and friends are finally part of what I’ve created, that they’re no longer on the outside looking in wondering what the hell I’m up to. I don’t need applause, I don’t need praise. All I need is to see a smile on someone’s face that tells me they got something from my creation. And that person can be a family member, a friend, or even a total stranger. All I’ve ever wanted to do is to touch people in some way, in some private room in the heart. To think that someone might read my words and think, “Me too!” inspires me more than anything else.

And with that I’m signing off and going back to my manuscript. A short entry, I know, but I’m in the heat of this inspiration and I must obey!

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A Lazy Dragon Flew Over Tonight

Dave Deken
Tornado wall cloud north of the Stillwater airport (photo by Dave Deken)

When I moved from southern California to Tornado Alley in 2000, the prospect of tornadoes chilled me to the bone. I was assured time and again, however, that Stillwater usually escapes these annual monsters because it lies in a slight bowl, topographically; most storms split up about five miles west of town and then reform a few miles to the east. Once in while our tornado sirens come on, usually because a tornado has touched down somewhere in Payne County, which covers about 697 square miles. I’ve never seen a tornado, but I’ve learned to have a healthy respect for them while not allowing myself to fall into a fit of fear and panic when the sirens blow.

This evening, sometime around 6:00, I fixed myself a taco salad and sat down to enjoy it. The sirens came on, which surprised me because I didn’t know we’d been in a tornado watch all afternoon. Because the light outside was bright and clear—not the eerie yellow-green that accompanies a potentially dangerous storm—I carried on with my dinner while checking my usual weather sites and radar maps. The storm was north of town and blowing slowly eastward. No reason to herd the cats into the closet and get ourselves into the interior bathroom. At last, though, I gave in and went outside to have a look. Sure enough, a monstrous wall cloud was slowly passing north of us. This was a big one, and I finally saw what makes a tornado. It’s an odd feeling watching these things pass by. I noticed this while watching my first wall cloud move across the sky in 2001. It’s like watching a lazy dragon fly by, daring not to breathe in case it notices you and changes its course.

Watching the dragon pass by.

Fortunately, it passed by us without touching down, and after about 45 minutes of sirens and public announcements, we were given the All Clear.

Look at the size of that beast!

I’m actually rather proud of myself. This was the first tornado warning I’ve been through that didn’t send me into terror. Not bad considering it was the worst one I’ve experienced. Once everything was okay I went into the kitchen and baked several dozen chocolate chip cookies. Ah, life at Bookends Cottage.

Be safe!

Post-Tornado Cookies
Post-tornado cookies and Constant Comment tea.

Photo Credits: Thanks to Dave Deken for the title photo.

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The Merrie Month of May

writingSo this is how I’ve spent the first week of May. Sitting in my wing back and writing while my Pandora folk music station plays in the background. It’s been a very productive week, indeed. It took a little while for this book and I to gel, but it finally happened once I got the more emotional bits out of the way. Now that I no longer have to re-live the traumas of childhood I’m fairly soaring from page-to-page, memory-to-memory, event-to-event.

When I write fiction I follow an outline pretty closely, but I don’t write the scenes consecutively; I just write whatever scene I feel like working on. But with this book, an autobiography, I’m following my own life’s timeline pretty much  straight through in a typical rough draft fashion, that is, just getting it down as I go with no editing or elucidating along the way, although I do keep extensive notes of triggered memories and ideas. When this phase is finished I’ll go back to the beginning and start adding all the color and humor and emotion. None of this was planned, of course. It’s just how it’s happened. I hesitate to share any of what I’ve written (although I’m itching to do just that in this entry), not because it’s a rough rough draft, but because I’m holding the energy in like a pressure cooker until the soup is cooked through. It isn’t easy, because I’m not a secretive sort, and I enjoy sharing my creativity along the way. But not this time. One gets just one chance to write one’s own life’s story.

Meanwhile, when I have to take a break from writing, I go outside to do a little spring gardening. Nothing big, mind you (hah!), just the usual: wrapping the front porch with netting for my annual crop of Morning Glories (this is their seventh year here at Bookends Cottage), pruning low-hanging branches of the trees, cutting back the intrusive Virginia Creeper so that it doesn’t swallow the cottage altogether, setting up pots of flowers, and that favorite yearly chore, cleaning out the Funky Flowerbed. I had a huge crop of wild onions in it this year, and I brought in several batches to trim and clean. It’s nice foraging in your own front yard, but that flowerbed is a thorn in my flesh spring-after-spring. This year I want to fill it in with brick pavers and put large pots of kitchen herbs (including lavender) out there. I’m just so tired of dealing with all the Monkey Grass, Bermuda Grass, and yes, even the wild onions that take it over every year.

The Funky Flowerbed at its springtime best.

My Hollyhocks are already getting buds; this is their third or fourth year, I can’t remember, and the really good news is that the outside of this old cottage will be undergoing some repairs: a couple of window sills replaced and the exterior painted. My next chore is to do my yearly hedge trimming. I’ll probably get to that this weekend. Hopefully there will be no wasps in it to attack me this time. I have a number of “crafty” garden projects this year as well, but you’ll just have to wait for pictures as I complete them.

In early March a couple of highly emotional situations arose (not the least of which was having to re-home my pooch, Nigel) that sent my Hashimotos plummeting down into chronic fatigue and monumental depression. I spent two full months unable to do anything except the least demanding of things either physically or mentally. Fortunately, that’s over and I’m full of energy again and can do all this stuff. I’m not sure, however, if it’s better to fall into that abyss in the winter when SADS has a chance to gain a toehold, or in the nicer months, driving me to live like a hermit in a cave when the weather outdoors is so beautiful. Having just come out of it, I’ll take the former, if I have to take it at all.

But enough of that. I don’t like to dwell on that crap. Onward and upward! It’s a beautiful spring day and the temperature is supposed to rise to 84! Perfect weather to get a few things done outside and then retreat indoors to write.

Have a fab weekend!

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