As of this morning, my latest book, a short collection of experimental poems, is available for download for a dollar. You’ll find links for purchase in the “my books” page of this website.
This collection began life as a brief experiment, and evolved into a full collection.
In it, I compose “black out poetry.” This simple method has been around for ages. In short, one takes a pre-existing work, and by way of removing certain words, (blacking out, as with an actual marker sometimes) and leaving others, an entirely new work is created.
I’d seen this done before, but hadn’t tried it myself until I came across a video online of someone doing so. I was determined to try my hand at it.
I purchased a religious screed from the bargain bin, and had at it. Originally, the book itself was to be adorned with artwork of my own creation, thus being its own unique entity. But as this proved more complex and time consuming that I planned, my mind drifted toward the idea of “blacking out” several other works and putting the results into an anthology of sorts. Lodestone Crossing is the fruit of that idea.
The rules were simple, but nonetheless a challenge. In the first poem, I would not only require the words to remain in the original order, but the punctuation as well. If I wanted the poem to ask a question, I had to “wait” for a question mark to come up in the text. I’m proud of that result, but opted to let go of the requirements for punctuation for the subsequent poems. I still added no words, and I fashioned my stanzas out of words that remained in the same order they appeared in the book. Punctuations on said words could be anything I wished, however.
This method not only produced a different kind of poetry than I am used to, but forced me to take a more nuanced view of language, metaphor, and composition. If I never try this again, it was worth it this time just for the new perspectives.
That being said, I am proud of the work itself, and hope you will spend a buck to see what I’ve come up with.
You’ve gotten to a point in your WIP’s first draft that requires a leap. A change. A 180. The correction of a plot hole, perhaps. The point is, somehow things have unfolded in a manner you were not expecting, and as a result you need to adapt the piece to this new trajectory.
You can start over from the beginning, and try to incorporate this new truth into the piece. A huge commitment, especially if you are already halfway through. But if it works, it works.
A less drastic option is to make a list of all the aspects of your story up until that point that will have to be changed in order to fix your continuity. Address each dissonance one at a time, see how that would change other things, fix those, and so on until the surprise development is fully assimilated into your work. Then you can continue with the rest of the draft.
There is no right or wrong to this situation, but I’d like to propose an alternative approach that for my money is most effective and less stressful. Ready?
Lie to yourself.
More specifically, pretend the problem is solved as of right now. You don’t know how the narrative gets from the start to your current point, you just say that it has, and you continue writing your draft. If a character that died in chapter five has to have survived after all in order for your plot to evolve, guess what? The character survived. That three page death scene you concocted during a bout of insomnia is null and void. Every world in your draft from here on out will be written with the assumption that by some unknown manner, (possibly magic?) that death never happened.
So again, lie to yourself about.
What purpose does this serve? It keeps you focused on your primary task at this point: finishing your first draft.
And that is all it is, a first draft. We all know that first drafts are shit for everyone. That doesn’t just mean the writing is bland or that you use too many adverbs. It means that the goal of a first draft is to produce the lump of clay from which you will eventually shape your novel. But you can’t shape it before you draft it, just like you can’t actually produce that vase before the clay is even on the wheel.
Of course you will, in revisions have to revisit the change in trajectory. That hole will have to be filled in one fashion or the other. Like a credit card, you are in essence buying now, and paying later. But unlike a credit card, there is no deadline, no penalty. Allow yourself the satisfaction of finishing the draft while under the (temporary) delusion that the roadblock has not only been removed, but never existed. Then when you go back for revisions, you will have spent quite a deal more time in your fictional world, and likely will find a solution easier to come up with than if you stressed about fixing the problem before daring to move forward with the draft.
It can be a challenging strategy for some. We are hardwired to move in a linear direction, from home to destination. If there is an obstacle, we want to take care of it before we move on in the easiest Point A-to-Point B manner.
But we are creating. Engaging our imagination, and hopefully those of other people some day. The rules of locomotion don’t apply here.
In the end, the answer almost always comes, if we continue working at it. You do yourself a solid as an author to have faith in that, even as you move on in your story. One of the few times that “lying” to yourself is advantageous.
Do you find yourself unable to break the inertia of not writing in your work-in-progress? Several times a week or month do you sit down in front of said piece, type perhaps a word or two, and then retreat from so much as even looking at it for weeks on end, despite wanting to get to it? Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or even your personal journals seem like judgmental strangers, and you can barely bring yourself to work on them.
