Waldeinsamkeit–In Which We Discuss Finding Peace in the Woods

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I recently discovered a fascinating German word–“Waldeinsamkeit.”  There is not a direct English translation, but generally speaking, it means the peaceful feeling of finding solitude in the woods.  Isn’t it fascinating how we can tell those things which are now or once were valued by a culture based on which things they needed to find words for?  The German people obviously valued their solitude in the woods, as do I.

Looking at that word, I was immediately reminded of the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  Published in 1854, Walden chronicles Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years, two months, and two days in a cabin he built near Walden Pond amidst the part of the forest area owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts.

I’ve often thought, as Thoreau did, that there must be something magical in the waters of Walden Pond, formed centuries ago by receding glaciers.  There were too many great writers and thinkers in the near vicinity for it to have been a coincidence.  When I was young, I contemplated going there and bringing away with me a vile of the water, which I would keep with me to spark genius in my own writing.  But was it really the water or was it the peace in the solitude of the surrounding woods which sparked genius?

By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain as understanding of society through personal introspection.  He also aspired to live simply and self-sufficiently, inspired by his transcendental philosophy.  (Although, let’s be honest that the self-sufficiency is somewhat skewed based on the fact that he was living on his friend’s land.)

As Thoreau himself said, he “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when [he] came to die, discover that [he] had not lived.”  He wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”  Don’t we all?

I wonder if Thoreau knew this word “waldeinsamkeit” when he went into the woods looking for that very feeling.  I wonder if that’s where Walden pond originally derived its name.  We all look for solitude in our own ways.  Most of us don’t have generous transcendental friends with woodland to lend to us for our solitude.  Many of us live and work in the fast paced cities and technological world around us.  I sometimes long for the quiet and peace of pre-digital days when you could go outside to commune with nature in peace and quiet.

I, for one, have my pond and park where I often go in the spring, summer, and fall to recharge.  I seek my clarity and silence there.  I seem to resonate with the energy of the trees and wildlife around me.  During these dark and gray winter months, I find myself longing for “waldeinsamkeit,” for the peace I can only find in nature and the woods.  My pen feels frozen, and I have to work harder to find inspiration for my writing.

I understand Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and other transcendentalists (even Emily Dickinson–yes, she was a transcendentalist, but that’s an argument for another day.)  Our lungs ache for the green air.  Our eyes ache for the vibrant colors.  And our ears ache for the silence yet alive with forest sounds.  There is some kind of inspiring life which can only be found in nature.  I know I will get back to nature and my personal Walden again, but spring feels so terribly far away.

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Rewriting: A Blessing and a Curse

Well, it has been a most eventful summer, my friends.   Thus, my absence from this blog. Relationships have come and gone, new horizons have been tackled. But now I have settled into the groove of teaching again this fall semester, and I’m writing again.

As A Light from the Ashes reached a point where I needed space from it before I could continue editing, I started to think what writing projects I wanted to work on next.  I wrote some snippets in my modern literary fiction piece.  I started researching the historical fiction piece.  But nothing was really holding my attention for more than a couple of days here or there.  They weren’t the big projects I wanted to throw my heart into.

I started to think about my first novel, Loving Silence.  I have known for the past couple of years that it needed a rewrite before it would be ready for publishing.  But I was too close to it to be able to objectively approach that, and then I was involved in the intoxicating A Light from the Ashes.  So, Loving Silence  was off my radar.  But the more I thought about responses from agents to both books, the more I started to realize that if I could do it right, Loving Silence had enough of a unique niche to possibly be the one that would be get picked up first.

So, I decided to revisit my old friend.

The Evolution

I began writing Loving Silence as just a fun exercise in a fiction writing class in 2009 during my undergrad studies.  I was kind of fascinated by some things I’d read about Boston Marriages, and thought of a simple idea for a story merely to fulfill an assignment to write and workshop a chapter.  Then I began writing in earnest over the next two years.  And used my unfinished novel as a Master’s Project in my graduate studies.

I finished the first draft in the summer of 2012 and presented it to a committee of professors who then read it and gave me feedback.  I then worked on Draft 2, and wrote a paper about the entire experience.  I felt pretty proud of myself and my work, despite the fact that one of the professors insisted that the story was deeply flawed in some very important places.

She didn’t understand what I was trying to do, I told myself.  I was the misunderstood artist.  And I started sending out the first few chapters to literary agents.  Although several asked for more pages, and sometimes the entire manuscript, ultimately, the novel was rejected by all.  So, I put it aside until 2016.

I did a minor editing job on it, still not addressing the deeply flawed portions, and started sending it out to agents again.  The same thing happened…initial interest, eventual rejection.

Why Rewrite?

Fast forward  two years.  In that time my personal life, which had always held too strong of a sway over the story, did a complete 180 degree turn around, and suddenly I could see the flaws my professor had commented on years ago.  Also in that time, I had learned the most valuable lesson of allowing my characters to make choices for themselves and live their own lives, rather than trying to impose upon them my own agenda.

Beyond that, I made the most difficult decision, which was that I felt the story needed to have two first person narrators rather than one third person omniscient narrator.  What this effectively means is that I will have to rewrite every blessed word of this novel, rather than just doing a cut/paste job on what’s there.

While this isn’t always the best way to approach every rewrite, for this project, it was what needed to happen, and I believe it is the only thing that could bring these characters to life for me again.

Some significant changes are happening with character and plot as well.  I’m revisiting my research and getting excited all over again about how to bring these characters to life in the best way for the story.  I’m no longer imposing my will on them or trying to fit them into the same box I was trying to force myself into.  And through that process, they are becoming three dimensional characters.

