DebraMilligan.com

 

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How I Work

When writing a draft, I usually compose on paper.  The blank page comes in the form of 8-1/2 x 11 legal pads.  There is a certain seductive quality to seeing your words “in print” on the computer screen that does not permit the objectivity which a writer needs for revising and editing.  I frequently must “input” thoughts, dialogue, and narration into an electronic file because the words appear with laser speed in my mind.  However, I always consider those passages as works-in-progress and have even deleted major portions of some of them.  A writer has to be willing to use the “Delete” button just as much as the keyboard.


Many scenes have “come to me” while I am driving, exercising, or doing errands.  There is always a pad of paper and a pen in the car or in my purse.  In a pinch, napkins and sales receipts have served my purpose!


During the process of inputting my hand-scrawled fiction into an electronic file, I automatically revise, edit, and sometimes decide that the material is not for this novel but for another one!  At a very young age, I was trained as a typist; my typing skills allowed me to earn my way through life for many years.  Thus the manual/physical process of working on a keyboard is ingrained into my creative psyche.  The thought of using a touch screen to write is quite appalling to me.

In terms of development of the novels that I have written and plan to write, the seeds of germination were planted long ago.  Some images were saved in my mind for over thirty years before being rendered into word pictures in a novel; other elements in scenes come directly from that day or week in my life during composition.  For decades, I wrote the following in chartreuse green cloth-bound journals:  myriad thoughts; impressions; passages of dialogue and narration; factoids; ideas for names; personal essays; and research information.  Those writings were later used to compile the draft of a novel.  The cloth-bound journals were then expunged.


I recall several lines that I wrote into a gray hard-bound journal sometime during the spring of 1983 while I was waiting at a bus stop.  I saved this passage from this journal and kept it in a file.  That piece of writing, which I still recall vividly, was used for the love story of Arthur and Camille in THE DAWN.  I believe that the glimmer, the seed crystal of that opus formed within that passage.


My method is understood by me; I don’t expect much more comprehension that that one.  I must state that home-schooling my children solidified, augmented, and enhanced not only their knowledge but mine as well.  I would not be the writer or the woman that I am today without those cherished years.

The Red Book


It is an historic day. The time has come for change. The U.S. Army green blank journals of yore are being replaced by The Red Book, a signal toward the future, perhaps of a more passionate form of writing!


My interactions with my friend and Russian artist have certainly contributed to this choice, although she would state that is mine 100%. Still, I must give credit for inspiration where credit is due, and her influences in my personal, creative, and professional lives have been and are immeasurable.


So to Svetlana, I dedicate The Red Book, blank and ready for dreams to come true!

Time


Very often I am asked where I get the time to do all of my writing. The question is not easy for me to answer because a part of my mind is always at work on a creative project. Everyday life provides many catalysts for the ideas that a writer finds interesting, but, for me, everyday life is the ultimate source of the time for the writing.


Rarely do I get up in the morning with a schedule to write. Sometimes I need to work an hour or so on editing or on revisions but I accomplish the work in-between other tasks in the home or during other activities. I do not shoe-horn myself into a fixed routine. I value my freedom to live free from my writing, and I place a premium on my personal life, to the extent that I have often put off writing until it can no longer be put off. Ergo, a short novel will “write itself” in the space of a few weeks after it has been “cogitating” in my mind for a few years, if not longer.


This method is not typical of many writers. I think the best answer for where I get the time as a writer to write is in between the time needed for all of the other aspects of my life. Time management might be the more modern term for it, but basically, being a writer means having many irons in the fire at once. The hope is that none of them go out or burn to a crisp!

FAQs

or

Frequently Asked Questions


Several years ago, when first I saw “FAQs” at an online blog, I had to look up the acronym. Being a primarily auditory person, I’d thought that the three letters signified a new form of FACT, maybe one without the conclusion of a “T”. Therein exemplifies how I work: sound comes first, then thought.


It all sounds so easy!


But “we” know it’s not. Over the past decade or so, I’ve been asked frequently by very dear friends, strangers, and passing acquaintances the particulars about How I Work. I’ve decided to formulate the FAQs into a running dialogue, a simulated session of Q&A (which I do know to be “Question and Answer”) with the Memory-Question and my Answer, then and now, and then some more info.

