As a short person, I spend a lot of time on stepstools and ladders for ordinary reasons: getting the vanilla, dusting a bookshelf, putting away the folded towels. Sometimes I pause up there and look around, just to see what things look like to a person one or two feet taller. I literally get a fresh perspective.
Other movement can do that, too. If I'm stuck in writing I will go from desk to table, or drag the laptop onto the bed, or take my legal pad up to the rooftop pool. The change of venue helps to reboot the brain and give the work some extra "oomph."
I'm sure this refreshment applies to people who aren't writers, too. Tom, my husband, now telecommutes one day a week, and he says that small change of venue helps his thoughts about legal issues. And I suspect that not all the people tapping away on their devices in the local coffee shop are there for the java alone.
Occasionally, it doesn't work. During my first draft of Fish-Eye Lens, I accompanied a friend on a trip to a small town in the Dominican Republic. Although I tried writing in our room, on the balcony, at a table outside a local bar and in the park, it was impossible. Among the blaring reggaeton and bachata music, buzzing motorbikes, political campaigners in pickup trucks filled with amps and the daily rounds of the plantain man, I couldn't "hear" my characters. I had to return to the Turks and Caicos to get back the rhythms of Cynthia's voice.
Soon I'll be changing my venue in a big way by going again to the Turks and Caicos. I'll be "on location" for the current novel and hope the scenery and lifestyle will inspire lots of pages. I'll also keep my eyes and ears open so I can recognize the seeds of new short stories.
And yes, I'll be up on ladders and stepstools, mostly trying to reach things or clean windows. But I'll stop and look around while I'm up there to get a different perspective on my non-writing life, too.
Just as I think everyone should.
When people ask me about North Caicos, I'm afraid I don't do a very good job describing the island. It's hard to encapsulate its peculiar blend of "Fantasy Island" and "Green Acres."
Knowing that the questioners often have a preconceived notion about a Caribbean paradise, I do my best to make them understand that this real place is unlike the luxury resorts touted by the vacation industry. So my efforts come off as negativity:
"There's really nothing there."
"Don't expect restaurants as you know them."
"Forget about shopping. There's no place to shop."
"Think of simple activities like walking the beach, reading or fishing. There are no operators for parasailing and such."
I fail to mention the miles of natural beach, where we say it's crowded if you meet more than six people ... or the calm blue waters protected by a reef ... or the fun of listening to men argue about politics at a tiny local bar ... or Susie Gardiner's conch fritters.
I'm not trying to be selfish about North Caicos, keeping others away to keep it peaceful. But I do know it's not for everyone, so I try to weed out those folks who imagine being served a pina colada while they lounge on a chaise listening to steel drums. Yes, you can do that, but you have to make the drink yourself and carry it to the beach along with the beach chair and the music. See the difference?
I do a much better description in my fiction, explaining this place through the incidents and stories I've encountered ... even though they've been dressed up, rearranged, blended together or pared down. Freed from discussing where to find lunch or how to get hold of the one dive operator, my writing can describe North Caicos (or East Taino, as I sometimes call it) as the kind of place where...
...an old man who gets lost in the Pine Yards might tell his rescuers he was lured there by a spirit.
...a blind flamingo can walk right into you on the beach.
...a woman can remain friends with and even do business with another woman who has slept with her husband -- and she knows it.
...everyone has a theory when shoes start washing up on the beach, and
...century-old traditions daily rub against the forces of the modern world. The erosion is subtle and slow, but inevitable.
When it comes to North Caicos, I can't write the tourist brochure. I can only write my own sort of homage and hope that those who appreciate the island will find it, the same way that those who appreciate the writing will find me.
Tomato time has begun. The varieties that Tom planted in our urbann garden plot are popping: slicers, plum and grape tomatoes. I'm having tomato sandwiches for breakfast, tomato salads for lunch and tomato-heavy dishes like gazpacho and ratatouille for dinner.
Tomato time has followed lotsa lettuce, the bean bonanza and quantities of cucumbers. We are amazed at how much food we're gathering from this tiny plot.
