The yeti crab and other Antarctic discoveries

By Midge Raymond,

I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”

Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.

I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).

One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.

I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.

 



A Q&A with author Judy Reeves

By Midge Raymond,

Just in time for a new year of writing, I’ve received a copy of the latest wonder from author Judy Reeves: her Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers.

In addition to being absolutely gorgeous, this book is filled with daily writing prompts, quotes, and inspiration — and its workbook shape and style make it easy to personalize, make notes, and (especially) to carry around everywhere.

You may already know Judy from her many books on writing, among them A Writer’s Book of Days — and she generously agreed to chat with me about this latest project. And, as you’ll see below, chatting with Judy is always inspiring…

Q: I love that this is a perpetual calendar—writers can begin any day, any year—and I especially love that it has a spot for us to note what hours we intend to spend writing, or, if we don’t have a specific schedule, what our goals are, such as “finish chapter three.” Over the years, what are some of the things you’ve learned about your own writing practice, and how has it evolved?

A. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that if I don’t make the time to do the writing, the writing won’t get done. It is so easy to say, “I’ll do my writing as soon as I _____________.” You can fill in the blank. I joke now that “as soon as” is going to be the epitaph carved on my gravestone. Thank goodness I’ve learned to do the writing first, and let “as soon as” refer to what I do after the day’s writing is done.

Another thing I learned the hard way: perfectionism is my Achilles’ heel. Many years ago when I was in a read and critique group with Janet Fitch, I used to stay up until o’dark hundred the night before group laboring over sentences and auditioning words for the perfect fit. Then I’d take these fraught pages to the group only to have that sweat-drenched sentence I’d struggled with until 2 a.m. x-ed out as “overworked” or “unnecessary.” Get the words on the page, I say; read them aloud and give them an edit or two to make sure the whole thing works, then do the fine tuning and wordsmithing. There’s always the next draft to change magenta to fuschia and use a semi-colon rather than a period. (I still haven’t perfected this practice, by the way.)

Do it alone? Not a chance. My writing community is critical to my well-being; to my self-esteem and conversely, to my humility; and to the writing itself.

Q: Throughout the calendar, you incorporate tips and inspiration from myriad writers, from Janet Fitch to John Steinbeck to Ann Patchett. What has been among the most helpful advice on writing you’ve ever received?

A: I’ve been a student of writing for so many years, and I am grateful to all the writers who have shared their experience so I am able to get better at this thing I want to do most in the world. Every piece of advice I’ve included in the Appointment Calendar, and in all my books, is something I have taken to heart.

Maybe the most liberating tip is Natalie Goldberg’s “You’re free to write the worst junk in America.” In our regular writing practice groups, we use that quote in the guidelines we read at the beginning of each session. Then add to it, “and some days you will. Other days you’ll write something really beautiful, and some days, you’ll just write.” Meaning, don’t let your writing be so precious. Just get out of your own way and fling the words down on the page.

The most affirming advice is Brenda Ueland’s “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” To me this means every human being is given some gift of expression: painting, singing, dancing, making pottery or poetry, cooking, crafting, and so on, ad infinitum. For those of us who are called to write, this is our gift, and we have a responsibility to use it. No one else is going to write like you do and no one else can tell the story you can tell.

Janet Fitch told me to “stay in the room,” and Cynthia Ozick said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.” Colette wrote, “Look long at what pleases you, longer still at what disturbs you.” Facing a blank page and writing from our most vulnerable place, being willing to expose ourselves, telling the truth even when it scares us—writing is fraught with danger. Before I understood this, I veered away from the scary parts by trying to be clever and glib. Those hours looking for the perfect word were really a way to avoid going deeper, which is what I needed to do to write the truth. I’ll admit my need to munch on almonds or raw carrots or apples when I hit the parts in my writing that need a longer look; there’s something about all that crunching relieves some of the anxiety.

I’ll stop now, though I could fill a book with advice that has helped, and continues to help me.

Q: The “Dear Lively Muse” feature appearing in the calendar is wonderful. In your experience as an instructor and workshop leader, what is the most common question writers have about the writing process, and what’s your answer?

