Category: Behind the Pen


The Expense of TodayMy local bank has put up signs this summer next to each teller as some kind of financial promotion. Basically, each has teller was supposed to write what she (they’re all women) is looking forward to in life. Each and every one of them, without fail, wrote “Retirement.”

So now every time I walk into the bank I’m met with these “I want to retire, I want to retire” signs. It’s odd. The boss man’s is slightly different; he wrote something about cabin trips and margaritas, which is still an escape from the daily grind.

I’m sure this is just a way to get the bank customers to think about saving more or to think about our financial future. But I think about how this promotion is backfiring for me. I think about how the “weird” way I live my life–without paid vacation or designated sick days or financial security of any kind—and all in the name of art, is exactly where I need to be.

Sure, I should save more. But it seems the moment I have some monetary substance to my life, I find that that’s the exact sum I need to go see a remote part of the world, or to take a class with a Master on a topic, or even just to buy a book and some tools so I can fix it myself. I buy experience. And it all finds its way into the writing.

It’s not an easy life, and that’s why I put heart and soul into the writing I do, because those are the things for which I’ve saved and spent: heart and soul.

Don’t get me wrong; planning for the future is important. I still plan. But not at the expense of today. At the age of 24 I declared myself semi-retired because I didn’t want to wait until I was 65 (or, these days, 70) to make time for what I love.

The last thing I ever wanted was to seek tomorrow at the expense of today.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

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Give Me the Grit

Give Me the Grit - aboveThe view above the clouds is marvelous and breathtaking. Air travel allows a person to see that the notion of glory is still there. Some would argue that it’s way above our heads, untouchable, out of reach.

Of course, none of that means we can’t lift our head and look up. And on cloudy days, we simply have to imagine.

The glow of those lofty pink and orange hues and golden light wrap around a person and inspire growth, strength, and other words about large concepts that get tossed around that no one really stops to explain. I won’t illustrate them, either, because they’re beside the point.

Give Me the Grit - belowFor me? There’s a beauty in the grey, the grainy, the grit, all the things that sit under the cloud cover that we wade through daily. Life’s challenges, like the writing of a book, ask that we pay attention, apply diligence to our work, and allow for, at times, constant change.

The view above the clouds reminds us that we can do it. But it’s in the misty undercloud that we get it done.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, available on Amazon. She’s currently penning her second novel, based on the life of a WWII veteran. For more on her writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

The Long Silence

The Long SilenceIt’s been a long ten days since my last blog post.

I’ve written. Oh, I’ve certainly written. I spend my days reading and fiendishly writing. But when it comes to posting anything, well, the world seems so full of news and disaster and commentary that I need to fall silent. Couple that with a sense of mourning over the end of #Project365, and I can firmly say I have felt the passing of each and every moment these first ten days of 2015.

The sense of mourning is a surprise, and surprisingly, is also familiar. I felt something similar when I finished my first book–this feeling of nothing to offer, as if friends have shown up for dinner but the pantry is bare, and a feeling of smallness, as if I’m looking up from the bottom of a well with the ground level towering so very far above me.

I find myself wondering what others do when they finish a written project. Is the strange mourning a necessary step, a nod toward the legitimacy of the project at its end? Or is it just the change of focus that is so disruptive to the system? I ask that last question because as soon as I recognized this feeling as the same I had after finishing my first book, it ceased in causing chaos and the aloft pieces started falling into place.

Silly enough, I thought that without blogging daily, I would delight in the free time and in the ability to devote myself to other projects. And half of that is true: I built a schedule for working on new writing and I’m diligent about keeping up with it. The fact that there is a schedule to run to, a structure to climb, if you will, is like seeing the stars from that well bottom.

It’s the other half that’s so intriguing, that I would miss the daily chatter in my head and the constant lining up of words to be read immediately. As with most things, just when I think I’ll run, arms flailing, mouth erupt with squealing laughter, away from a tough job the way school kids launch themselves upon recess, instead, I walk, calmly toward the waiting sunlight while wistfully missing the work at my back.

Ah, but these are the mark of life well lived, of chasing down a calling. There’s much to be said for standing at the bottom of the well and yet seeing those stars. There’s much to be said, too, for getting creative and making something from nothing, which is what you do when you think the pantry is empty. It’s what you do when you line words up on the page.

And as for the need to fall silent in the midst of disaster, it’s not what you think. It’s a very alive, active, thought-filled awe of silence. It’s the quiet moment of taking a breath before you speak.