The amazement comes partly from the comparison between this garden and our efforts at growing vegetables on North Caicos.
North Caicos is known as the Garden Island of the Turks and Caicos. It's a relative term; it has mostly sandy and rocky soil instead of the completely sandy and rocky land of the other islands. However, there is a lens of water underground and North has long produced local corn, sweet potatoes and cassava. Coconut, guava, papaya and mango trees do well. But getting a tomato, cucumber or bean to grow? Different story.
We tried hard. We watered a lot. We added Miracle-Gro. We composted (itself a challenge because the island doesn't have earthworms as we know them). When a vegetable actually appeared on a plant, we worked to protect it from the many bugs that could snatch it away.
We had some success, but it was hard-won. I treasured each tomato, and I remember my friend Lynn proudly serving her ONE cucumber as an appetizer, sliced and salted. Meanwhile, my guava tree was popping so prodigiously that I was giving sacks of the fruit away and inventing Guava Coffee Cake and Guavodka-Tonic drinks.
The lesson is pretty obvious. Things that come to us easily are less appreciated than those that require work. Yet when I try to apply the lesson to writing, I bump into the issue of overwriting -- when you work so hard on a scene or description that it becomes wrought instead of written. And readers can tell that.
So sometimes the best self-advice is to just relax and let it come as it will. Forget about the peppers and pick a peck of pickled papaya.
Because sometimes a tomato is just a tomato.
I recently found out how well a laptop computer holds its liquor: not very well at all. Mine survived a gin-and-orange-juice in 2008 with only a forever-disabled "forward" key, but the vodka-Sprite on Saturday did in in. Kaput.
Considering that my livelihood (such as it is) depends on this thing, I took it remarkably well. Tom bought me a new one, and as I looked up data recovery services for the old one I thought about what was in there that I really needed.
It turns out I'm enough of a Luddite to have lost very little. All my publishing contracts are printed out and filed in real folders. Even if I didn't keep copies of my short stories in a flash drive, I generally do revisions on printouts and keep them around for a while. I have my resume, Aloe House documents and other personal info on paper.
If for some reason the hard drive fails to reveal its secrets, I would have only a few things to re-create: half a chapter of the new novel, my business card, my list of e-mail contacts. (And many of those are written in my physical address book.)
So am I a smart cookie, or just hopelessly un-tech? Makes you wonder.
I've always marveled at fellow writers who don't have a favorite pen, a preference between yellow and white legal pads or even a tiny bottle of rapidly solidifying Wite-Out in the drawer. How can they write? Sure,I do a lot of writing directly onto the screen, but when it comes to getting started, working out a character description or interrupting myself to plan ahead, there's nothing like the old-fashioned tools of the trade. You can't doodle in the corner of a Word document or curl its edges while you think, and a computer mouse won't twirl between the fingers.
I suppose there's a certain amount of habit involved here. Once, my friend Naqqi arrived at Aloe House while I was at the kitchen table with my pen and pad. When I told him I was working on a story, he looked astonished. "How can you write like that?" he asked. His was the generation that started matching "A" and "apple" on the computer screen and never looked back. I suppose he's developed some sort of equivalent to doodling in margins.
So I'm not going to say that analog writing is superior to digital (even if it is). Instead, I'll just point out a few things:
*Ink, graphite and typewriter ribbons all have an aroma. I never sniff my keyboard, unless I suspect there's a dead critter in it.
*When a cat sits on a piece of paper, lines of gibberish don't appear on it and nothing gets erased.
*When I doodle, at least I'm creating something, even if it's just a palm tree and ocean waves.
*If you spill a drink on paper, you can pick up the sheet, shake it off and hang it up to dry. And more paper is a lot cheaper than data recovery and a new laptop.
Note: Yes, all my blogs are written on paper before I transfer them to my site. The process gives me one last chance for revision. This one is in black ink on yellow lined paper with two springs and a palm tree by paragraph 2 and "cats, doodles, drinks" in the margin beside where my list started.
The computer has been drinking,
This blog by Jody Rathgeb has changed several times over the years and currently focuses on island living. It is also posted on Facebook as Beyond the Parrot Paradise.