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June 11, 2011

Blogpostos Refritos: Kill Your Squirrels

By Cornelia Read

Okay, I am going to be a giant bucket of lameness this week and repost an older post from another blog. I hope you will excuse me... my fourth novel, the deadlines of which I have been blowing steadily amidst divorce, moving cross-country, family tragedies, and, um, family tragedies, is now really, really really, really due Monday.

I have already driven 853 miles this week, picked my mother up at Kennedy Airport, spent two days on Long Island with Cousin Herbie, acted as a taxi service for a friend in NYC (this started out as a breakfast date, but my mother has a fondness for directing me to drive along ridiculous back-country roads with inordinate amounts of traffic on them, so by the time we got to the city I had had to call twice to say we were going to be late, and then a third time to say, "um, would you just like a ride to Penn Station and can we use your bathroom?"), and then a night with Mom's college roommate in Connecticut, and oh by the way my daughter is graduating from boarding school here in New Hampshire Sunday morning and other family-type persons are flying/driving in from Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont, and other parts to converge for the ceremony, and lunch afterward, and the apartment is kind of a shithole from hell at the moment... and, and, and... and meanwhile I am trying to figure out what the FUCK I am doing with the final pieces of the plot of this novel that make no sense to me quite yet. SO..... please bear with me.

In the meantime, I have ended up sending out a link to this blog post to several friends this week, in odd synchronicity, because they have been struggling with writing their first novels (three of them) and their third screenplay (one of them), and they seemed to find it helpful.

Oh, and also now my mother would like to read it because her Wildflowers of Centre Island project has become quite a slog. So, I don't know, maybe my own writing craziness (and Very High Mental Illness Number, a concept stolen from our own Joshilyn Jackson's Faster Than Kudzu blog, long hence) is somehow illuminating for others in the same trenches of struggle? Hard to say.

Of course, had I been able to take this advice MYSELF, I would not have blown so many deadlines on this poor benighted little novel I was supposed to have finished myself a long, long time ago. On the bright side, the first draft made my writing group cry. Twice. In a good way. So maybe there's some juice to it? Oh, please, writing gods, may that be so...

HEMINGWAY, as my sister Freya always says instead of "anyway," here goes.

I think the advice might work for other things outside of writing, but as I have been an abject failure at every other profession I have ever tried (chamber maid at The Tickle Pink Hotel, waitress, stable-hand, book catalog editor, journalist, pornographer, and housewife) I wouldn't have the slightest fragrance of a mere hint of a clue about that. But please let me know if it works, okay?

(and, this is a post I originally wrote to cheer myself up/give self a pep talk FOR THIS SAME BOOK in October of 2009, your mileage may vary. IT seems like mine certainly did....)




Writing scares me. Getting my ass in the chair and the Work-In-Progress Word file open is a goddamn struggle, every single time.

It's like my head is filled with a bunch of really mean, sarcastic squirrels who don't like me very much,


and I have to get each one of them to shut up even though they're wearing body armor and keep ducking down behind these fat flood-watch sandbags of inertia and angst.

Oh, and they're probably French.



That they are also zombies and radioactive no doubt goes without saying.


So, yeah, a head full of Kevlar-encased carnivorous undead glow-in-the-dark scathingly articulate plutonium-oozing Catherine-Deneuve squirrels who know me down to the last molecule of unworthy marrow: Fabulous.

I may be more squirrel-infested than you are, or less. I think we all have to play at least a little mental whack-a-mole in order to get down to work.

My squirrels remind me that I don't have a backup job or health insurance, and that if my fourth book sucks butt--which it inevitably will, if I even manage to finish it--I will be unable to learn how to operate an espresso machine at Starbucks, and that I will therefore be doomed to labor on well into my toothless nineties wearing support hose and a McDonalds uniform.

Probably in Antartica.


(Yes, I am aware that there are no Eskimos in Antartica. This just means that my job at McDonalds will be more lonely.)

I am not alone in this, I know. Gene Fowler once said, "Writing is easy. You simply stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."

(I first heard that from Douglas Adams in a speech he gave at an ABA breakfast in Anaheim, about seventeen years ago. And he didn't credit Gene Fowler.)

The basic gist here is that in order to write, I have to keep reminding myself to kill my squirrels. Here are ten tips for squirrel maintenance that have served me well in this regard, even though I don't always remember them.


Number One: They're Only Squirrels.


Really. Not to mention imaginary.

It's a negative soundtrack of your own devising. It's not the voice of The New York Review of Books, Your Mother, or Fate. Anne Lamott called it Radio KFKD, and rightly pointed out that it's bullshit.