It’s more than mere procrastination, from which we all suffer. And of course you have already ruled out underlying medical and mental conditions and illnesses.
You know it isn’t writer’s block, because you suffer no void of ideas and concepts to explore. In fact, the unpleasant mindset of which I speak can only coincide with a fairly well-defined project—a well-defined project you simply cannot bring yourself to visit, even though you are clearly not lazy.
Could it be that confidence hobgoblin that that often follows artists about, the so-called Imposter Syndrome? After all, that toxic mindset does indeed present as a persistent belief that one is not as talented or worthy of accolades as others may say. This may certainly slow down our daily word count.
Yet you do feel, most of the time, that you are in fact an artist, and as such have every right to create art. You feel like an impostor when you succeed at times, but in the privacy of your own thoughts you find your self-worth as a creator is in tact for the long haul.
Still, a constraint, as invisible as it is pervasive fetters you and makes even a well-planned writing session as daunting as swimming a rough ocean.
To coin a phrase, I ask you if perhaps you are suffering from No Big Deal Syndrome.
Aside from what I mentioned above, symptoms can include a pervasive lack of willingness to invest time or energy into your story—a procrastination of sorts, brought on by a latent feeling of inequality to the task of writing your particular piece.
I admit, it sounds similar to Impostor Syndrome at first pass. Yet instead of feeling you do not deserve success, what you are actually struggling with in No Big Deal Syndrome is the belief that your story, poem, article, is by its nature not significant enough to justify all of the time you need to set aside for it.
This doesn’t refer to accumulating awards and accolades for a piece. Right or wrong there are at least perimeters and requirements that must be met for most of the specific awards out there. If we are not writing something that conforms to those expectations, we aren’t likely to expect out work has a chance in running that gauntlet.
No, it’s the pieces we write for ourselves at first, or for smaller, less defined readership. Or the things we write about because we simply “have to” get them written. Words that when they first come to us won’t let us sleep until we jot them down.
It could even be the idea of writing a little bit of anything each day that stymies us with NBD Syndrome. After all, if our writing, our ideas, our concept isn’t significant to us, if it becomes, “no big deal,” we are going to have a difficult time mustering from within us the proper investment required to bring it to bare.
There are only two ways to combat MGD Syndrome. The incredible thing is, both “cures” are polar opposites.
First, consider that it is a big deal, whatever it is. It’s a big deal because the vast majority of people never bother to create. It’s a big deal because its yours. (Not because it is 100% original in every aspect, which is impossible.) It’s a big deal to be an artist, and artist create stuff. It’s a big deal because…it is a big deal.
To the contrary, you might ironically get past the numbing effects of NBD Syndrome by concluding that “big deals” are in and of themselves “no big deal.” Why does something have to be a big deal, anyway? Artists tend to yoke themselves, or allow the world to yoke them with the idea of being a big deal, and creating a big deal. If you can’t buy into your own artistic significance, buy into the fact that you don’t need to be significant in the first place.
Originally published on my website Christmas Eve, 2010
Due to it being the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the history of the English language (verified), most people, regardless of their faith, are familiar with this piece, known now to history as “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”
Unsigned at the time of its publication in The Sun in 1897, it was of course written in response to a letter received from eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas. Though over time there has been some amount of scholarly doubt as to whether or not an eight year old actually penned the letter bearing her name (appearing as “Virginia O’Hanlon” in the paper), the woman to whom the letter has been attributed lived a life that was rather well documented. Her Wikipedia page, as well as other more legitimate sources cover her life in plentiful, if not meticulous detail. Virginia herself received fan mail for the rest of her life, to which she graciously responded. She indicated near the end of her life that the attention she received as a result of her famous letter had affected her life in a positive way.
Several movies, animated specials, and other works have been created that tell the story of Virginia and her letter. She has become a rather integral part of the Christmas zeitgeist. At least in the United States.
Coming in a distant second to Virginia in this story, in regards to eventual fame, scholarly investigation, dramatic presentation in various media, and inspiration to generations of Christmas lovers? One Francis Pharcellus Church. Who was he? Nobody special. Just the man who actually wrote the editorial itself.
I don’t want to go on and on about that. But I did think it worthy of mention that the author of the words which move so many of us that love Christmas, and the work of whom sparked the most popular editorial of all time seem almost to be an after thought.
