Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Dickens of a Christmas

Today, everyone gets swept up in the retail, shop-til-you-drop world of Christmas. But for several centuries, it’s been writers who have memorialized holiday traditions or even created new ones through their stories. Two that come to mind are Clement Clark Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol,” my all-time favorite.

It just doesn’t seem like Christmas without ole Charlie Dickens’ classic. Sure, the ghosts are spooky, but he draws his readers into the story in such a way as to make them experience cold, snowy, in some ways, desolate 19th-century London. I’ve seen every film version and have read the story many times. In some ways, it was Charles Dickens who inspired me to be a writer. And to think it all started with Christmas.

“A Christmas Carol”is probably the best-known and best-loved Christmas story of all time. It has even been credited with changing the way 19th-century Brits and Americans celebrated Christmas. Dickens’ tale tells the story of a greedy, rich, Christmas-hating old man named Ebenezer Scrooge who’s constantly proclaiming “Bah, humbug!” One Christmas Eve Scrooge receives a visit from three spirits. These spirits—the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come—show him scenes from his past, present, and future. This supernatural experience transforms him into a joyous, generous soul who cherishes Christmas above all other times of year.

But what inspired Dickens to pen such a story? Most literary historians believe it was his
concern for the poor that brought him the inspiration needed to write “A Christmas Carol.” In September of 1843, at the invitation of Miss Angela Burdett Coutts, a wealthy philanthropist and a friend of his, Dickens toured one of London's Ragged Schools. Funded by private charity, these schools sought to educate some of the city's poorest children. The visit moved him so deeply that he spoke on the link between poverty and ignorance at the Athenaeum, an organization dedicated to educating workers, in Manchester. It was while he was in Manchester that the idea of transforming his impressions of the Ragged School into a work of fiction planted itself in his imagination. That October he plunged into a new story called “A Christmas Carol.” And while his social concerns may have inspired him to write the tale, it was his empty pockets that provided the motivation to undertake his new project.

Lately, Dickens’ financial situation had become dire since the sales of his latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, were floundering. Dickens felt sure that a story like “A Christmas Carol” would appeal to readers at Christmas time and thus generate needed cash. For he wasn’t only a good writer but a sensible businessman.

Dickens blazed through the writing of his new story, completing the manuscript in only six weeks. The project seized hold of him, inspiring him to work from morning until late at night. He passed some of these nights striding as many as 20 miles through the shadowy, still London streets, meditating on the story. In a letter to a friend he confessed that the work so charged his emotions, he found himself alternately laughing and weeping, an experience he transferred to his main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in his story.

Dickens financed the publication of the slim little book himself, insisting on illustrations and a quality binding. It appeared in bookshops on December 19, 1843. Dickens complained that booksellers seemed uninterested in promoting the story. Nevertheless, the entire first printing of 6,000 copies sold out in less than a week. After subtracting what it had cost him to produce the book, though, Dickens earned very little from its first printing.

But Dickens managed to celebrate Christmas merrily that year, exclaiming in a letter to a friend that he had rarely experienced a Christmas season so full of dining, dancing, theater-going, party games, and good cheer. He even attended a children's party where he entertained the assembled company with magic tricks, to all appearances dumping the raw ingredients of a plum pudding into a friend's hat and pulling out the finished product. The children’s party also appeared in his story. It was as if Dickens, himself, had become Scrooge and relished in the joy of Christmas.

So while writers may write about more mundane subjects throughout the year, it’s often Christmas that brings out the best in them. And while it may be too late to compose your own Christmas story for this year, there’s always 2015.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Time is of the Essence

Time is an elusive thing. It can get away from you if you’re not careful. Before you know it, days disappear into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. And what have you accomplished? For many, the answer is not much. Well, it’s time to put your foot down and get something done—at least as far as your writing is concerned.

So how do you find time to write? Finding time to write in today’s busy world can be a real challenge. Ever since computers appeared on the scene, life hasn’t been quite the same. Now Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and God knows what other social media happenings fill the hours between sunrise and sunset. And don’t forget about Email. Sending and especially answering electronic mail can take up a big chunk of your day.

And then there’s work, school, or whatever other endeavor you’re pursuing, plus the time necessary for basic necessities like eating and sleeping—oh, and don’t forget exercising. So where does writing fit in?

Everyone has the same amount of time every day. How you choose to use that time makes you successful at what you do. However, if you aren’t willing to devote some serious time to writing, then perhaps you should take some time to think about how you use your time.

Focusing is the key. You must focus your time so that you accomplish what you set out to do in writing, as well as some but not all of the other stuff. You need to decide what you want to do and what you can do without, so that you can write more—or forget it.

The choice isn’t between writing and doing something else that you don’t want to do. The choice is among a nearly overwhelming array of things that you enjoy doing, such as checking in with your friends on Facebook, reading for pleasure, or having people over for dinner. Then there’s going to the movies, watching T.V., and traveling. You may rather do the dishes, walk the dog, or do laundry than write. So faced with so many options, most beginning writers tend to choose too many and feel like they’re short of time.

While some people can fit little bits of writing or editing in between other chores, that’s just not being realistic. To get any major writing project done, you have to dedicate time to it. To get published requires a considerable effort, so little bits of time writing here and there just won’t cut it.

Writing productivity demands dedication. To get anything done and done right, you have to just do it. And that means intense concentration for the time you’ve chosen to allot for writing. Wanting to write—a dream a lot of people have—and actually writing are two different things. Writing every day produces not only more writing but also more ideas for future writing. But writing posts on Facebook or answering Emails doesn’t count. The type of writing you should be doing is the kind necessary to advance your writing career and improve your writing skills such as articles, short stories, and plays.

Writing, like exercising, is its own reward. When you don’t do it, you feel as if you’re cheating yourself. Successful writers don’t just sit around waiting for inspiration, they sit down and begin to write. At some point, inspiration usually strikes. This is much like runners who exercise in all types of weather, no matter how busy their schedule may be. Like physical exercise, writing is often not enjoyable while you’re doing it. And like exercise, it’s just a matter of discipline. If you aren’t a disciplined person, you can certainly become one.

Distractions are the bane of serious writing. They kill the flow. So turn off the Email reminder and your cell phone and let voice mail answer for you. Stay in flow. Focus on what you’re writing. This is especially important for big projects like books. Find a convenient spot to stop for the day or stop after your daily quota if you’re writing fiction. Don’t write until you get tired. You’ll only have to redo it.

To stay focused on your writing while fulfilling your daily responsibilities, including answering Email and catching up with Facebook, set aside an hour or so every day to write. Or at least set aside an hour three days a week, or even one day a week. The key is making this time a regular slot in your schedule. Don’t let anything deter you from it. And while you’re at it, write at the same time every day. And lastly, write no matter how you feel----even if you feel like you don’t feel like writing. If you want to be a writer, you must write.