Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Writing in Spite of Difficulties

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Folks, I just wanted to check in to let you know I’m working hard again on a novel. I don’t want to talk too much about it before I get to the three-quarters mark, but I can at least tell you I am working on it.

This is a big deal to me, because after my last novel failed to make a dent in the marketplace, I had to think seriously about what I’d do next. I wasn’t about to stop writing, but…did I want to be like the musical composer Charles Ives, where his work wasn’t truly played until after his death? Did I want to be like composer Nadia Boulanger, whose most important work wasn’t her own compositions (fine as they were) but championing her sister Lily’s, not to mention working with American composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson (among others)? Or could I keep going in the uncertain marketplace, and have faith, and continue on the path I’d already set for myself?

It took me over two years to figure this out, but I am continuing on my original path.

The important thing to remember here is, you have to write for yourself as much as anyone else. Yes, you hope your work will find its audience (how not?), but you have to write for yourself.

Nadia Boulanger did that, even though later she put her work aside. So did Charles Ives, who continued to write interesting music though his day job was in something else. (Insurance, I think.)

I hope I’ve learned that lesson now, and that I won’t have to learn it again.

Anyway, I’m back to working on my writing. And I do hope to have a novel done by the end of the year, along with a few short stories and maybe even finish that novella in my late husband Michael’s Atlantean Union universe…stay tuned.

Written by Barb Caffrey

January 9, 2020 at 3:48 pm

A Writer’s Meditation: Can People Change?

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This is one of my more experimental blog posts. I hope you find it useful.

People change in stories. I love that about writing.

In fact, if there is no change at all in a story, there is no story. So you’d better have change, you’d better account for the change, and you’d better understand just what change is going to do if you’re writing a story.

But in real life, it’s a lot murkier.

For years on end, it seems like people don’t change at all. For good or bad, their situations stay the same. (Though the way you approach your situation can indeed change, as if you’re changing the lens on a camera to get sharper emphasis, the actual mess you’re in stays the same day after day, year after year.) And it makes it harder to explain their stories, because a steady state does not — in general — tell a compelling story.

Now, someone else telling you the story of your life as they see it may indeed be compelling. That’s because they hit the high points. They usually skip the low points, or maybe make those low points into something that turned into grist for the mill and self-improvement galore. (And as I’ve said before, it’s all grist for the mill.)

But how you see yourself? How you see the folks around you that you’re closest to? How you see the situations you tend to be in, and what you do about them, and what happens after you’ve done (or not done) those things?

In general, we tend to see sameness in ourselves. Because we want to recognize who we are, cradle to grave; we want to know exactly why we’re doing what we are, even when sometimes that’s impossible; we don’t want to live lives without meaning and resonance and value.

That’s sensible, too. It’s a good evolutionary strategy.

But it messes with the thought of change. Because we all do change in our lives. We learn things. We improve, or sometimes don’t; we take the experiences we’ve had, and use them as a way to give the framework of our lives more meaning, more value, and more understanding.

Or at least, we should do this if we’re smart.

But it’s hard. So hard, it’s much easier to explain when someone else has changed, rather than recognizing it in and of your own self.

And recognizing you need new and different experiences for self-growth and actualization is even harder, sometimes, because it feels like a betrayal of the self and a loss of the framework of the person you thought you knew.

Ultimately, I think change is going to happen. But it depends on how much you “lean in” to it versus opposing it at every turn. And it’s conditional upon understanding that you, yourself, are still a work-in-progress…

My view, in summation, is that people do change. But they don’t always recognize it. And when they do recognize it, sometimes, they don’t like it very much.

The good thing about that? When you realize you don’t like something, you can change it to better fit yourself, your values, and your goals. Or at least you can change the way you look at it, in order to find more peace with what you’re dealing with and less stress.

Written by Barb Caffrey

December 28, 2019 at 3:15 pm

Crossroads and Current Events

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There are times in life you know you’re at a crossroads.

For me, the most recent one was when my late husband Michael proposed to me. I’d been burned in two previous marriages, so taking that leap of faith again was hard. I did, though, because Michael was the best person I’d ever known — and I was right to take that leap of faith.