“Oh yeah,” folklore personified seems to say. “He took care of that whole writing part of the Virginia story.”
Folks, nothing against Virginia, but in the end Mr. Church was the story. Mr. Church is the story.
Yet his section of the link I provided is basically just his picture. His Wikipedia entry merely mentions he wrote the piece, where he went to school, that he died childless and where his body is buried. It’s barely longer than the piece for which he is (not so) famous.
Now I am not beating up anybody over this. Virginia deserved some attention and admiration. However I do confess it has over the years annoyed me a bit that though it is Mr. Church’s work that instantly captured the hearts of millions, it continues to be Virginia’s story.
So that being said, allow me, on this Christmas Eve of all days, to talk a little bit about what this work of Francis Pharcellus Church says about him, and about writing.
Set aside how famous it is. Really think about the piece. The prose is eloquent but concise. Touching on a multifaceted and deep spiritual truth in a manner that is accessible to an eight year old without boring an adult reader. It both confirms the truth about “Santa Claus”, without blowing the mystique of Santa Claus. It upholds the magical in a child’s Christmas experience without telling one single lie or half truth. On top of it all its magnificent diction makes it perfect for easy recitation or performance.
In other words, it is a brilliant piece of writing that accomplished its mission. And far, far more.
There is much we will never know about the circumstances of Mr. Church composing this editorial. We cannot know what exactly Mr. Church was thinking when he wrote the piece. We probably have no way of knowing if it was assigned to him as opposed to being a request he made to write it. And certainly his muse, like those of all us writers, will remain a mystery. Certainly more of a mystery than what Virginia went on to do with the rest of her life.
Still I think we can make a few assumptions safely. It is safe to say that this was more than a staff writer cutting his pay check. There is a superior quality of soul within the words. I find it hard to accept he didn’t believe each and every one of them as he wrote it.
Safe, also, is the assumption that Church had no idea of the impact he was about to have on an entire nation’s holiday experience over the next hundred-plus years and counting. Anybody who sits down to pen something with that as a goal needs to be locked up someplace.
He did know, as we know, one thing; he was a writer. It was his job to write, and to do so well. To live up to the standard’s expected of him by his employer and by himself. Pursuant to that, he sat down (as so many of us have before and since) with a goal, a resource, his experience, his talent, and his words. And he penned something. Something to which he could not (or would not) attach his name originally. And as a result of his gift for words, he changed not only Virginia’s life, but millions of others. Perhaps even Christmas itself to some degree. And all of that would be true whether or not the “Virginia” letter was really written by an eight year old.
This is why I write. This is why I seek out places and opportunities to make use of this talent I apparently have to assemble words in such a way as to affect, inspire, change, entertain, inform, provoke, and perhaps on occasion save other people. It is why I chose to be a starving freelancer for now. (Unless some perfect staff writing position should show up.) It is why I do my damnedest to write even though I know that nobody is reading. Why, despite a hiatus here and there I muster up within myself time after time that exhausting, that perplexing, that frustrating, that miraculous and inexplicable component within my spirit that accounts for me being a writer.
This stuff isn’t easy, folks. But it can be worth it, when you get it right. Even more worth it when the right people read at the right time what a writer composes. Just as they did for Francis Pharcellus Church. Just as they still do 113 years after he submitted it to the paper.
Was that ubiquitous yet beloved editorial a fluke? Did Church merely get lucky, and strike a cord or two, or a million? Maybe. But I think not. He was, as history tells us a “veteran” journalist, which means he had been writing large amounts of copy for at least quite a few years. That experience may have sharpened him and his words over time in just the right way to make his tapping into the consciousness of a whole culture more likely than it otherwise would have been. But that isn’t being lucky. That’s showing up. We get rewarded for showing up.
Thus far I have shown up to write far more often than I have been rewarded for same. And I get weary of it. Sometimes I even step away for weeks at a time. But the knowledge that showing up can lead to that one moment, article, sentence, speech or novel that changes everything eventually brings me back to the bottom of that hill, ready to push that bolder ever upward. I wonder if Francis Pharcellus Church ever felt that way.
As I mentioned, we know Church died having had no children. But did he? If children be extensions of ourselves and our love, while also taking on a life of their own as time goes on, I say perhaps the man did have at least one child. That child was an unsigned editorial in the September 21, 1897 edition of the New York Sun. And look at how many children, of all ages, it has touched in the decades since.
All because there was once a writer who showed up.