Don't let it stop you from getting your ass in the chair and opening the Word file. You are allowed to write crap. You are allowed to write a shitty first draft, and a shitty second draft, and as many steenking-piece-of-crap drafts as it takes.

The best novel you can ever write will be the result of small, sustained efforts, repeated over and over.


It will not be the product of continuous days of brilliance, with The Choir Eternal singing praise in your ears throughout. It will be built in layers. Many, many, many layers.


These efforts will at times feel infinitisemal, as though you are trying to unearth Pompeii with a bent spork and broken fingernails.


Some of these infinitisemal efforts will suck. That is inevitable, and it is okay. You will fix them. You do not have to turn straw into gold by lunchtime, or dinner, or even breakfast tomorrow.

Gandhi said, "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it." That's your daily mantra.


Guy de Maupassant is credited with saying "Get black on white," meaning just spill some ink on the paper.

Start. Pick a word and go.

I just re-read Stephen King's On Writing. He relates an anecdote about a friend asking James Joyce what he'd managed to write that day.

"Seven words," said Joyce.


"Well, James, that's pretty good for you."

Joyce shook his head. "But I don't know which order they go in."

What they say in AA is if you don't know what to do, Do The Next Right Thing. It might be tiny, you might not know what comes next. Just do the next. right. thing.

We're all digging with Sporks. Embrace the Spork. The Spork is Life.




Number Two: Writing is Like Working Out

If you've blown off exercising for a while, getting started up again sucks. The first day you feel like an idiot--you're sweaty and ungainly and everyone else in the room is faster/stronger/better than you are.

The second day is worse because now you're sore from the first day, and besides which the instructor lady is obviously a bulimic Nazi bitch who hates you.


But the third day... well, maybe the Stairmonster didn't make you feel like barfing after only five minutes this time, or you actually finished the full sequence of leg-lift inner-thigh-torture things without collapsing to the floor like a lukewarm pool of spilled Hollandaise.


Writing is like that, too. Day one is a root canal, day two is a root canal with back spasms... but day three you might think up something funny, or have a few good lines of dialogue, or really nail the way newly delivered palm trees with their fronds tied up in the air:


kind of look like Pebbles Flintstone:


Whatever... day three you'll have a little something to let you know you're getting your mojo back, I promise.


[UPDATE: One new saying I have picked up since October of 2009: "If you neglect your art for one day, it will neglect you for two." The fact that I found this on my very favorite free tarot-card-reading website does not make it any less true.]


Number Three: Watch Some Stupid TV.  After You've Written.

For the past two nights, I have been watching the CMT series about tryouts for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. This has helped my mental state immensely. I'm serious.

Here's why: 99.9% of the chicks trying out for the squad are are nubile, gorgeous, great dancers, and have these huge smiles like they've got Vaseline on their teeth (they probably do have Vaseline on their teeth, if my Miss America trivia is at all trustworthy.)


600 of them showed up for the initial tryouts. Circa 150 got picked for a second round. Maybe 30 of those got to go to cheerleading camp, and another 15 of those got cut over the course of the next eight weeks of grueling workouts and vicious dance hazing.


Those final 15 who got cut? Mostly it was because they were nervous.

They didn't throw caution to the wind and go for it, didn't have fun, didn't get outrageous and over-the-top with the whole thing.

The ones who made it were the ones who just shut up and did it--said to themselves, "Holy crap, I'm at fucking DALLAS COWBOYS CHEERLEADERS CAMP! What a trip! BE HERE NOW!"


The ones who thought about it too much froze, and missed out on the experience. And went home.

The ones who just went for it? They took criticism, and asked for help when they were called into the office. They said "yes ma'am" a lot and got better. And better. Bit by bit, rehearsal by rehearsal.

And they never stopped smiling.

Also, it reminded me that as hard as writing can be for me, it sure beats having to be a professional cheerleader.

If I had to smile that hard, my lips would fall off.


Seriously, aren't you glad we don't have to look this enthusiastic throughout Bouchercon?

Plus I can't dance for shit. Not even with a bottle of tequila in hand and a gun to my head.


Number Four: Read a Really Crappy Book

If you're struggling with your writerly self-esteem, read the crappiest book you can lay your hands on. I'm talking vampire e-porn, or the ugliest paperback in the drugstore rack.


Something with a bad ersatz Fabio on the cover and a lot of overly-serifed swirly fonts in gold is good.


Something where every woman's hair is "a deep auburn," and they talk about "his manhood" a lot.


Better yet, open up an Ayn Rand novel and read the dialogue aloud to yourself, preferably in a Sesame-Street Swedish Chef accent.


You can do better than that. You WILL do better than that. You already *ARE* DOING WAAAAAY BETTER THAN THAT.


Lather, rinse, repeat as needed.



