Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kathleen Bartholomew: How to Write

Kathleen and Kage at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair
This week's guest is one of my favorite people in the world. Not that I'm not fond of all my guests, but I've known Kathleen Bartholomew (Nell Gwynne's: On Land and At Sea, with Kage Baker) for a good long time. We both spent a huge chunk of our lives pursuing a common goal — making the English Renaissance come alive on weekends in the spring in Southern California. But that's not important right now. What's important is that Kathleen knows. I mean, she just knows. Here, see what I mean. 

Maggie Secara (Hi, Maggie!)  invited me to make a guest appearance here on her blog some months ago. I was quite flattered and agreed at once, confident of several things:
  •   Maggie is a great hostess and would allow me just about any goofiness I came up with;
  •  My font of ideas would overflow into a huge fund of potential topics in the days leading up to today's post;
  •  And when I finally sat down to write, my mind would become a vast, echoing blank.·

All of which have happened. Self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps, but I believe it is also one of the classic inescapable cycles of creation that afflict  writers. The need to write is a compulsion on the order of major psychosis for most of us wordsmiths: the constant pressure to write, to compose, to tell the story is not an exterior one. But there are plenty of other pressures that come to bear on writing, from your outside. It's the tension between the two that facilitates — nay, requires, demands — writing.

But those pressures don't make writing easy, only vital to accomplish. And if you fail, your head explodes.

You want to write — you need to write — but that same fascination with the plot of the story in your head applies as well to nearly every thing else around you. The local news (Gatorade doping!), advances in telepathic communication (there were some this week ...), the latest scandal on the international scene (dying dictators, resigning pontiffs, the latest Prince to lose his trousers) — it's all irresistibly compelling. A story starts running in your mind for everything you see. It's all totally fascinating, and when it goes awry (which happens for a while every freaking day) your creative powers are running amok in your head like a duck hound with ADHD.

If you don't pick a theme and write it down, your head explodes.

At the same time, there are the actual exterior pressures. These are almost all forms of deadlines, which is a word that means something specifically, personally ghastly to a writer. The deadline is the place where — if you cross it — you're dead. The deadline is a straight line running parallel to your life line. Like the perfect lines of Aristotle's geometry, they are never meant to actually converge. They only look as if they do, at that point where a story is finished and handed off; but in reality, only your lifeline keeps running for the psychic horizon. And somewhere along the way, another idea is born, and a new deadline rises from the earth to pace your lifeline ...

If they are ever permitted to converge, your head explodes.

So there you sit, with these two opposing pressures rising up inside and outside you. To give in and write is a genuinely visceral delight. When it really works well, it's out-of-body bliss. But the need to meet the deadline, whatever it is, is also insisting you're working on the wrong story, or the plot is not resolving quickly enough, or you need something new and exciting to power the tale on to the end. You need a new McGuffin, or a plot twist, or a protagonist you can stand. You need 1500 more words. You need to kick the machina and see what deus falls into the hopper.

And in the meantime, the pressure is building on both sides of your skull, and a gravity point source like a black hole is trying to form in your mind, ready to turn you inside out.

This is where no other writer's advice will help you. There are endless classes and workshops available to every writer to teach the necessary basics of writing — but when you have expanded your vocabulary, and exhausted all your personal fantasies (We all do it. Don't be ashamed, just get them out of your system), and learned when grammar matters and when it doesn't ... when it comes down to What am I going to say?, no one else can help you. They can only tell you what works for them, and you have to experiment with every suggestion to figure out what actually gets you sitting still and writing.

Some writers lock themselves away in monastic privacy — others, believe it or not, need to write in the midst of domestic chaos, like a teenager doing their math homework. Some use silence, some need music. Maggie herself (Hi, Maggie!) uses a writing tiara, whose metaphysical reality I am not qualified to judge. It works, that's all that matters.  Alcohol is quite popular with writers, as are drugs; but unless you already possess a blazing world-class talent, those will only dim your light to extinction.

The late Kage Baker, my sister whose work I am trying to continue, played Free Cell at the beginning of every writing session. She had to play it until she won a game. She was instantly derailed by conversation, but required music played very loudly; usually one specific album per book, over and over and over ...

I am still figuring out what I need to be able to write. Games aren't it. Music isn't it.  Peace and quiet don't seem to do it; I suspect I need the threat of imminent disaster to get my compositional arse in gear. I need to stop imagining my muse — who is male, by the way — sitting behind my right shoulder looking pious and sad and supportive: I need to outfit him with a leather jacket and a whiskey flask and a menacing look. [Possibly a motorcycle and an urge to discover America? –M.]

Maybe I need more coffee, or more fibre. Maybe I need a cushion; scented candles; new headphones and a good copy of Beethoven's 8th. I'm not the tiara type, but maybe I need a nice pair of handcuffs ...

Whatever it is, I'll find it. I found it in time to finish Kage's Nell Gwynne II, and to start several stories. And when I do identify it once and for all — whenever any writer finally figures out what absolutely does it for them — a wonderful thing happens.

Your head explodes. But it explodes in narrative and plot and simile and resolution, like a nebula, a birthing, or a new star being lit. And the universe is full of light, and it's the clearest light ever seen, and the world, your world, flows away under your fingers as neatly as a string of beads ...

And that's how you write.

And who's Kathleen Bartholomew when she's at home?

Kathleen Bartholomew is the sister of the late science fiction and fantasy writer, Kage Baker. Like Kage, Kathleen grew up semi-feral in the Hollywood Hills, was educated by nuns, and ran away with the Renaissance Pleasure Faire at an early age. She has lived in various enchanted localities up and down California since then, and in most of the centuries between the 13th and the 23rd & 1/2. She presently lives once more in Los Angeles, with another sister, two cats, a Corgi and a parrot.

Kathleen was Kage's research assistant, sounding board, and collaborator in the worlds Kage created in her 12-year writing career. This left her with a vast inchoate background in history, biology, folklore, domestic engineering and bar-tending. When Kage died in 2010, she left Kathleen notes, outlines, 2 partial novels and several short stories. She also left Kathleen a stern deathbed geas to finish the work and get it out there to be read. 

Which is what Kathleen is doing now - the first finished novel was published in January: Nell Gwynne's On Land and At Sea; or, Who We Did On Our Summer Holidays. The first short story - a tale from Kage's Company universe, entitled "Pareidolia", will be coming out in a collection of Kage's stories later this year. More are in production.  Kathleen also writes an almost-daily blog about writing, Kage Baker, and whatever else crosses her mind - Kathleen, Kage & The Company. It can be found at  It provides the interested reader with a window into Kage and Kathleen's minds, and into the gestalt mega-mind their brains formed over the years.

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