A: Probably the most common question about process is, “Do I have to write every day?” I tell them it’s a good idea to write every day, at least five days a week if possible. I say they need to create what Flannery O’Connor called “a writing habit” and that the writing will come easier if they do it daily and writing every day keeps the story alive. I also tell them that I understand daily writing isn’t the be all and end all to being a good writer, and then I recommend your book, Everyday Writing, to show them how they can be about their writing when they’re not actually sitting at their desk and writing.

The most common question about the craft, probably because I mention it so much, is how to “show, don’t tell.” So we talk about lively verbs and specific, concrete details and writing from the senses. We unpack abstract words and play around with descriptions that move on the page and characters that have unique qualities and interior lives, and settings that make the reader feel as if they’re actually in the place. We examine writing in scene as the events in the story actually happen so the reader experiences them right along with the characters, and moving from the head into the body, and from the brain into the heart.

Q: I enjoyed the section on rituals and habits—for Francine Prose, it’s a view; for Toni Morrison, it’s coffee and morning light. What is it for Judy Reeves?

A: Candle, coffee, journal. More coffee.

Q: The calendar makes note of literary events—National Poetry Month in April, for example, and International Short Story Day in June. What are some of your favorite literary events, from local to international, and how do you celebrate them?

A: I love Banned Books Week, which is the last week in September. Over the years, I’ve been part of number of Banned Books readings. I think it’s important to call attention to our freedom to read and write whatever we choose. This isn’t the case the world over. During Poem in a Pocket Day I print out little poems from the poets.org website and leave them around places, and I chalk poems on the sidewalk. Last year I participated in World Book Night, and gave away 20 copies of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I hope I’ll be chosen as a participant again this year. I make sure to kiss a librarian during National Library Week, which is also in April, and I wouldn’t miss San Diego Writers, Ink‘s Blazing Laptops Write-a-thon. Oh, and the LA Times Festival of Books. What an abundance!

Q: Tell me a little bit about the process of creating this book, from the fabulous prompts to the wonderful illustrations and design.

A: I first thought of creating a daily calendar for writers with a prompt for every day more than a dozen years ago. When I sent my proposal to New World Library, they said they didn’t publish calendars, but would I consider writing a book. (Would I?) This is how A Writer’s Book of Days came about. But the idea of a calendar for writers didn’t go away, and somehow the project found its way to the top of my list last winter.

The daily prompts were critical to my concept. From nearly twenty years of leading writing practice groups, and from the response I get from my books, I know that no matter what else is going on in their writing, writers can use a prompt to get started or get unloosed from a stuck place. Where they go from the initial prompt doesn’t matter; all that matters is getting the hand moving and the words on the page.

My initial idea was a single-year calendar, spiral-bound and hardcover. You see that the published book is actually a perpetual calendar, rather than a single year, that it has a soft cover and is perfect-bound. Concepts change as you talk to friends and get practical advice from people who’ll actually use the product. Designs sometimes have to change, too, as you research what’s available in POD format. Oh, what I have learned!

About those wonderful illustrations and the design: Steve Montgomery, my close and dear friend and co-leader of our Thursday Writers group, has so many talents and gifts, I can’t begin to list them here. Among the many things he does really well is design. He and I have co-created many a project and work easily and well together, so I asked him if he would be interested in doing the layout and design for the calendar. He answered with an enthusiastic “yes!” and am I ever grateful.

I knew I wanted to use the Lively Muse as inspiration—a muse for us if you will, and Steve found all those delightful sprites that frolic throughout the pages. (The Lively Muse comes from the subtitle of A Writer’s Book of Days, A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life. I blog as the Lively Muse, and started The Lively Muse Press to publish the book.) Steve created an elegant design with so many subtle and not-so-subtle echoes of the text in the illustrations; I think he did a brilliant job. The book is a collaboration, start to finish.

Click here to get your own copy of this lovely book (which, by the way, makes an amazing gift for the writers in your life!)

Judy Reeves is a writer, teacher, and writing practice provocateur who has published four books on the craft including A Writer’s Book of Days, which was named Best Nonfiction in the 2010 San Diego Book Awards. She lives in San Diego and is co-founder of San Diego Writers, Ink. Her website is judyreeveswriter.com, where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter. She blogs at livelymuse.com.