Number Five: Do Something Mindless But Slightly Engaging for a While

I've heard it said that when super-computer designer Robert Cray got stuck, he'd dig tunnels in his back yard. Serious tunnels. Great Escape tunnels--with wooden struts and stuff.


There's something to be said for doing some mindless shitwork that engages your front brain but leaves your messy subconscious bits free to play around on their own. Some of the best ideas I've ever had came while I was driving my kids back and forth to school for three months in a car with a broken radio.


The driving was just the right amount of engagement for my internal editor/critic to be absorbed by, but the rest of me was bored enough to start free-associating in kind of wild ways. Worked like a charm.

Raking leaves might work. Walking on a treadmill with no music could, too. I hear that some people swear by long showers for inspiration.


You want something that takes just a little concentration--probably with a slight amount of sensory deprivation and some sort of physical engagement. Distraction, basically, but not all-engrossing. The idea is to free yourself up to fly a little.

Think Steve McQueen stuck in The Cooler with his baseball and his mitt.


Number Six: Play "The Galaxy Song" a Couple of Times





Number Seven: Dude, Count Your Blessings Already.

First of all, you are not a little kid in Guernica when the Germans are testing out how well bombing civilians works for invoking general terror.


Neither are you getting strafed by Jap Zeros in a rice paddy in 1939 Nanking, with nothing to protect you but a straw hat.

Yea verily, I doubt that you are starving in Armenia,


Or chained in the bowels of a boat on your way to a torturous life of horrid indentured servitude,


Or being pillaged by rampaging Vikings at this very moment.


Additionally, there is probably NOT an IED strapped under your desk.


You just have imaginary squirrels in your head.

Remember: It's only writing--not famine or pestilence or doom.


In all the times throughout history that you could have been born, this one is pretty damn good.  There are antibiotics, for instance, and if you get sick, it's a good bet no one will try bleeding you to release the bad humors.

Plus, if you're reading this, you not only know how to read, you have access to a computer. The universe has indeed smiled upon you.


Be grateful.

Be happy.

Type something.


Number Eight: You Can Make it if You Try-igh-igh

As God is my witness, you can finish a book (or books)!


You may have to write it seven words at a time. You may not know what order they go in, at least right away. But if you get your ass in the chair and open the file every day, it will happen.

I don't care if it's for fifteen minutes at a stretch... you need to assume the position for inspiration to find you. You need to be typing.


I also don't care if you start out typing "all work and no play..." etc. over and over again, until you figure out something better (though I recommend staying away from axes and creepy empty hotels, generally.)



Number Nine: Cornelia Says Relax

So does Ginger Rogers.





Number Ten: Fill in the Blanks

As Max Ehrman wrote,

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should


O, my sweetlings, what works for you, when your squirrels are restless and your hypos have the upper hand?


Inquiring minds want to know...



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What worked for me? I gave up thorazine and never went back!

And now I have copied that smiling universe pic, and that will put Thorazine into perspective alongside the fucking leg braces which is what I really needed, along with anticonvulsants. Well shit that does feel better. I am not a total bummy brain.

Turning off the 'squirrels' can be the most challenging part of writing. I find a good healthy mental bellow of "Shut the FUCK *UP*!" works best. (Please note, no slang terms, no euphemisms, no replacements, no cutesy 'Shut the front door' nonsense.)

Loud mental Anglo-Saxon expressions still work the best.

Feel free to use and adapt to one's own needs...:)

A week later, and I'm still a bummy brain. Damn squirrels.

As someone who has to come up with somewhere between 2000 - 2400 words every single week that not only have to make some sort of logical and interesting sense on the page, but also SOUND compelling and interesting when I speak them out loud, I appreciate this advice. The Holy Spirit always arrive sometime on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, but I live with those stupid squirrels all week long. They arrive when I step out of the pulpit on Sunday morning around noon and realize, with both dread and joy, that i have to do that again in exactly one week.

Cornelia, I love your posts, even the recycled ones. I suppose the Holy Spirit things works best for pastor types like myself, but I will pray it to your fingers anyhow.

Great advice! Made my morning!
When the kids I teach get crazy I ask them if they've been drinking squirrel juice.
Gets a laugh every time!
Let yourself go!

Cornelia, for years, I wrote letters as a means of assuming the position and opening the spigot. It was great: I had a never-ending array of friends and family who at the least needed a birthday greeting or a news update or a bit of attention. I looked forward to writing to them, and it was then natural to turn to the manuscript or script of the day. I would write the work in longhand, then type it in to WordStar or the program of the day.
Computers suck in this regard: emails have taken the formality and the thinking process out of it, for me, anyway . . . and all I want to do when I finish reading and responding to e-mail is to web surf. I have to turn the computer off if I want to get any writing down. Strange.
Thanks for the squirrels and the Galaxy Song! Good luck with your book--if it made someone cry way back when, it will again, and soon.