In everything I’ve been thinking and writing and deducing these last few days, the thought that returns to me again and again is this: The human spirit amazes me.

Nous sommes Charlie Hebdo.

~ Jody Brown is an author, blogger, poet, and traveler. To read about her current writing projects or donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

Marking the Miles, December 2014

Marking the Miles, December
Wow, twelve months! When I started this daily blog project, I had no idea where it would take me. I knew the merits: coming up with constant ideas, meeting one quick deadline after another, and strengthening the ability to write on command. I also knew the pitfalls: getting overwhelmed, not following through (which it probably why it took me until May of this year to even admit I was attempting a daily blog this year), and even the prospect of getting sick or dealing with life events that would require taking time off. I’m astounded to be sitting here today, penning my 365th consecutive post.

I will let you in on a secret: On my desktop, I wrote a mantra for this year of blogging that goes, “Make people strive to be better.” Not that people need betterment, but yes, sometimes we need betterment. In whatever I write, I always come back to this motto. Sometimes I fall short of it, I admit. But the sentiment behind 98% of my writing is precisely the will to strive to be better. I got in the habit of asking myself as soon as I’d wake up in the morning, “What do you want to say to the world today?” There’s a lot of potential in a big, open question like that.

I will tell you that in May, I wrote a post, A Will and A Way, that I planned to keep until today, and post it as my last post. May was the month I sold my house, packed my things into storage containers to ship across the country, wrote my toughest, best, and favorite article for Rochester Women Magazine, and somehow in all of that, I realized that that final post was a safety net. The last thing I need on this Earth is a safety net. So I posted it in early June.

These December posts, this last week of them especially, have been the most difficult. I expected them to be easy, what with nearly a year under my belt, but no. Earlier in the month, I thought I should make a list of the things I wanted to write, the things I needed to say during this year. Make a plan, map it out. I didn’t. [Chuckling on this end.] It seemed so forced, so canned, if you will, for me to plan a script, so I just kept writing and let whatever came to mind get down on paper. These last few were tough because I wanted to say something important. I’d psyched myself up so much that I had to talk myself back down again–in writer terms, I had to write and write and write until the writing calmed down enough to get to something I considered good. My favorites for December are Monday Relief, The Poet’s Heart, The Light at the Writing Desk, Baggage Claim, and two from this past week: Spilled Milk and Through the Everywhere.

I tell you, tomorrow will be so difficult not to blog. I may do it, anyway. But there are some amazing projects that I have planned to write in 2015, and I keep coming up with more ideas. First things first, I plan to track down some funding so I can free up work time to get them all done. If you have advice for me in this regard, I’ll take it. And I’ll be here, don’t worry. I may not blog daily, but I’ll blog often and keep you updated on writing progress. Write me if you need. I’ll answer.

Thank you, each of you, for being here. Knowing that you were here, reading what I had to say for the day, kept me dreaming up more things to write. I certainly didn’t do this Project365 for me–however fun, hard, or beneficial it’s been. I did this for you. I write for you.

And imagine this: It’s changed my whole life. From my heart to yours, I thank you for that.

Set your sights high, my friends. The year 2015 deserves everything we’ve got. Let’s show ourselves what we can do.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

The Do-Over

The Do-OverI’ve rewritten yesterday a little bit, and I offer my apologies for the disjointed thoughts. Apparently blogging from the passenger seat of a car on the hills of Pittsburgh with the music on and your friend driving and trying to talk to you is a recipe for some crazy nonsense. But what fun!

The last thing I want is to send out written junk into the world, even well-intentioned written junk. But what’s done is done and I’ll accept it as a learning experience, which is life, after all. Daily writing calls for crafting thoughts in the most unlikely of places, and especially under some duress-building circumstances. It’s a constant sending out into the world, even when you’re not your ideal, living-in-a-plastic-bubble self.

I acknowledge that we only get one chance to make a first impression. But experience tells us time and again that how we handle ourselves is what makes memorable moments.

Recently, I took a close look at a situation in my life that needed some changing. Sprucing up, if you will. And I realized that what I was feeling about it was a snowball of confusion, anger, and sadness, rolling itself straight downhill. As my little nephew Miles would say as he checks blood pressure with his toddler doctor kit, “Not good.” He adds a slow headshake for effect.

Like the snowball, I wanted to curl myself up and hold onto all those negative feelings. But I also knew it wasn’t doing anyone any good. What I needed was a remedy to overcome the worst spirits.

