Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Writer's Homework

Susan here: I'm not sure how I connected with Nicholas Trandahl on Facebook, but I'm grateful I did. After getting to know him more online, I invited him to send us a guest post. Again, I'm grateful I did. When I read this, I felt like I had a cheerleader in my corner.

by Nicholas Trandahl

I’d made it. I was in Ernest Hemingway’s house on Whitehead Street in Key West, Florida. I was in the sanctum of my literary hero, where most of his body of work was written. There were his books, his typewriters, his photographs, his fishing rod, his bed, and everything else that comprised his life when he lived in Key West during the Great Depression.

I’d walked the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard with my wife in an October breeze, beheld a massive herd of elk graze way above the tree line in the Colorado Rockies, and flown over the glittering lights of Baghdad in a March night. But stepping through the rooms of the Hemingway House in Key West was an entirely new type of experience. It was when I realized that great writers, perhaps the greatest, were mere men and women, no different than you or I. They suffered the same struggles that all of us contemporary writers struggle with concerning our literary craft.

But I was not there for sightseeing and not even necessarily to have a life-changing moment or epiphany as a writer. I was there as a collector of experiences, i.e., writing material.

When I write poetry, I pull words from the things that I see and the places that I go. I write about my life. When someone tells me that they don’t know what to write about, I like to reply:
“If you’re breathing, there’s always something to write about.”
And it’s the truth. This world we live in and all the people that inhabit it are pure unfiltered inspiration for poems, stories, art, and lyrics. It’s all just begging for someone creative and observant to pay attention to it.

I’ve written my whole life, but things didn’t get serious for me until I was serving in the Middle East as a soldier in the U.S. Army. I started writing poetry over there as way to cope with the things I was feeling and the stresses I was experiencing. However, over the years, my poetry has become observational as opposed to introspective. I’ve plumbed the depths of my internal demeanor enough, and as a resident of this planet, there’ll never be a shortage of new material for me or anyone else. It’s limitless.

How do you become inspired? There’s nothing simpler or cheaper than inspiration. You stand outside for a moment or two and watch the colorful artwork as the sun falls away into the west, or you watch the primal strength of a coming storm, or the snow drifting down like ashes through the boughs of an old pine, or the stars flickering like chips of diamond in the vast vault of the night.

In fact, you don’t even need to go outside. Sit at your writing desk or at the kitchen table. Lay in your bed even! If you can watch the light fall through a window and paint the ice in your drink or the color of your lover’s eyes, then your capacity as a writer will never be diminished.

Go outside. Travel when you’re able. Adventure. Experience things. Because even fiction is not entirely fiction. And poetry is best when it’s honest.

And now you may be saying to yourself that inspiration doesn’t entirely cut it. You might have loads of ideas: barely-started stories or errant lines of poetry that mark notes on your desk like half-remembered dreams. You’re overflowing with ideas; that’s not the issue. The issue is completing your idea, seeing it come to fruition in publication.

There’s no easy answer to this, no poetic answer. Despite what non-writers may think, writing is indeed actual work. A story, a poem, a novel, or a collection of poems will not write itself, no matter how marvelous you think your ideas are nor how outstanding and poetic your experiences may be.

Writing is hard. It takes a commitment. People that have spoken with me about their multitude of ideas but their lack of finished work lament their predicament. And so do I.

It’s a problem we all suffer from. But there’s hope; it can be controlled. It takes a single-minded devotion to your work that borders on obsessiveness. Finish it! Work on nothing else when it comes to your writing. Pound away on those keys until the final word is reached. Write every day. Set aside writing time, early in the morning or in the evening when things are quietest.

Remember, your story and its characters depend entirely on you. They came to your mind, and are counting on you to reveal them to the world. Without you telling their story, it will never be told. Think about how tragic that would be. Without you to write it out, your story, poem, or novel is no more than a quickly-forgotten dream. There’s so much responsibility in being a writer. It’s no wonder we’re all a little crazy.

As you’re writing your current piece and ideas for a new story come to you, don’t fret! But also, don’t ignore it. That idea may not be coming back if you ignore it. Don’t, under any circumstances, ignore your inspiration and imagination. But how do you do this without neglecting your important work-in-progress?

Don’t worry. It’s easy, as easy as jotting down a note. Write some brief sentences about your idea that came from out of the blue. Take notes until you think it’s all written down. Then put the note away and get back to work on whatever it was that you’re devoting your writing time to. The idea won’t be forgotten as you complete your work-in-progress. In fact, in the time it takes for the current work to be completed, your idea may bloom into something even better, or you may even realize when you look again at your note that it wasn’t really that good of an idea anyway.

So, there’s my writing advice in a nutshell. Get inspired. Seek out inspiration in the honesty and simplicity of the beautiful world around you. Also, devote yourself to your single work-in-progress until the rough draft is finished. It’s counting on you, and only you, to bring it into being.

Hemingway himself said it best when he wrote in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless—there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is to go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.”


Nicholas Trandahl is a newspaper reporter from northeast Wyoming. His poetry is currently published by Winter Goose Publishing, and he's had several novels published by Swyers Publishing. His work has also been published by River Ram Press and, most recently, by Selcouth Station. Trandahl’s latest book of poetry, Pulling Words was published by Winter Goose Publishing in 2017, and they will release his next collection, Think of Me in the spring of 2018. He will be a featured poet in the upcoming poetry compilation from Swyers Publishing, Heart of Courage. Trandahl is happily married and has two daughters (with another on the way). Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.