Monday, August 25, 2014

In Praise of Silence

Patty here...

I'm thrilled to have my friend and fellow author, Kim Fay, as our guest today. Her evocative Edgar-nominated first novel The Map of Lost Memories is set in Seattle and Cambodia in 1925 and sweeps the reader on the harrowing journey of museum-curator wannabe Irene Blum as she attempts to save her reputation by finding the temple believed to house the lost history of Cambodia's ancient Khmer Civilization. 

by Kim Fay

Recently, I spent two and a half weeks at my parents’ house. They live in Tucson in a development overlooking the Santa Catalina Mountains. It was quiet there, very quiet, and not just because it’s in the middle of the desert. I was alone, choosing to go when my parents were out of town. The reason? Why waste time applying for writing retreats or spend money to stay in a writing colony when I had a perfectly good escape just an hour’s flight away?

A Writing Room with a View
On leave from work, I covered all the clocks, and for more than two weeks I wrote, researched, wrote, napped, wrote, sipped wine, wrote, took walks, wrote, wrote and wrote. I had dinner with a friend once. Otherwise, I did not even talk on the phone more than a handful of times, and I checked my email every few days, if that. Ideas had space to roll around in my mind. Plot and characters filled my uninterrupted thoughts. It was divine.

Returning home to L.A. with 50 new pages of my work-in-progress in hand, I was immediately greeted by the noise.

I’m not talking about the sirens, neighbors power lines, leaf blowers, garbage trucks, enraged squirrels, and and and. Yes, that was overwhelming after more than two weeks of near total silence. But the noise I’m talking about is the noise that invades the head of the 21st-century writer.

Kim Fay
Are the Big 5 overrated? Should I self publish? How do you price/format an ebook? Amazon versus Hachette. Tweet this. Like that. Here comes another message from our Yahoo group. Can you believe how hard it is to promote a book these days? Why does my publisher ignore me? Check out what some butthead wrote about my book on Goodreads. Ping ping ping (email notification). Whoosh whoosh whoosh (Twitter notification). Quack quack quack (Facebook notification). Oops, gotta go write another guest blog post, and write an Amazon review, and write a Goodreads review, and comment on another blog … Crumb! I haven’t even written for my own blog in six months!!

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy much of this – especially the camaraderie with my writing friends, both in person and online. I enjoy my Sisters in Crime Yahoo group. I enjoy writing guest posts like this one. I even – gasp! – enjoy Twitter. It’s just that there’s so darn much for a writer to do these days. All the time!

After I graduated from university (in the days of the typewriter), my life was spent writing, working in a bookshop and hanging out with friends. Sometimes I would pass an entire Sunday afternoon on the sofa reading Muriel Spark or Graham Greene. I wrote long letters to my great-aunt and taught myself to cook Greek food, and everything I did was pristine, untouched by the ping whoosh quack of today.

I’m not na├»ve. I know that as we get older, life naturally gets busier. But these days the life of a writer isn’t just busy, it’s frantic. It’s a pressure cooker as you work on your platform and connect with your Goodreads’ fans and wonder about the fate of independent bookstores and, most importantly, tap dance as fast as you can to make sure you stay in the game.

My first novel was published in August of 2012. It did fine but certainly didn’t earn out its advance. In addition, I’m a slow writer. This combination, I was assured by the machine that is modern publishing, guaranteed my failure. In a panic, I actually spent last year working on a commercial novel. Gotta stay in the game, gotta stay in the game. The result: the knowledge that I am not a commercial novelist and a valuable year-long lesson learned. I am back to working on what I want to work on. A mystery series that explores anxiety, ethnicity and L.A. in the 1970s.

Here’s the truth. I don’t want to join Google+. I don’t even understand it. Likewise, I’m not sure what to do with LinkedIn, and I find Facebook overwhelming and terrifying. I am bolstered by the support that comes from fellow writers through social networking, but at the same time, there are days when I just want to slam my computer against the wall.

I need quiet. We need quiet. As writers, quiet in our heads (space in our brains) is essential. I know I can’t make the Internet go away; I don’t want to. But I’ve decided that I can’t just wait for once a year to roll around and my parents to go away for me to find the peace I need to be the best writer I can be. It’s going to take deliberate effort, and to that end, I would love to hear from one and all about what you do to find that quiet place in your head.