Q: Isn’t writing a lonely job?


A: Writing is a job that requires solitude and, often, isolation, but, for me, it is rarely lonely. I must be alone to do my most concentrated work, but the typical setting is one in which I sit amidst any of a number of distractions and, quite amazingly, block out the sounds and sights of them!


There are times when being in the self-induced “zone” has created problems: Dear Husband dutifully tells me that he is going out to run errands. Absorbed by my writing, I absent-mindedly nod. He perhaps repeats his statement.


Twenty minutes later, after my devoted darling has left the abode, I look up from my pages and — He’s not anywhere to be found! I have to go find the Cell Phone to call him and ask him where he is. Most of the time, it’s my beloveds who are the lonely ones!

Q: For creativity, do you like to “head for the hills,” or would you prefer to be alone on an island?


A: I do most of my work in my house. My home is my haven. The creative juices, however, most definitely flow, for me, from the mountains to the sea! I love the mountains and I love the ocean, nearly equally, though not for the same reasons or with the same intensity. The thought, however, of being on an island, surrounded on all sides by water, with potentially no avenue of escape: it’s a terrifying thought!


I grew up on the East Coast. At a young age, I transplanted myself to the West Coast. Access to the ocean, preferably by driving, is vital to me to attain a sense of renewal, the type of renaissance that the high seas not only symbolizes but actually does create. The mountains are where I go to find solace, to draw from my intuition the inspiration that I sense is truly divine.

I also need social contact, as a person and as a writer. It’s been said that I am an ambivert, a combination of extrovert and introvert along with a uniquely individual invention of the interface between the two personality types. I do need my hermit time, but I also enjoy fluttering like a social butterfly in small (select) groups. My nature is private, but it is also engaging. This type of person is unique among writers, at least as far as I’ve experienced them.


Having met Joyce Carol Oates, I can say that her almost palpably withdrawn self can be perceived as one end of the Writer Spectrum Norm. The other extreme is the life-of-the-party parasite who ferrets away the personal details of other people in order to write about them. F. Scott Fitzgerald sadly fell into that category a bit too often, and it ruined him in more ways than merely professionally.


Years ago, I hesitated to tell anyone that I was a writer. Women, the vain ones in particular, thought that I was going to write about them. The cat’s out of the bag, now that my published books are read around the world, but I still feel reticent to reveal this factoid about myself in my every-day life. Sometimes, this aspect of “who I am” is irrelevant!


The private side of me always protects the artistic side, so I will hazard a guess and say that the introvert half of this “ambivert” is the bigger half: The Hermit wins out over the Social Butterfly. Heading for the hills is the logical choice.

Q: Do you play music while you write?


A: As I sit here, typing this text, there is on my Bose a CD of Louis Kentner playing the works of Balakirev. Depending on the type of writing that I am doing, music is a necessary component in my composition. Essays and narration are always enhanced by classical music softly playing in the background of the room wherein I write. Dialogue, poetry, and the more technical, detailed pieces of writing demand utter quiet. I’ve been known to flinch at the sound of the fridge opening while I write at the kitchen table!

Q: Is it confining, the work of writing?


A: It can be. My routine, if there is a routine, for writing includes time for yoga, long walks in the country, activities in the yard: basically, physical exercise for the mind. There are times when I must take a break from writing and get outdoors, do something completely different from mental work. I think that “tip” is useful for any kind of job.


A good 20-minute stretch does a world of good for me!

Q: When you were a nipper, did you dream of the West Coast — sunshine, open space, blue skies, ocean?


When I was a wee one, I watched the television show, “Bonanza”, and I dreamed of going West. I was going to marry Pa Cartwright!


By the time that I moved to California in 1979, the Ponderosa was chronically closed for repairs and Lorne Greene was on that silly sci-fi Battlestar tv-show. I did finally drive up to the Ponderosa (which does not really have a 2nd story) with my husband and youngins’, just after the publication of the First Northstar. I can’t say the trip was fully worth the wait, but my children immensely enjoyed living out the visit to the Ponderosa that I began when I was their ages!

From those very young ages, I was fascinated by the sights of the American West. My eyes were especially riveted on the Western States portion of those compulsory slide-shows, the ones projected onto the ironed-out sheet hung on the living room wall. Relatives had journeyed to the Southwest and the Great Basin States. I even loved the Painted Desert slides that were upside down in the slide-tray!