But there were others, and most of them had nothing to do with relationships.

For example, when I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity — or at least the desire — to transfer into the journalism school. I didn’t do it, because I didn’t want to start all over again with a new program. And I worried that my student loan debt — already formidable — would get even worse if I started a new program midstream.

I think I did the right thing to stay in the program I was already in, mind. But there were a few months where I wondered, “Am I doing the right thing? Would I be better off in the J-School?”

Anyway, the crossroads I sense now is different than both, but has elements of both. I need to take a leap of faith, and I need to trust that I’m already on the right course even if it doesn’t feel that way.

But perhaps I need to take a step back, and explain what the Hell I’m talking about. (Especially as this post is titled “Crossroads and Current Events.”)

I realized earlier this evening that over the past year, I’ve written mostly inspirational posts. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not what I would prefer to be talking about, and yet…it seems almost like I’m shying away from the stuff that’s more controversial, or difficult, or noteworthy, because to put myself out there in such a way requires more energy than I have some days.

For example, I am frustrated at what I see in the news. Here are three stories that just have bugged me, over the past couple of weeks:

  • Some people from the Bahamas lost everything, including their passports. But the US isn’t letting them in, even though there’s an agreement with the Bahamian government to help in times of crisis or tragedy.  Refusing to help an ally is not a good look for the United States in the first place; refusing to help an ally when they’ve endured a life-threatening event like a severe hurricane is unChristian and uncivilized.
  • There’s a policy from the Trump Administration that’s awful, and it has to do with children — some on legal visas from the get-go, some allowed in for humanitarian reasons — who have been told to leave the country. Even if their home country does not have the life-saving treatments these folks need, the Trump Administration does not care. Again, this is unChristian, and uncivilized; it makes the people of the US look like fools, that we’d have “leaders” like this putting sick children out of the country for no good reason.
  • Finally, I am appalled at the story having to do with the Air Force being told to refuel and rest at Turnberry in Scotland, all because POTUS Donald Trump has a hotel there that needs business. This is not the policy of the Air Force, nor of any of the Armed Forces; they usually — rightfully — go to military bases to refuel (and rest, if needed). This is the cheapest way, and it is the safest way. It also doesn’t financially enrich the sitting President of the United States, and since we have a Constitution that forbids such things, we should follow it. Or admit that the Constitution has no meaning in the 21st Century.

So, these are the three burning issues that have vexed me for the past week. But there have been others.

Why am I telling you about them now, though? It’s simple. My crossroad here is, “Do you want to be silenced, or do you want to be yourself?”

As I’m not interested in being silenced, I am going to be myself. I’ll still pick my spots to chime in, because I do have to save my energy for other things (or I’ll never get back to writing fiction).

So, my leap of faith tonight was to tell you what’s bugging me.  I hope you understand why I pointed out these three horrible issues.

As for my friends on the right, I pray they will understand my disgust and anger even if they (for some reason) don’t share it. (Personally, I would hope refugees needing help, kids being sick needing to stay in the country rather than being forced to go home to die, and the Air Force putting in at military bases to refuel are things we can all agree on. But in case I’m wrong, be civil in your disagreement.)

 

 

Unlock Yourself, and Get Out of Ruts

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I realized, earlier this evening/morning (as my mornings and evenings have been all screwed up for a while now), that I hadn’t written a blog in a while.

Shame on me.

There is a reason, of course, and it’s the usual one: I have a sinus infection, and it’s getting in the way of most fun things in life, including reading, writing, playing music, and just about anything except playing Sudoku and online card games.

Still, one thought kept crossing my mind, and I thought I should blog about it. Here goes: “Unlock yourself.”

What do I mean by that?

When you are in a rut, or you know you have to make a change but don’t want to do it, you are stuck. It’s like you’ve put a lock on yourself, on all of your abilities and talents and goals and dreams.

Worse yet, most of the time when you do this, you don’t even realize it. You are so brain-numb from whatever is going on in your life and/or work and/or circumstances that you just can’t deal with anything. Then you try to do what you normally do, and can’t. And feel worse about yourself.