I knew exactly what to do, though it was not easy to implement. I’m hoping that though the first step was a doozy, that it gets easier to do the more I try it: I realized that I could continue to feel hurt and angry and confused, or I could stand down and love. So that’s what I did. And I stopped worrying about what would happen next.

Give a gift this holiday season to someone else or even to yourself, the gift of the do-over. Stand down, and love.

My thanks for putting up with me yesterday,

-J

Distilling Complicated

Distilling ComplicatedHumans are complex individuals, intricately woven together, and even our day-to-day decisions are often layered. In most situations, there’s what we thought, what we said, what we did, and who dealt with the effects of it all. Still, whenever I hear, “It’s complicated,” I roll my eyes and think, “Oh, here we go.”

I think this because more often than not, the complicated part is not what was said or done or the effect of such things. Instead, the complicated part is that we don’t acknowledge how we feel in the first place.

A life in writing means that the writer examines his or her heart constantly. We look for where it all boils down and seek out the crux of the matter. Under all the layers, usually one emotion is hiding deep within. Typically, it’s not even a difficult or painful emotion, but simply because it’s been hidden it causes turmoil, spoiling the writing and frustrating every stroke of the pen. Yes, this is where the dreaded Writer’s Block sets in.

The moment you shine the light on what’s hidden, though, those fibers deep within loosen their grip. The logjam breaks and the words flow smoothly again.

In creating stories, writers weave convoluted plotlines. Yet when talking with non-writers about matters of the heart, writers don’t see complications. We see motives, hidden and open, and we see them not with judgment but with their potential to make a great story.

Writers can be wonderfully analytical and can handle convolutions with grace, charm, and sometimes with plot graphs. Most of the time, when non-writers label a situation as “complicated,” they’re applying a death sentence to open communication–or to open storytelling in the writer mind.

Writers seek to unearth the heart of the matter in all things, because that’s the thread holding it all together. The rest is just subplot and details. We bravely jump down the rabbit hole, perhaps because we think we can write our way out of anything.

Or maybe, it’s that we think we can write our way in.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

Hard Conversations

Hard ConversationsThey say that writing dialogue is not easy. They tell you that you’ll struggle with it.

I ask: What do they know?

Sure, we’ve all read lousy dialogue, dialogue that’s bad to the point where you know no one would actually say it the way it’s written. Writers write in two dimensions, while allowing readers to envision the third. That kind of leap, from two to three, takes dialogue that’s as close to authentic as it can get.

My first book, Upside Down Kingdom, has about 60 speaking characters in it, each with a different voice. The end result is that nearly half of the book is dialogue. There are ways to pull this off, and they begin with two very important things to avoid.

One: There shouldn’t be evidence of the writer in the conversation, unless you’re going to pull off a French Lieutenant’s Woman moment where the author sits on a train and speaks directly to the reader about the flip of the coin to decide how the story will end and what will get told and what will remain hidden. [I’m pretty sure this was Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and not his The Magus, but if I have it backward, please let me know.]

And Two: There should not be the situation of the writer’s plan getting in the way. Details like, “Hello, George, my brother with the bad leg from that shark attack. How are you this fine, December the 9th?” do not belong in dialogue as a way of giving background (unless they’re funny, in which case, have at it).

Authentic dialogue means listening to the way people actually talk, listening to how they form their words. If I taught this stuff, I’d send my students out to a restaurant to listen in, and the assignment would be to write a paper based on who is telling the truth, and who is hiding something.

This is not to say that all people are sitting around being deceptive in their speech. Quite the opposite, in fact. We reveal the truth and we hide the truth, and we use word choice to accomplish both. When you can write that paper and explain hidden motives based solely on a character’s word choice, you’re ready to write great dialogue.

So listen intently. And listen for what’s not being said.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

New BeginningsObserving daily life usually gives me ideas and ways of thinking about events, but there are days when I’m just plain tired out or when I’m too much in love with what I wrote the day before to begin something new. Those days I need to spark creativity, much like deciding to write a new novel and wondering where to begin, and I scour my surroundings for inspiration.

In the spring of this year, I wrote the Writer’s Bag of Tricks, which walks through a few techniques of mine and of my writer friends when writing a novel and we find ourselves stuck. But the kind of block that can arise when writing daily blogs requires different techniques, mainly because daily blogging on a variety of subjects involves a constant need for beginnings. Here’s what I do:

  1. Look Through Pictures

I love my camera phone. I use it to jog my memory, like tying a string on a finger. When an idea occurs to me, I take a picture of what I was looking at that triggered it. Later, when going back through the most recent pictures, I remember the ideas. They’re eclectic and sometimes badly taken photos, but they get the job done.