What I saw as a child were visions of grandeur, panoramas of heavenly colors and shades, landscapes of limitless scope and beauty. I felt an immediate sense of unimpeded freedom. Though my birthplace is New Jersey, I was born a Westerner.

And though the vistas here in the West of the U.S. of A are not as uncluttered as they used to be, there’s still a whole lot of land and open space for all to see. And there’s still a lot more freedom than the grumblers and the gripers will ever be able to appreciate amidst their grousing and groaning!


The Spirit of the West is optimism: sunshine, open space, blue skies, ocean. I aim every day to live up to that spirit and to enjoy those blessed sights.

Q: Do you ever run out of ideas?


A: No, I do not “run” out of ideas. In fact, the ideas seem to flow, evermore, from one aspect of my artistic endeavours to another. I am constantly inspired by my love of fabrics, interior design, music, architecture, historical costumes and furniture, lands distant and far, and the land before time that is known as Ireland.


I find the beauty in the details. My desire to pen my thoughts is more my heightened appreciation of other arts than the conscious need to WRITE. Ideas for any creative work arrive at the doorstep of your artistic soul if you permit yourself to grow, and if you do not hamper your thoughts with notions about what your life ought to be, and where it ought to be — on any given day, year, decade.


Life is where it is, right now. Live it, fully. That idea is the cornucopia of creativity. It’s the fount of life, truly lived.

Q: Did you always want to be a writer?


From the age of seven, or from about the time when I finally conquered the art of reading, I wanted to be a writer. And a painter, and a singer.


My first love is music; my second love is art (visual); my third is writing. I pursue my first two loves through the realization of my third one. For me, all three art forms are all closely related — intimately, you might say!


Reading did not come easily to me. I was predominantly auditory at the age when children were expected to master their A,B,C’s. I was busily making up my own “language” and speaking it too! I took very little interest in learning my alphabet or even in how to spell my first name. At the age of six, I was taught this five-letter proper noun by a much older sister.


That learning session was not quite Annie Sullivan spelling W-A-T-E-R into the palm of Helen Keller, but I do recall the exasperation of my sister as we sat by the barn on the acreage of the wide-open rural area where we lived. After about half an hour, this young adult drew a picture of a ZEBRA, and she made the comparative spelling for me.

Eureka! D-e-b-r-a.


The zebra has, ever since that summer afternoon, held affectionate importance to me.


I was, at the age of six, fundamentally, even willfully, resisting attempts by my schoolteachers to force me to learn a skill or a subject that I was not yet ready to learn. Student-paced learning was, and remains, my philosophy for teaching. “They” really ought to try it sometime nowadays. The mania for statistics has become sadistic.


Way back then, back in the day, the educators fretted about this under-performing, under-achieving pupil. Then the Experts tested me, discovered that I was “gifted”, placed me into a class for creative children, and I excelled in reading. I excelled in many subjects, especially music and drawing.


Mrs. Helen Hirsch knew that Debra was not “backward” or “behind” or “developmentally deficient” in any way. Because that wonderful teacher believed in me, I became her “star” student. It was with tears in her eyes that Mrs. Hirsch said goodbye to me after 2nd grade ended, and she told my father: “Teach her and she will go far.”


Under her wing, I went from reading Dick-and-Jane textbooks to volumes of World Book encyclopedias. I still enjoy each end of that reading gamut, and not much in-between. Being in the middle has never felt comfortable for me. Becoming a writer was, I believe, my way of trying to stay out of the middle of things!

Q: Do you ever get tired of writing?

A: No. I am very grateful to my Maker that my work is my play, and my play is my work. The fatigue factor does affect me whenever I am not fully ready to write a scene or an essay that has not been fully “fleshed-out.” In that case, there are many other tasks, activities, duties, and chores that rescue me from the craft of writing. I know the words will come to me . . . Patience is a wondrous virtue!


Q: You tear up the pages of your Writer’s Journals after you’ve taken out the notations you need for a book. Why?


A: I had to think hard to come up with an answer for this question. I did not know why I manually shred and then throw away those used pages of the bound journal. In fact, I enjoy that process as I go along: typing the written notes into my Pages file, periodically pulling out the pages from the journal, tearing them up, and then, almost like a 3-pointer, throwing them into the wastebasket.