What’s the Blessing?

When we first finish a writing project, especially a long one, in many ways, we are married to that piece, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.  We’re in the honeymoon stage, and we can’t imagine that our love, our baby is anything but beautiful and perfect the way it is.  We can’t see the flaws, and maybe even get defensive if anyone else mentions them.

Distance is often necessary for writers to be able to objectively look at their work, and the only thing that can accomplish that distance is time away.  For me, six years was how long it took me to become objective about this first novel.  (I can’t imagine that length of time will always be necessary.)  Six years, and a great deal of growing and changing in my personal life.

But now that I’m back in the trenches with this novel, I feel like I’m having a reunion with old friends.  I’m having the time of my life with these characters as I’m getting to know them again.  And I truly believe the story will be better for it.  In some ways, it will be truer to my original idea than I ever thought possible.

As writers, and as humans, we have to learn to embrace change, embrace the unknown, and to let go, even a little bit, of some of the control we try so desperately to hold onto.

 

 

Finding Joy in Tiny Victories

You may have heard or read about authors or other artists having problems with depression or other mental disorders.  I’ve often pondered why this is the case.  Perhaps it’s because we have to be so connected to and aware of our emotions and the emotions of our creations.  Perhaps our lives were predisposed to depression and mental health problems, and that’s what led us down the path of creative expression in the first place.  It’s really a chicken or egg question we have here.

Regardless, my point today is that depression is real.  Trying to ignore it or pretend it isn’t there won’t make it go away.  So, if you find yourself in a period of depression, anxiety, writer’s block, or a general funk, I’ve found in my own life that it’s important to celebrate the “tiny” victories.  I put tiny in quotation marks because some days those “tiny” victories feel enormous.  Size is relative and all about perspective anyway, right?

So what do I mean exactly when I say “tiny victory?”

I mean anything that seemed difficult that day, that took effort for you to accomplish.  Our victories change size and perspective depending on what else is going on in our lives.  I’ve learned a great deal from my amateur foray into photography.  Take these leaves for example:

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Or these dandelions:

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Zoomed in on them, then blown up even more on the screen, they can look huge.  But I know how tiny they are in real life.  Logically, in my brain I know that.  But sometimes, when life forces us to zoom in on the little things, when those little things feel too overwhelmingly large to us, we can find beauty, contentment, and joy in overcoming those seemingly small things.

To extend the metaphor, a tree can be broken down into smaller parts, like leaves.  And the leaves into tiny fibers.  If when you look at the task ahead, whether that’s writing a novel, or a story, a blog, or completing any major project.  It’s sometimes helpful to focus in on completing the smaller tasks that make up the major project, and celebrating each of those victories to give yourself encouragement for the next step.

To give you a practical example of what I’ve been describing, I’ll tell you a bit of my own story.  Over the past two years, I worked very hard every day at writing a novel, which I then completed the first draft of on January 1 of this year.  I was in a peak creative time, sometimes knocking out one or two chapters in one weekend.  But I couldn’t possibly maintain that level of creative production 100% of the time.  That would be like running a marathon constantly.

I’ve now entered what feels like a more dormant period.  Partially as a respite after running the marathon of writing the novel, and partially because I’m in a period of depression in my personal life.  I’m editing a piece of the novel at a time.  Some days, I may only complete one or two paragraphs or a scene.  I still have to allow myself to count those days as victories for my sanity.  It won’t do me any good to beat myself up for not being more productive right now.  That kind of self-criticism is detrimental to creativity anyway.  So, I give myself space to breathe, rest, and recuperate.

So, as you’re focusing on the tiny tasks and victories, also step back and look at the big picture of your creative career or life.  There are peaks and there are valleys, but all together, they make a beautiful whole.

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Secrets from the Writing Desk

Have you ever had the visual in your head of a writer sitting down at a typewriter or computer with the words just flowing with brilliance and eloquence in one never ending string of beauty?

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Well, I have a hard truth for you.  Are you ready?  Writing isn’t like that.  That’s a fiction created for movies and TV.  The uncomfortable truth is that writing is hard.  It will frustrate you as much as it gives you a high unlike any you’ve ever felt.  There will be days when you just want to chuck and all and stick with your day job.  That’s the difference between reality and fiction.  Reality is messy and ugly sometimes, often more than it is beautiful.  Fiction can take all of the ugly things and put them into a neater and more palatable package.

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Sometimes the only thing that can keep you on the writing path through all of the hard times, the writer’s block, the frustration, the slogging through a million words is your passion for those words.  If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, if you get annoyed with other things in your life because they take away from your writing time, if the you couldn’t stop the words from flowing out of you if you tried, you may be a writer.

Wordsworth writing But is that all that’s required to be a writer?

Sadly, no.  Because once you’ve “filled your paper with the breathings of your heart,” then comes the editing.  The hard work of organizing, tightening, clarifying, cutting, and adding.  The job of a writer is communication, and if your reader can’t understand what you’re trying to communicate, then what’s the point?  If all you want to do is spill your guts on the page, then perhaps a journal would be the right venue.  But if you want to share your writing with others, it’s your job to help them understand.

There are hundreds, even thousands of people who have put their thoughts down on paper.  But the numbers are much smaller for those who have taken the necessary next steps to bring a coherent piece to other readers.  That is the line that separates a professional from an amateur, in my opinion.  A professional keeps pushing through past the catharsis of getting their words on paper, past the blocks, the frustration, the criticism.  A professional is always learning, always trying to improve the work.

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Anyone can wish and dream, but it takes hard work to turn a wish into reality.