Kim's bio:

Born in Seattle and raised throughout Washington State, I lived in Vietnam for four years and have been traveling regularly to Southeast Asia for more than eighteen. A former independent bookseller, I am the author of the historical novel The Map of Lost Memories, a 2013 Edgar Award finalist for Best First Novel by an American Author, and the food memoir Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards’ Best Asian Cuisine Book in the United States. I am also the creator/​editor of the To Asia With Love guidebook series. I now live in Los Angeles. I am represented by Alexandra Machinist at ICM Partners.

Professional affiliations: PEN USA, Authors Guild, Historical Novel Society, Sisters in Crime, Sisters in Crime LA and Mystery Writers of America. For more information, visit www.kimfay.net.

HAPPY MONDAY!

28 comments:

  1. from Jacqueline: Thank you for such a lovely post - my sentiments exactly. I have cultivated the art of finding silence amid the fray. I am on a "book per year" contract, and though it's uncomfortable, I find I am able to step into a closed room in my mind, even on a book tour when I am in a different hotel room every day. I discovered that it's my writing that grounds me, that facilitates that departure from the world into my imagination. Having said that, I am a fan of the silent retreat - quite literarily. On occasion I have "taken myself off to the monks" - staying at a hermitage in Big Sur. No electronics, no conversation with anyone. That's when you realize that the noise in your head alone is enough to deafen you - and you have to sit in the silence until it all calms down. Then you hear what really needs to be heard - and you listen.

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    1. Jacqueline - what insightful comments. I am especially struck by the image of "a closed room in my mind." When I begin writing tomorrow, I am going to try visualizing that - a space that is silent and beautiful. I think it will really help me when I can't physically get away from the noise. Thank you.

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  2. Now I know why people go on writing retreats. I do have time to write but I can see how one's concentration gets fractured, what with paying bills, petting the cats and the like. Perhaps I should try taking myself off to the monks.

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    1. If not the monks, then a quiet hotel room in Ojai or Temecula :) If you do get a chance to escape, I'd love to hear about your experience.

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  3. Wonderful post, Kim ~ and how true! I'm having a hard time remembering life before publication -- going out of the house to see a film occasionally, putting little plants in the ground, remembering to feed the cat. Thanks for this ~ and keep writing! Map of Lost Memories was one of the richest, most enjoyable books I've read in a long time. Listen to your muse!

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    1. Thank you so much for your generous words about The Map of Lost Memories, Connie. It's an honor to have you feel that way. I love Lucky and admire your ability to develop her character along with the plots in your series.

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  4. Great essay Kim. I can really relate as I went up to the mountains and locked mys elf in a cabin for a long weekend to finish my first novel. It worked out great and the best part was, Kathy Bates didn't show up and break my ankles! LOL

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    1. As I mentioned in our Yahoo group exchange, SO very glad your ankles are still intact :)

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  5. Kim,
    Beautiful, thought-provoking essay that all of us readily relate to. You can stay home, though, and do your work if you have discipline enough to ignore all outside distractions, play soothing background music, and remain in your writer's mind as long as possible - at least till Happy Hour. Getting rid of the intellectual clutter is difficult but oh, what a relief!

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    1. Ooh, I'm envious Jill - it sounds like you've found your way to put the outside distractions aside. I feel bolstered by the comments here and feel stronger about finding my own silence, no matter where I am or what's going on in my life.

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  6. Thanks Kim, for verbalizing what a lot of us already think. I don't know who or what this frantic pace is serving, but it doesn't quite serve the writing process. We can't forget to try and get "quiet."

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    1. So true, Laurie. And what an interesting question - who/what is this frantic pace serving? As for the importance of trying to get quiet, I agree with you completely.

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  7. Kim, this is so true! I find I'm most productive when I write at libraries. There's a perfect balance of quiet and general background activity, plus less impulse to open the Internet. I do need to set my writing aside on the weekends so I can participate in real life and keep my creative batteries charged. And I dream of one day going on a writing retreat, but it almost seems too indulgent!

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    1. Diane, You've told me about the library before, and as much as I love going there, I've never written there. I think in my search for new ways to find the silence in my head, I'm going to follow your lead and try a few days at the library. I also agree with you about the need to take time off to recharge. As for writing retreats, I find them to be a necessary indulgence for a writer - I hope you're able to try one soon!