LOVE YOU LOVE YOU LOVE YOU and (because it's all about me) perfect timing.

I have a huge new project and it was just crossing my mind, oh so quietly, that: it's impossible.

So. Looking for a spork. And then doing one. word. At. A. Time.

thank you...xoox

Years ago I thought I wanted to be a writer. Then I realized I didn't want to work that hard!! So all you lovely authors - keep writing, this reader needs you.

I don't have troubles with squirrels, but I am sometimes visited by the Dormouse of Distraction, the Pangolin of Procrastination, the Axolotl of Angst and the Bonobo of Brain Dead.

My best solution, not unlike William's, is to loudly proclaim "Fuck this shit, I've got to write!" and then sit down and pour out a bunch of words. On a good day, they line up nicely so folks can read them. On some days, they need to be forced to submit to my will, so I bring out the creative nipple clamps & floggers.

On rare days, the words gang up on me, kick me in the junk and then walk away.

Most days, I do manage to get something up on the blog, the fiction blog, or both.

Which reminds me that I have a pirate and a modern fantasy wedding to go describe.

Doc! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

I hope you make it through the weekend. You will come up with a wonderful book. Your posts are a delight. Your writing is a pleasure because you are so talented and put so much work into them. So there.

William, it obviously works for you - hugely love STREET HEAT! I am so glad you kept the squirrels at bay and put it out as an ebook. Fuck'em.

Doc, we think alike, you and me....:)

Reine, thank you very much for your kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

As far as Cornelia's terrific blog goes, I'll offer this from Aaron Sorkin:

"I love writing but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, 'You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, giftless. I'm not your agent and I'm not your mommy, I'm a white piece of paper, you wanna dance with me?' and I really, really don't. I'll go peaceable-like."

I keep this one handy. If it happens to Sorkin, well maybe the rest of us are not as bad off as we think....

Love Sorkin, William. Brilliant soul.

Brilliant, Ms. R!

Me, sometimes I have to do the opposite. I have to sit on my hands and weep to keep myself from writing when what the writing really needs is a little peace and quiet from me for awhile so it can think what it wants to do next. Unfortunately, often that is WEEKS of peace and quiet, even months, during which I get increasingly anxious and start to think I should write something, anything,at which point comes the sitting and the weeping. But I always remind myself that it's not arms and legs, it's just a book.

I love the Scarlett one best, but I always wanted to be Fred Astaire.

I love this blog.
Cornelia, you have spunk and I LOVE spunk!

I just have to say, speaking of women who have spunk, that my mother is 95 years old today. Wow. She has lived through a LOT of big time history--her own and the world's.

OH, Wow, Nancy P.
Please send her Very Happy Birthday Wishes from me.

I will, Marie, and thank you. This isn't quite as much of a blog hijack as it looks, because anyone who makes it to 95 is a good example of somebody who never gives up!!

Nancy P. I so agree!!

Happy birthday to Nancy's mother!

Squirrels and work are two different things, for me. The work wants to get done; that plague of rodents is telling me I have other issues.

I can go beat on the rats for a while, and then I can get back to the keys. Of course, then I have to move Pepper, the Big Kitten, who likes to sit on them. That's not a metaphor, btw.

A mind-map helps me start the writing; it's more pictorial and dynamic than an outline. Maps have more promise, more potential, than dry words. For visual thinkers, this may be a common experience.

Until I really want to do the work, and whatever it takes to do the work, it won't happen. Like Robert Parker said, it's a job, and who ever heard of a plumber with plumber's block? Many's the day I'm a plumber who doesn't want to face the fluids.

Happy Birthday to Nancy's mother. It may not be an exaggeration to say the world has changed dramatically in her lifetime. Wonderful. And William, I bought your Street Heat. It is now on my TBR list. Kindles make it too easy. I'm glad you all are working with those squirrels. A happy reader.

Cornelia, that was wonderful.
Thank you so much for sharing. I'm going to share this with my critique group as we've all seemed to fall into the the "I can't write for shit hole at the same time."

I'm sending you wishes for good writing and dead squirrels.

Cornelia, thanks! This wa hugely healing!

Nancy P - Happy Your Mom's Birthday!

Cornelia, that was worth re-posting. Came at just the right time for me. Squirrels are a much better metaphor than anything else I've heard for those nasty and vicious voices.

Do you make squirrel juice with a blender?

I love the line "I think we all have to play at least a little mental whack-a-mole in order to get down to work." Thanks for posting this, I laughed in recognition.

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