Creative Living 7: Angela Woodall

February 15th, 2009

Angela Woodall is a reporter for The Oakland (California) Tribune. She prowls around the city at night, chronicling its characters and haunts, and has developed a popular column and blog called The Night Owl , which covers everything from entertainment to the cops who patrol the city after sunset. She is a veteran of stories even grittier than Oakland, having covered everything from Capitol Hill and post-Katrina New Orleans to Bosnia. Her work has been published in national and international publications, including United Press International, Washington Times, The Croatian Herald, The Sudan Tribune, Connect Magazine, Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News. She is working on her first non-fiction book, “Necklace of Lights: Oakland After Hours.” She holds a master’s degree in journalism and public affairs from American University in Washington , D.C. , as well as a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and sociology from Mills College in Oakland. Angela lived in Germany for a number of years, has traveled widely in Western and Eastern Europe and speaks several languages.

Menial work at the expense of all true, ardent, creative work is a sin against the Holy Ghost.” Author Brenda Ueland offered that declaration as a footnote in If You Want to Write, published in 1938 when she was a woman nearing middle age. It is the best advice about juggling a creative life with the rest of life.  Let me say here that I am a full-time journalist for The Oakland Tribune. I write every day but being a poet on deadline isn’t easy, although I have room for freelance magazine articles and my first non-fiction book (in progress).Even daily journalism – fires, city council meetings, obituaries — can be creative, which in my mind means stepping back, opening up all the senses and really looking at everything in its most minute detail. Creativity means working with love and imagination and intelligence at writing or whatever it is that you care about, to borrow Ueland’s words again. Sometimes that means noticing how the moon casts a phosphorescent glow over the empty city streets right before midnight, or how a waiter’s name on a restaurant check has been shortened to just “Christ.” Sometimes it is as simple as starting sentences with a subject, verb and object then ending them with a well-chosen word that sticks in your mind.

The other part of creativity is tougher: telling the story, the reality of what happened, instead of just writing a bunch of facts on a piece of paper. Sometimes it comes down to finding a phrase or a word that describes the universe of our shared experience – the “A Ha!” moment, as another writer once put it. Poetry, my secret indulgence, a thesaurus and all the good writing I can get my hands on (especially George Orwell, master of the metaphor) help build that “A-ha” muscle. Otherwise, it boils down to practice, which takes discipline, of which I have pathetically little.

A war rages inside my brain about it every day. Not ten minutes had passed after I first read Brenda Ueland’s advice than my mind wandered to the dust accumulating on the Venetian blinds, the purple feather duster I bought and my nearly complete array of mops, brooms, irons, toasters, coffee makers. I had already congratulated myself about a half-dozen times that day about choosing to work on my writing – to be creative — over ducking behind housework. There was plenty of it to be done. There always is, offering endless excuses when my creative demon called uncertainty creeps up on me. Now I know that the impulse to clean every cupboard and shelf in my apartment (and then admire them) means I’m hiding because I haven’t figured out how to approach a story, or because I’m afraid my book or article will be boring or rejected or…

Half the battle is just sitting down to write. A daily newspaper deadline is like a vacation compared to getting me to do my own writing. I’m not even above using my teenage daughters’ laundry and transportation demands to disguise my bad habits and cowardice.

So I force myself to write – anything, even if it is nonsense in my journal or retyping an article I admired. That usually gives me the fix I need. Admiration can also stop me dead in tracks with the anguishing question, “How can I possibly top that?” Maybe I can’t, but now I know I don’t have to. I can just do it differently, in my own style. And story ideas are never lacking. I just usually manage to turn a simple idea one into an endless sea with no horizon in sight, rescuing myself by adjusting my vision and clinging to an outline like a life preserver.

On better days, I stick to my carefully devised schedule (two hours on whatever project it is before I begin work at 2 p.m. or have to turn my attention to errands and chores) and force myself, well-fed and reasonably caffeinated, into a chair. Laptop in hand, I take a deep breath, close my eyes and let the story unfold in my mind as though it were a movie. Then I am ready to write. No excuses. No distractions. Just word after word after word.

12 Responses to “Creative Living 7: Angela Woodall”

  1. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Thank you, Ms. Woodall. I loved your description of Life vs. Creative Writing as a war raging daily in your brain — how perfect! I’m usually on the losing end of that battle. I’ve had the wisp of a short story on the edge of my mind for months now.

