Archive for July, 2017

Writer’s Block

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Today I’m pleased to feature a post on writer’s block from friend and fellow author, Heather Douglas. Heather is a writer, illustrator, and educator based in Astoria, Oregon. She is the author of a book of poetry and was recently awarded Astoria Visual Art’s Writer in Residence. She also writes for Coast Weekend. More of her work can be found at OscarAstoria.com.

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“Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.” –Charles Bukowski

Whether the phrase writers’ block conjures up an image of Jack Nicholson in The Shining obsessively typing the same phrase on his typewriter, or a romance novelist at their peaceful mountain retreat with a cup of tea waiting desperately for inspiration to come, the struggle is real for many writers.

Stephen King, a very prolific writer and America’s most famous of the horror genre once said “amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us get up and go to work.” While King is absolutely correct, it doesn’t hurt to have a few strategies to employ from time to time.

My relationship with writing has reflected the ebb and flow of my own creative life. In elementary school, I was encouraged and rewarded by events like the Oregon Writing Festival at Portland State University where I could meld minds with kids like me. I loved creative writing and poetry and had some of my work published in the local paper and won some school wide writing contests. Along with other kids in my neighborhood, we created a newspaper called The Tapiola Times (named after the park I grew up next door to); we wrote movie reviews, comic strips and from time to time ‘investigative’ article and features. Putting pen to paper and writing was easy back then and was a blast—I was good at it, I liked it and I could say what I wanted and think hard about it without getting flustered in everyday conversations.

Middle school began what I would call the ‘essay and book report years.’ The formulaic pattern of essay writing was stifling. I was no longer expressing my own imagination and creativity, but writing analysis about the creative work of authors who were dead and gone. It’s not that I had no love for the classics. I spent half of one summer reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles in a tent I had set up in my parents’ backyard—but I didn’t get to choose what classics I wanted to write about—yet, there is value in pushing through work that is difficult.

Yet, I craved a balance between expressing my own creativity and following the rules in school. I no longer loved writing, but I never suffered from writer’s block because I adapted; I began to rely on my work ethic—something I had thankfully nurtured through sports—you push through the pain, get the job done and don’t complain. I begrudgingly became friends with the essay, the book report and the worksheet. I was rewarded and encouraged by my teachers for my efforts in writing.

In college, I majored in English and was required to write copiously in the standard essay format. I wrote very little, if any creative pieces. I realized that if I was going to write about more than just famous works, I would have to write on my own. It was a tumultuous time for me emotionally, and I began to lean on writing as a form of expression and therapy; I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of journal entries in great detail about what I was feeling at the time. I even earned a coveted compliment from a notoriously unrelentingly strict professor of James Joyce. He said I had talent and should consider getting a PhD to teach English. Although I was beyond flattered, I couldn’t imagine that the rest of my writing life would be spent centered around studying the works of a dead author—no matter how talented or epic.

While writing saved my life in a time of great existential loneliness during the college years, I went through a long phase of what I can only call tongue in cheek a phase of “creative constipation”—otherwise known as a decade of writer’s block. I stopped filling my journals and collapsed in exhaustion after my college graduation with the hopes of taking a huge break from essay writing and literary analysis.

Although I stopped writing, the ideas never stopped coming. Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic author, said about creativity, “possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet; if you don’t give it a job to do, it will find a job to do—and you might not like the job it invents.”

In the past 5 years I have found my way back to writing through blogging, journalism, poetry and the occasional non-fiction story. I also teach high school students to find their voice through writing. I want them to feel inspired and empowered to try out different genres of writing. I don’t want them to experience the frustration of having no outlet for their feelings.

It has been a difficult journey, but these days I have a healthy balance between work ethic and inspiration. If I were to give advice to my young writing self about moving through creative blocks, this is what I would say now.

You are Free to Write Crap

In Natalie Goldberg’s book Wild Mind Living the Writer’s Life, one of her bedrock rules to writing is this: “you are free to write the worst crap in America.” You have to start somewhere, and keeping the pen moving whilst writing what you may think is the worst crap is better than not writing at all. Worst case scenario: it IS crap, but that’s what multiple, successive drafts are for. Best case scenario: it actually isn’t crap and you’re just too hard on yourself.

You Are a Writer if You Write

If you run, you are a runner. If you write, you are a writer. If you’ve always “wanted to write,” or you have a plan to “write someday,” or you have “a novel in your head,” you’re a dreamer, not a writer. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. One of the lessons you learn as you mature is that work ethic nearly always beats talent.

Writing is Work

Hemingway famously said “there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Writing can be scary, emotional and terrifying. But it’s work and it’s very worthwhile work.

Smack Down the Internal Editor

What Natalie Goldberg calls the “monkey mind” is the internal critic—the monkey that sits on your shoulder and peers down on what you do. It’s your ego and the one that constantly corrects you and forces you to doubt yourself.  It’s the perfectionist side that causes you to freeze like a deer in headlights.

There Are No Hard and Fast Rules for Writing

Work with the limitations of the day, but there are not hard and fast rules for writing. Some will say “write every day at the same time.” Some will say “make sure your desk is free from clutter.” Some will say “a messy desk is a mark of a creative mind.” Writing is amazing because there very few places where you can’t write. I have yet to think of a place where you can’t write—well, maybe…don’t write while you’re driving.

Talk To Other Writers

Chances are other writers feel exactly the same struggles. Find comfort in talking to them and rekindling the reasons you love writing.

Trust Yourself

Your narrative matters. Repeat: your narrative matters. Your unique perspective matters. What someone else thinks of your ability as a writer is none of your business. Write because your voice matters. Write because you have something to say. Write because although it may be hard work, you love it.

Thank you for joining us today, Heather! Check out Heather’s work at OscarAstoria.com.