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  8. Great post, Kim! I justify the time I spend on social media with the time I used to spend on the phone. Just like how I sometimes used to switch off that phone ringer, But there are more demands on us. Right now, I'm putting off writing my e-newsletter.. When writing, I have to discipline myself to check my accounts just once an hour, which doesn't always work. The only time I had a true writers retreat like you describe was some years ago. It was at a Central CA beach house and it was glorious. I wrote 20K words and finished my WIP. And they were good words. However, I was also productive today on my current WIP when I wrote at my hairdresser's with my laptop on my lap and her music loud in the background. Guess if you can't score a true retreat, grab one where you can.

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  9. Hi Dianne - Thank you! I admire your ability to grab a retreat wherever you can. I find myself distracted by any noise that includes language (songs, conversations, etc.), which makes it hard for me to write just anywhere. I think what I need to do is practice writing in spaces where I must force myself to retreat while I'm there. Like so many things about writing, this might be yet another habit I can learn. As for social media, I think the thing that gets to me the most is not necessarily how much of it there is but how constant a presence it is. That's the other area where I need to retrain my brain to turn off when I'm not online; then, when I do go back to the Internet, that part of my brain can come back on.

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  10. I liked what you said about covering the clocks. I know if I don't have one in front of me, I definitely work better...and longer...

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    1. DJ, I have a post-it note stuck over the clock on my computer all the time + I turn my clocks in my house around. That said, I have to set alarms to make sure I meet my obligations. So it was a real treat to avoid clocks for more than 2 weeks. It was like floating in time, and it was divine!

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  11. Thank you for voicing some of my concerns, particularly in regard to the branding of the product called ”you” (e.g. Twitter, Facebook etc…)

    Don’t underestimate the power of mediation. Admittedly, I forgot the power of meditation until I returned to regular practice.

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    1. Oh Heather, can you believe we even have to think of ourselves as a product? It's so awful! Thank you for reminding me about meditation. It's something I often forget - or simply don't make time for because my schedule is so full. But I know that if I did make even ten minutes a day for meditation, I would be more productive and less stressed.

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  12. Amen...even living alone doesn't block out all the noise. Maybe I create my own noise, like filling a vacuum. Love the idea of shrouding all the clocks. I also find that going to another region seems to leave some of the mental noise behind.

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    1. JoAnn, So interesting what you say about going to another region. I find that when I travel I can often carve out pockets of time in a way I'm unable to at home.As for the clocks, my parents laughed when I forgot to remove one of the covers - I was afraid of pulling the clock off the wall, so I covered it with one of my dog's (clean) pee pads, because it was light enough for me to be able to leave the clock up but fully covered!

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  13. Thank you for this lovely post, Kim! In my attempt to stay sane after being published, what I've found works for me lately is to stay completely OFF the computer after dinner. That's my dedicated noise-free time to hang out with family and friends, or to read. Sometimes I find myself trying to cheat, but my husband keeps me honest!

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    1. Hi Gigi,
      So glad you enjoyed this, Gigi. I love your solution. With phones it's so easy to be online at any time, but that just creates more chaos in the head. As with many suggestions here, I'm going to put yours into action - no computer (including phone, unless for an actual phone call) after dinner. And I will definitely let my husband know so he can keep me honest!

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  14. The Noise. Nice way to put it, Kim. I agree wholeheartedly. Write what you love and it will show. Your passion for the subject was first and foremost in "Map" and that's one reason it did so well (critically, at least) IMO. Nicely done!

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    1. Thank you so much, Terry. MAP was such a labor of love for me, and my new book - a more traditional mystery - is driven just as much by my passion for the story, setting, characters and even the tone.

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  15. Welcome. And excellent post, Kim. As for a "mystery series that explores anxiety, ethnicity and L.A. in the 1970s," I think that could be VERY commercial. It has been for Walter Mosley, anyway. Actually, I think nearly any subject matter or time period can be commercially successful. It's all in the execution. (To say nothing of promotion, timing, and luck. I wish you all three !)

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  16. Hi Paul - So glad you enjoyed the post! I hope you're right about the potential commercialism of my new project. I think there are different kinds of commercialism, and the problem was that the book I wrote in a panic was chick lit, which simply didn't hold my heart. I am passionate, though, about my mystery WIP. So here's hoping that I pull off the execution!

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