    This morning as I unpacked my husband’s duffle bag after a long weekend of heavy manual labor at his parent’s house, I caught a whiff of stale, sweaty athletic socks. I immediately dropped the bundle of clothes on the floor in the hallway, ran to my notebook and wrote the opening scene of my story (which takes place in a teenaged-boy’s bedroom). I just needed the olfactory cue to pull the threads together and overcome my cowardice (and insistence on doing household chores). My hand could hardly keep up with the flow!

  2. Sylvia Says:

    Just word after word after word.

    I want this framed.

    It’s interesting to think about how to find that angle: opening up all the senses and really looking at everything in its most minute detail.

    Thank you for your poignant description of the processes and honesty about the temptation towards neglect. Although it’s a little bit depressing to think that it never goes away, it’s a little bit reassuring, too.

  3. Angela Woodall Says:

    Definitely. But I actually think it does get better: my work habits improved dramatically after I wrote this piece. That and my paper furloughed us for five days. Fear and money are powerful motivation.
    Anyway, maybe our motto should be “keep that hand moving!” I will remember that whenever the temptation to hide behind a Hoover strikes.

  4. suzanna Says:

    Hi, Angela

    Thanks for demonstrating so beautifully the reasons why so many working parents find it difficult to juggle their very busy creative lives and the demands of family life. You are much more disciplined and courageous than you know. Looking foward to reading “Necklace of Lights: Oakland After Hours.”

  5. usman Says:

    Thank you for this piece. As an entrepreneur, father, husband, and writer, I find it difficult to juggle my daily life around all these and other aspects of life.
    And yet there is no way but to grit the teeth and ask God for mercy and the strength to write; and even more the time.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Angela, and thanks to all who have commented. Sorry for my absence — I leave early tomorrow for Asia and the past week has been one long to-do list.

    I’ll post more about Angela’s great piece in a couple of days from Bangkok and also announce our next creative living contributor.

  7. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Safe miles, Tim.

  8. Lindsay Price Says:

    Thanks for this. It’s so important to know that what we think are solitary fears in us, are actually quite common.

    When I teach student playwrights, I always start with the habit of automatic writing exercises. Anything that gets the pen moving and the brain moving. It’s that blank page, that moment before we write which can be the worst of all. If there’s a doorway into getting something, anything on the page then moving on to the work at hand doesn’t seem so bad.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I don’t think that any of us face the blank page with complete confidence. I have days when I literally have to force myself to work, when I postpone it for hours until I have to write into late hours to make my word count. I know people who have written dozens of books and people who have sold millions, and they all have anxiety about the job.

    That’s why I have to make such inflexible rules for myself. I write seven days a week — six at the absolute minimum, and never, ever, under any conceivable circumstances other than severe injury or illness will I take two days off in a row. I set a minimum word count — 1500 — and stick to it. If I don’t have any idea what to write, I write about not knowing what to write, and that almost always gets me to a point where I DO know what to write.

    And if I don’t, then I write crap. At least crap can be improved. At the very least, you’ve learned one way not to take the story, one way not to write the scene.

    And I think it’s very helpful to begin every session by revising the work of the past three days or so. That way, you’re already engaged when you get to that frigid-looking white space with no words on it. Works for me, anyway.

  10. Larissa Says:

    Thanks for another great post. I keep telling myself I”ll eventually pick my story back up but I get that far and then go, yeah but I still have no idea why I’m writing it…not for the esoteric, self fulfilling reasons, but for the drive of the story. I guess I’m missing the story itself. I keep hoping if I just play it over and over again in my head something will come together. Once I know why I can fill in the details. So. Maybe that tells me I’m not a story writer. Maybe it says I need to work harder.

    Have a wonderful journey Tim!

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Jeez, Riss —

    The process you’re describing is pretty much how I feel all the time — I’m slapping away at the story but either missing it somehow or else missing the central core of it, whatever it is that makes the thing worth telling in the first place.

    And I find that the only way to deal with it is to plow ahead, adding material here and cutting it there, following this thread and snipping that one until I’ve got something that looks a little bit like whatever I thought I had in mind in the first place. And then the question is whether it’s worse than what I had in mind, better than what I had in mind, or just different.

    The book I’m writing right now bears almost no resemblance to the one I thought I was going to write when I started. But it’s got enough good stuff in it (I think) to keep my fingers on the keys, if only to see how the hell it’s going to come out. Like Angela says: No excuses. Just word after word after word.

  12. Larissa Says:

    Glad to know it’s not just me. (c: No excuses is really it. It’s a lot of work to keep that part of all of us that says ‘yeah, but i’m really bad at this…’ at bay and just work through it anyway. I still think about what you talk about-even crap can be edited but a blank page is just that. Heh. That goes for a lot of things.

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