  1. Sit Quietly and Remember

I mentally walk through my childhood, college, states I’ve lived and jobs I’ve held. I indulge on Memory Lane and think, “Is there something here that needs discussion? What would I tell people about that day?” These writings, for me, start slowly and then begin to snowball if I just give them time.

  1. Watch the News

The news can be downright depressing. But there are times when random, eclectic stories are being reported, and I find I have opinions or questions on them. Writing these thoughts down usually opens the floodgates of lively banter and creative imagery.

  1. Reread Past Writing

I have tons of old writings saved and stuffed in my computer, and even older volumes of writing and thoughts on napkins crammed into binders. The interesting part is, that while there is a lot of this writing, usually only one thing will speak to me at a time. So you don’t need to have a lot of it lying around for reference. In reading through old ideas and bits that didn’t work, typically the mind will latch on to something it’s ready to work with.

Above all, don’t panic. You can do this. Believe it. Believe it to the point of confidence. Wake up every day and think, “What do I want to say to the world today?” which is a daunting question, but throw caution to the wind and ask it anyway. Take the leap.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

The Sweet Spot of the Screensaver

Sweet Spot of the ScreensaverI imagine there are those out there who don’t bother with screensavers at all on their personal computers, while others probably set them at 2-3 minutes of inactivity to log off. Yes, there are factors of security, location, and material in the personal computer that affect when we set the screen to lock. But what’s your sweet spot? How much time do you allot yourself to sit without a keystroke before the screen changes?

Mine is 20 minutes. In 20 minutes’ time, I should have latched onto an idea enough that I’m typing away. I may not know where it’s going, or if the idea will get off the ground, but I’m usually typing.

I gave this a good amount of thought when I first arranged the settings on the computer. It’s strange to think of something like the screensaver as a writing tool, but I suppose we adapt to whatever’s at hand. Personally, ticking timers are an interference, and buzzers are too jarring for me. Perhaps I need lull.

Sometimes imagination springs to life right away, and I’m off and running, so to speak. And the screensaver doesn’t come into play at all. Other times, I pause and reread again and again because something doesn’t feel right, and in those times, the screensaver acts as an annoying reminder that I’m just staring. Many, many times I have said, “Hey! I was looking at that,” when no one is in the room.

And in the off chance that in 20 minutes I’m not typing but lost in a daydream, the sudden flicker of the screen is enough to pull me back to the present, back to the work at hand. In this business, it’s important to give yourself time, which includes time to muse.

The screensaver is just a small detail, perhaps an “elementary detail, Watson,” but it says a lot about the person at the controls. What does yours say about you?

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. To learn more about her current writing projects, or for ways to donate toward their completion, see JodyBrown.com/writing.

Marking the Miles, November

Marking the Miles, November
I’m a bit surprised that November has come and gone. These past 30 days have flown by, and for me, even writing seems to have flown by.

I have so many favorite pieces this month, from Not Set in Stone to Tunnel Vision to Ever Vigilant and I Wonder. These were all fairly straight-forward writings, without hidden meanings or convoluted language. From memories to life’s details examined, I enjoyed telling the stories, and hopefully making a point and getting the words just right.

Here’s a secret for you, though: I wrote Quarters on Ice solely because of the picture. I love that picture, and risked frostbite in -30 temps to take off my gloves in order to take that photo last winter. I’ve stared at it often this past year, and this month, finally wrote something. I’m happy the way it turned out.

Mid-month, I examined some of my own bizarre thinking lately, which is why I wrote The Underdog Trap. Sure, we all have the ability to set ourselves up to fail, but once we realize we’re doing it, we can make a turn to a positive direction—or, at least I think so. And if I understand my own thinking well enough to write about it, and then the issue itself, the snare, becomes something that I know how to avoid. I suppose Underdog is a true blog, in the “old school” sense that it was my own diary web log that day.

Similarly, the traumatic thinking in Unchecking the D Box started as a natural enough comment that I couldn’t shake. It seemed to require a spotlight. The only way I know how to do that is by writing.

Gypsy Thanksgiving is by far my favorite, I think because of the specific details in the memories coupled with the overall tone of gratitude. It was a joy to write.

Here’s to more joy and more writing. Thank you for reading me. I appreciate that you do.

I’ll see you right here tomorrow.

-J

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