I’ve learned that half the battle, when I’m brain-numb, is realizing exactly that. And once I do realize it, I can back off; take a break; do something fun; or at least try to get my rest. Any and all of these strategies will help me get back to living my life without feeling like I’m just going through the motions.

While the strategies above will help no matter what your circumstances are, being in a rut is not a fun thing. Most of the time, something major needs to happen for you to evaluate yourself, realize how deep the rut you’re in actually is, and make positive changes to get away and out of it.

The goal here is, you need to think about things differently. Maybe put your best friend, or your sister, or your mother, in your place; how would you advise them in a similar circumstance? (Surely you wouldn’t want anyone you cared about to stay in that rut, right?) And try to turn tragedy into opportunity.

Thus, “Unlock yourself.”

“But Barb,” you say. “I don’t get it. I need to change my attitude? But my attitude didn’t get me in this rut, so how will that help?”

That’s not exactly what I’m getting at, here. I know attitudes alone do not put anyone into a rut. But refusing to evaluate your circumstances, or re-evaluate as needed, and tote up the pluses and minuses of wherever you’re at, contributes to ruts. And if you don’t do these things, it’s easier to just go brain-numb, as I said before, and go through the motions…and the rut gets deeper, and deeper, and deeper.

Worst of all, for most of us, that shuts down our creative facilities something fierce.**

That’s why I say the key to everything is unlocking yourself. Your own potential. Your own belief that you can, and will, do whatever you set your mind to doing…just so long as you get proper rest, eat well, and treat whatever problems are going on all around you accordingly.

What do you think of my strategies? Did “Unlock yourself” make any sense to you? Tell me about it in the comments!

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**Those of you who don’t have this happen aren’t necessarily better off if you can get around this, mind. I know one person who swears he has to be unhappy to write, or he can’t do it; that, to my mind, is just awful. But there’s no talking him out of it, because it’s his way of thinking — his rut, if you will — and the only one who can get him out of there is himself.

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 29, 2019 at 4:42 am

Writers, Choose Your Strategy

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We writers tend to group ourselves into different camps.

Some are seat-of-the-pants writers (also known as “pantsers”). Some are meticulous plotters. Some are half-and-half…and no matter which type of storyteller you are, at some point you realize that your meticulously plotted story has somehow warped itself into an entirely new shape.

It’s for those days I’ve come up with my new saying, which is the title above: Writers, choose your strategy. Learn how to deal with the unexpected. And then take it from there.

Why do I say this?

Well, when your story goes sideways, that can be difficult to deal with. For many writers, writing seems like the one thing we can control in this life; when it, too, shows we can’t, that can be deeply disturbing.

Plus, even when your story is cooperating, there are times in the story where you step away from it and just have to shake your head. The villains are one thing; you expect bad behavior from them. But the moral equivalency, the bad behavior from otherwise good characters, and the rationalization that if they’re otherwise good, this bad behavior can’t be as bad as all that…where does that come from?

Quite simply, it comes from us.

We contain multitudes (hat tip to Walt Whitman). We all have darkness inside us, as well as light. Our characters can’t help but reflect that. And sometimes, the spattering of darkness and light leads us into weird corners…but we have to trust the process, and persevere.

If you’re at a weird place in your story right now, I want you to remember one thing. You may not be able to control what comes out of you, not entirely. But you can choose what to do with it once you have it.

May that bring you comfort, if it’s one of those writing days.

 

Written by Barb Caffrey

August 16, 2019 at 7:24 am

Dog Days of Summer…

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Why do they call it the “dog days of summer,” anyway?

I mean, not everyone has dogs. And those who do mostly worry about how well their dogs will do in the heat.

But perhaps that’s why…the heat is notoriously bad for most dogs, and it’s also notoriously bad for humans with asthma (raise your hands in solidarity, people), or heart issues, or those with any long-term illnesses whatsoever.

Dogs, mind you, are very cute, heat or no heat. They always let you know they love you. They want to be petted and coddled. And they certainly love their food, as unlike most humans in the heat, dogs do not care when it comes to their dinner. (Wink.)