My most honest hunch is that I do not want anyone to see my handwritten journal notes. They are intensely private. The oddity is that I’ve often performed this part of the writing process with people around me!


Once that creative matter has entered the digital file, however, it’s much less mine. Perhaps I need a systematic way to say goodbye to personal thoughts so that they can become universal ideas and concepts for others to read. Writing is always a matter of striving beyond your own self to reach the higher plane of poetic truth.


If you, Dear Reader, have any other questions about How I Work, please navigate to the Contact Me portion of this website. I will do my best to answer inquiries into how I work — hopefully, to assist you with how you work.

Spring 2018:

Back to the Source


Fairly recently I realized the reasoning behind my marked refusal to go back to the source of an artistic river, particularly in writing and in music. For decades, my enamoured focus upon medieval literatures blocked my pathway to the wellspring: the Classics that came before, this foundational source that made Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome the basis of Western Civilization. My daughter saw to it that I got schooled in that fount of the fountain of my own creativity.

Though I’d willfully resisted Sophocles at first, a few summers ago I came to love his plays in a way that rivaled the drama of my cherished French dramatists, Corneille, Racine, and Molière, the Big 3 of 17th-century French playwrights. I also playfully and joyously plowed my way through the poetry of Horace, garnering new-found insights into my treasured French poets of any era prior to post-WWII.


In a similar vein, once I learned of Nikolay Gogol, and I read “The Overcoat,” no longer could I appreciate, in the same way, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Pasternak or even Nabokov. Gogol was the creative source of so many Russian writers to come, the foundation upon which a mighty empire of Russian literature was built.

I’d heard of this Russian writer, but I’d always avoided him, quite purposefully. Once again, I’d refused to go back to the source that inspired future writers. From Gogol comes the literary template for the Russian fatalism that ensures something goes terribly wrong with human nature; and while it does, the sense of wonderment, of logic, and the energy of the description of a writer such as Gogol are mighty hard to resist. Yet resist I did, and mightily, for many years!


Speaking of mighty, The Mighty Handful, or The Five, of Russian music was also intentionally limited by me to these composers: Mily Balakirev, who was the leader, and thus the first composer to whom I listened with endearment; Alexander Borodin (“Quarter No. 2” is lovely); Modest Mussorgsky (meh); César Cui (nyet); and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, my least favorite of The Five.

These five famous Russian composers of the 19th century created a uniquely Russian classical music, but their compositions would not have aspired to the Russian heavens without the existence, the genius existence, of Mikhail Glinka. He lived from 1801-1857 and during that brief, turbulent life this Russian produced a small amount of classical music that has echoed large down the centuries.


The turbulence of his life was part of a chronic but deep homesickness that led this man to father the ferment of a fervent form of music: Russian music. Glinka founded the nationalist school of Russian symphonic sound, an auditory celebration of all things Russian. He is the mighty oak from which the mighty oak trees of The Mighty Five grew. Those later composers largely based their lyrical melodies and vivid orchestrations upon the music of this Russian who grew from a spoiled child to an artistic fountainhead.

What is it with my aversion to going back to the Source of the Creative Greats? It’s quite a pattern! I now have to backfill some of the classical music education I’d given to my son! Oh, well, life is a continuing education!


There are exceptions, of course to my self-blinkered artistic vision. I discovered at an early age the composing genius of exquisite originality named Frédéric Chopin, who is an example of a source of 1. There were also Blaise Pascal and F. Scott Fitzgerald to light my pathway to inspiration.


I think that my creative process, or my Muse, has demanded that I first learn all that I can from the musicians and writers who were inspired by the wellspring. I’ve intuitively and instinctively chosen to glean my lessons from the artists who came AFTER the Original Artist, the Source. Only then can I feel free to appreciate and analyze the Fountainhead, to indulge in the art of the Lone Self, be it a himself, or, in the case of Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a herself.

My rigorous, if not extreme, self-discipline, has necessitated a lot of self-limiting and turning of my head — eyes and ears — away from magnificent music and profound poets and unrivaled writers. There is, nonetheless, a method to my tenacious madness:


Sometimes it is best to save the best for last!