Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

My Muse (er, Mews)


Some think writing is a solitary occupation, but I’m never alone when I write. I always have at least one cat (the record is four) on my desk and often a border collie under the desk. Sometimes a cat sits on my lap.

In this picture, Buford is to the left—that’s his favorite spot. If that corner of the desk is too cluttered, one swipe of his paw clears it. Yelling at him does no good—he’s deaf. (Consequently, he’s the only one of my six cats who likes to be vacuumed, but that’s another story). Dylan is about to slide off my eMac. He still misses the old iMac with its handle that he could put his arm through.

Sometimes my critters actually do inspire me. The following essay took second place in the 2005 Wytheville Chatauqua Creative Writing Contest:

How Do I Write?

I like the sleek whiteness of my eMac, the white keys that require so little pressure, the delete key that removes evidence of my mistakes, the 17-inch screen that I can easily see through my bifocals. The eMac, solid and substantial, glows on my cluttered desk in my equally cluttered study.

Often several cats watch me. Dylan and Eddie-Puss lounge on the desktop; their shedding black hair litters my white keyboard. Camilla, perched on the printer beside the desk, waits to pounce. Foxy and Buford curl in their cat beds on the filing cabinet under the window. Some folks work best in an environment devoid of clutter and animals; I am not one of those folks.

“A cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind,” these folks say.

I say, “One thing a writer needs is a cluttered mind—one so brimming over with ideas that she has plenty to pick and choose from.” I never ask, “What can I write about?” I ask, “What idea will I work on next?” Somehow an idea always claws its way to the top of the heap that is both my desktop and my imagination. If that idea doesn’t work, another lurks beneath it.

From my study window, I can see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. They’re beyond the hill beyond the trees beyond the cornfield across the road. The view from my study window reflects what a writer ought to have: a series of beyonds. Just beyond one idea is another.

A writer should be able to see into the distance, or at least know what is out there. On a clear day, I can see the Peaks of Otter. On a foggy day, I still know they’re there. The same with ideas—somewhere in the fog and the clutter, ideas always wait to pounce into my imagination.

Usually I write the ending to a story first. I like to see where I’m going. Writer Lee Smith says that she writes her last line first and tapes it up where she can see it. I type mine so I can see it. Whenever I open a blank document, I stare at the shiny white page on the shiny white eMac’s screen: all that empty white space—like fog. Then I type my last line. My words shimmer on the screen. I can see where I’m going.

Some writers carefully plot their stories and structure every minute detail. They’re probably the ones who, before they take a trip, peruse the roadmap and carefully plot their route along the fastest and shortest route to their destination—usually the Interstate. I don’t do this. I like to explore the less-traveled roads and admire the scenery. I don’t mind an occasional wrong turn. I can always turn around.

Some writers might say, “Oh, but I want my story to reflect life! In life, we don’t know where we’re going to end!” My reply: “We know exactly where we’ll end. Everyone has the same ending. The only difference is how we get there.” I know my destination, and I want to get there in the most interesting way.

I don’t do all of my writing in my study. Most of my writing takes place in my head while I’m doing something else. I’ve heard a couple of speakers at writing conferences say that a writer should sit down at the computer everyday and wait for an idea to come. “Put your butt in the chair!” one spokeswoman indelicately declared.

I think the best ideas come while a writer does something else, so I haul my derriere out of the chair and do something else—laundry, vacuuming, playing with cats, or walking with my dogs—until I get an idea. Sometimes I take my iBook a couple of miles down the road to my farm. While my dogs run in the hay fields or through the woods, I perch on the tailgate of my old Dodge truck and write. A writer should be able to go where the action is. Sometimes the writer has to join the action— or at least bat ideas around like a playful cat or doggedly follow a thread of thought.

Once in a while, I use the old iMac in the den. While I work at the iMac, Buford the deaf cat sleeps on top of the computer amoire. He doesn’t like anything to creep up on him, so he sleeps high. Dylan, the smallest black cat, drapes himself over the iMac. Putting his foreleg through the handle so he doesn’t slide off, Dylan luxuriates in the iMac’s warmth. The other cats lounge on a nearby sofa. Cats are a great audience. They never find fault with anything I write.

At the iMac, I can look out sideways out the back door to the pasture and watch my horses graze. My view is limited—a line of trees, the edge of the barn, and two elderly mares. Sometimes a writer needs a limited view, a narrow focus. Sometimes a sidewise glance is what I need to get a fresh idea. Sometimes, like Dylan, I hang onto an idea so I don’t slip away from it; sometimes, like Buford, I don’t let outside ideas creep up on me. Sometimes, like my mares, I let my imagination graze.

Each computer gives me a different viewpoint, a different approach. A writer, I’ve decided, can’t have too many computers—or too many viewpoints. Years ago, I believed that ideas had to flow from my brain, down my arm, into my fingertips and out my pen onto a yellow legal pad. Then, after much crossing out and revising, I would bang away on my typewriter until the idea popped out onto paper. What a waste of time!

Now, ideas—like electric currents—flow from brain to fingertips to screen. I can move words, sentences, paragraphs; I can insert and delete. Quick as a cat, I can change the whole look of my manuscript in seconds. I can luxuriate in words that appear before my eyes almost as fast as they appear in my mind.

I can’t imagine writing without a computer—or without cats or dogs or horses.
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