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


More Sunset Empire

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Much appreciation to everyone who came out to Lucy’s Books last Saturday for the Second Saturday Art Walk! It was fun to chat with so many readers–some of you I’ve known for a long time, and some I met that day. I’m glad you came out to enjoy the sunshine and talk books with me. Many thanks to Lisa Reid for hosting me and being a champion of my work. (Thanks for the wonderful reviews and Lucy’s Books bag too!)

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I wanted to share a new excerpt from Sunset Empire with you. I hope you like it.

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From high above the forest floor, the hunter watched the girl. She was pretty, but she was too busy talking on her cell phone to watch where she was going. He had to suppress a laugh when she almost stepped on the deer carcass. That would teach her to hang up and walk.

Where had she come from? He glanced down the path—probably from one of the houses on the edge of the forest. The more pressing question, however, was where was she going? He doubted she knew. She seemed to be wandering the path aimlessly, with no idea of the trouble she could get into.

From his perch, he could clearly hear her side of the conversation as her voice echoed among the trees, even though she wasn’t speaking overly loud. With dismay, he realized this was because the forest had gone eerily silent. The wind picked up, and in the breeze he could smell death.

Go back, he thought, as if he could will her to hear him and take his advice. Wherever you came from, go back. She didn’t, of course. She just kept walking, chatting on that stupid phone of hers.

He narrowed his eyes, irritated. What was this girl’s problem? Surely she could sense that something was wrong in this part of the forest. All the birds had flown away. There were no squirrels chattering from the trees, or any other sounds of wildlife. But no, she was too busy talking to notice. She had barely given the dead deer more than a glance.

He checked his weapon. He couldn’t just stand by like last time—not now that he was sure it worked. He was going to have to reveal himself. He was going to have to save her.

Then, something curious happened. The girl stopped and looked around. “I’ll have to call you back,” she said. She hung up her phone and slipped it into her pocket. She turned a slow circle on the path, staring into the forest. Then, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself, starting back the way she had come.

The hunter followed her with his eyes, and then surveyed the forest. The smell of decay was fading. Maybe the creatures weren’t coming after all. Silently, he inched his way down the tree, watching for trouble. Six feet from the bottom, he heard a scream.

He dropped the rest of the way to the ground and ran up the path after her, ducking behind a tree when he saw she had stopped and wasn’t dead. She was staring at a spot on the ground, her delicate features contorted with disgust. Whatever was on the ground was smoking. She shuddered in revulsion and then took off down the path, back to civilization.

When he was sure she wouldn’t see him, the hunter emerged from his hiding place. He approached the blackened thing on the ground cautiously, toeing it with his boot. A banana slug. The only reason he could identify it at all was because he could see the piebald yellow and brown markings on the end of its tail. The rest of the six-inch creepy-crawly had been burnt to a crisp.

Who was this girl?

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© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017


Signing at Lucy’s Books

One of my favorite spots on the Oregon coast is Lucy’s Books, a jewel box of a bookstore, owned by a lovely friend, Lisa Reid. Lisa has curated an awesome collection of books and makes great recommendations. She’s been incredibly supportive of my work, even letting me include her store in my novel, Sunset Empire.

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I knew my characters would be exploring the tunnels under 12th Street, and the windows in Lucy’s provide the perfect vantage point for watching a gang of teens up to no good, sneaking across the street to enter the basement of the fictional Chinook Bar & Grill. I asked Lisa if one of my characters could work in her shop so he could observe the mischief. She said yes, and gave Phantom a job.

That’s why I’m excited to join her on Saturday, July 8, from 5-8pm for the Second Saturday Art Walk in Astoria. I’ll be signing copies of Sunset Empire and Pitcher Plant, both of which are set on the Oregon coast. I’ll also be doing a drawing for a book-themed prize, so stop by and say hello.

Here’s an excerpt from Sunset Empire, an exchange between Phantom and his boss (who may or may not be based on the real life owner of Lucy’s–you’ll have to ask Lisa).

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“I know that look, Sean Hughes.”

Phantom turned to see Lucy eyeing him from the cash register. “What look?”

Lucy smiled. “Your girl-trouble look. Who is she?”

Since the professor had lost his mind and Phantom’s mother had fallen into a chronic state of depression after his dad died, Lucy Rose was the one person in town he could count on. As his mother’s best friend, Lucy knew what he’d lost, and she’d looked out for him over the years, making sure his fridge was stocked and giving him a job at her bookstore.

Phantom spared a last look at Chinook’s, but Elyse had disappeared from view. He went back to stocking shelves. “Her name’s Elyse Pthan. She’s new at school.”

“Have you talked to her?” Lucy asked, coming over to tidy the front display.

Phantom smiled. “I bought her dinner.”

“That sounds promising. So what’s the problem?”

“We’re friends. I thought we could be more than friends, but then things got complicated.”

“How so?” Lucy asked.

“She’s a Legacy girl. And the granddaughter of Evangeline Porter, chair of the Sean Hughes Sucks Society,” Phantom said.

“That is a problem,” Lucy said, nodding. “But, you know, as much of a force of nature as Ms. Porter might be, I doubt she controls her granddaughter’s mind. Or her heart.” She reached into the box at Phantom’s feet and pulled out one of the new books. “This one will go in the window, I think.” She rearranged the books in the window to include her latest find. “Does Elyse know about Jenna?”

“I told her about the accusations against me,” Phantom replied. “Didn’t want her hearing it from someone else.”

“That’s wise,” Lucy said. “But does she know how you felt about Jenna?”

Phantom shook his head. “I don’t think I can go there yet, Lucy. Wound’s still fresh.”

Lucy put her hand on his shoulder and gave him a sad smile. “I know, sweetie. Give it time.”

© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2017