Anyway, if you live in much of the United States this week, you know the heat is dreadful, and the humidity is worse. But if you live in Southeastern Wisconsin, you may be pardoned if you think this weather is closer to the tropical rain forests of Brazil, or maybe Malaysia, than Wisconsin.

Why? Well, our heat index is very high at the moment. That’s because the humidity is exceptionally high for this area, and it adds to the misery of high temperatures something fierce. (They may as well call it “heat misery index,” as that would be truth in advertising. But I digress.)

All we can do is wait this bad weather out. Pay attention to it, of course. Pay attention to your animals, too, and make sure they always have cool water.

And if you’re asthmatic, make sure you know where your rescue inhaler is at all times.

But for all of you dealing with the high heat/humidity mix right now, just remember this: be good to yourselves. Don’t expect miracles, as the heat scatters thought and makes it harder to follow through, physically, on any number of things.

That said, you can still do things, even in this horrible heat, if you are careful and plan well and take breaks. So do be careful, do plan well, and do take many breaks…and stay as cool as possible, OK?

How do you stay cool in the high heat? Tell me about it in the comments!

 

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 19, 2019 at 3:41 am

Risk-taking and Concerts

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A few hours ago, I finished a concert with the Racine Concert Band. I played a solo on clarinet in front of about three hundred people at the Racine Zoo; they weren’t there to see me, because we had vaudevillian Pinkerton Xyloma there and he’s always extremely popular. (He’s a man of many talents, is Pinkerton Xyloma. But I digress.)

Anyway, the piece I played was the “Pie in the Face Polka,” by Henry Mancini. It has a lot of runs, arpeggios, and is meant to be bouncy, a little jazzy (in an old-timey way), and fun.

Now, why was this a risk, as if you’ve read my blog for a long time, you know I play clarinet as well as alto saxophone? Simple. I haven’t had as much time for my clarinet in the last few years as I’d like. I’m not playing steadily in any groups on clarinet. And my health has not been what I’d like it to be, so that means I have had to concentrate on what is in front of me — the groups I’m already playing in, on saxophone, mostly — rather than other things I’d like to do in addition (that is, playing my clarinet much more often).

Even so, I’d asked to play a clarinet solo for three years running. This year, I got one. I learned it in a couple of weeks.

And then we had our rehearsal — as we have one rehearsal for each summer concert — and I thought I played terribly. At best, I got seventy-five percent of it, but between playing sax for most of the rehearsal (as I also did on the concert) and being tired to start with, I knew that was the best I could do at the time.

Of course, I practiced even harder in the intervening three days. And I felt much more confident with it tonight, even though I still made mistakes and played at about ninety percent of my own personal capacity.

In other words, I didn’t embarrass myself. And while it’s not the best I’ve ever played, it’s possibly the best I’ve played in two or three years on clarinet.

I’m very glad I had the opportunity to play the “Pie in the Face Polka.” But it was a risk. And not just because of the information I’ve already given you.

See, I was recovering from some sort of upper respiratory infection (again). My back went out (again). And during the previous Sunday night concert, I’d managed to turn my right ankle — meaning I was walking with a notable limp (and very slowly, besides).

Not to mention, it was also my late husband Michael’s birthday. (Yes, he was born on Bastille Day.) He wouldn’t have celebrated it, but he’d have turned sixty-one, had he lived. And of course I knew that…so I wanted to play the best I possibly could in honor of him, wherever he is in the cosmos. (As matter can’t be created or destroyed, I firmly believe at least a little of Michael continues to exist outside of me, somewhere and somehow.)

You see, Michael always enjoyed hearing me practice my instruments. (Any and all.) He also read any of my music compositions, as he could read all clefs, and he could talk intelligently about music. I knew if he’d have been here, he’d not have BSed me in any way, but he’d still have enjoyed himself — the ten percent I didn’t get, he’d have said was due to the vagaries of performance and art…and that who wants to hear a perfect concert, anyway? (It’s the imperfections that make it interesting, he always said.)

So, despite all the obstacles, I got it done. That’s the important thing.

And the audience seemed to enjoy it, too…even though I still think they were there for Pinkerton Xyloma! (Wink.)

 

 

Written by Barb Caffrey

July 15, 2019 at 2:55 am