Dispatches from Summer

 I was dropping off the kids at day care a few weeks ago when another parent passed me in the hall. She commented that she envied me because I could leave the kids and then not work all day. A few feeble protests rose in my throat but I squashed them. She’s right. I drop off the kids and instead of going to the office (which is what I do 9 months out of the year), I go home.

So what do I do all day?

Well, I write a bunch. I’m steadily working through rewrites of my YA fantasy novel. I’m sending a draft of the other YA novel to beta readers. I’m taking an online writing class, I meet with my writing group, and I work on some short pieces. I’m tossing a few essay ideas around, as well.

Then I do all the other things people do – I plan meals and go for walks and do yoga and read and clean out the fridge. I pull weeds in the garden, I obsess over the size of the zucchini and I endlessly pick raspberries. I marvel at how I ever get any of this done during my “regular” work year.

And I deal with the tension that arises between having time to write and feeling like every second of time should be spent writing. This is the script my mind repeats: Since I’m not working in the library for three months, I should spend every possible second writing, so that I can make the most of this time.

As you can imagine, this is not a recipe for either good writing or general mental wellbeing. I’ve written about my complex relationship with time before. I never quite feel like I have enough, but then when I have more, I feel crushed by the weight of expectation.

Before this spins into all-out woe-is-me obnoxious navel gazing, I did have a few insights on a walk the other day. Mainly this: more work is not necessarily better work. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about how the well runs dry when it comes to creative work. A writer can have two or three days of incredible productivity, with ideas bursting from the seams and arranging themselves in perfect order on the page. Then she sits down the next day, expecting to dive right into the work again and…nothing. Crickets. The well has run dry.

Cameron provides several wonderful techniques for filling the well again, usually involving leaving the page for a bit. For me the key is simply noting when my reservoirs of inspiration and creativity have hit a glitch. They need a rest and so do I. So I take some time to not write, even though I have to drag myself kicking and screaming from the keyboard, because I know it will be better in the long run.

Do I love it? Nope. I had a rough writing day yesterday and I’m still mad about it. I was cranky all day because the scene didn’t go well, and even when I had an insight into how to fix the scene, I’m still not sure it’s right. And the reason I’m blogging instead of reworking the scene is that I’m reluctant to face the page again. It seems too hard.

Going back, of course, is the trick. Well, it can’t get any worse (I’m lying, of course it can get worse), so back to the page it is! Cheers.

E is for….Editing

I’m an impatient person. I want things to move quickly and efficiently. I’m also unrealistic in gauging how much time a project will take. And I get frustrated when my vision for how something should go doesn’t match the reality. (These are also just some of the many reasons why I meditate.)

Writing a novel is an exercise in inefficiency. There isn’t a one-to-one ratio in words written to words published. I have piles and piles of pages that will never see the light of day, storylines that will never be more than notes jotted on scraps of paper, novels half-started and then abandoned. But I also have material that climbed out of the morass and became something interesting. Something readable.

Before I was a writer, I used to think that books fell out of the brain fully formed. The writer was a conduit, nothing more. Now I know that none of the good stuff gets where it is without rounds and rounds of blood, sweat and editing. Here’s how I edit and rewrite:  I poke and prod at the characters, examining their motivations and identities. I hack unnecessary scenes, rewrite entire chapters and destroy villages. When I can’t take it further, it goes to beta readers and I revise some more. After that, it goes to my amazing editor, Rebecca Heyman. Then back again for more editing.

And yeah, it’s totally inefficient. This still frustrates me on some level. Then I remind myself that maybe efficiency isn’t the highest goal, that maybe the highest goal is writing the best stuff I can. Then I tell myself to shut up already and go write.


New Year’s Unresolutions

(Since the temp will not be above zero for the next couple of days, I’m spending a lot of time looking at pictures of warmer days.  Hence the flowers to the left and me quietly crying in the corner.  SO COLD!)

I used to be a huge fan of making New Year’s resolutions. I’d scribble impossible lists of all the exercise and healthy eating and meditation I was going to do over the coming year, only to review the crumpled lists at the end of the year with a strong feeling of guilt and failure.  Then I came to my senses and realized no one prospered from me starting the new year feeling bad about myself.

So this past week I spent hours with a purple pen and a yellow legal pad, reflecting on the past year of writing and jotting down plans for next year.  I even found my list of intentions from last year (okay, these were more like resolutions than not):

  • Complete research for second novel by the end of February
  • Revise rough draft of second novel and send second draft to beta readers by the end of July
  • Conduct preliminary research for third novel and apply for grant funding by mid-June
  • Write six short stories and submit at least three to literary journals
  • Write ten flash fiction stories for ten contents and/or journal submissions
  • Blog seven – ten times per month (lucky you!)
  • Write a rough draft of yet another novel – I have two planned and will write one, depending on how a few external circumstances resolve themselves

I did okay.  I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that I am starting the new year with a novel to revise and a rough draft to finish.  I published several flash pieces and decided I am not a short story writer.  I embraced slow blogging.  I didn’t get the grant but I learned a lot from the process.

Mainly I recognized my pattern of biting off more than I can chew when it comes to setting goals.  I don’t want to do that this coming year.  I do have plans – I’m going to keep writing and revising.  I’m going to keep blogging.  And I have an exciting announcement about my first novel coming soon.

But more than anything, I have one overriding goal:

To explore my full potential and creativity as a writer.

And I have five practices that will help me live into that goal:

  • Reflection – I need time to dream, ponder, doodle.  I spent too much of the fall trying to churn out word counts, afraid that I was “wasting time” otherwise.  But in order to write well, I need time to stare out the window, “wasting” writing time, mulling over my characters and plots.  Inspiration usually comes when I’m writing but it’s supported by dreaming, too.
  • Intentionality – Sometimes all I really need to do in order to stay focused as a writer, is to spend a little time each day or week setting a few goals and intentions, while also being realistic about how much I can reasonably accomplish.  It’s much more concrete to “write 5,000 words by Friday” than it is to “work on novel this week.”
  • Risk – I’ve always secretly worried I don’t take enough risks.  That I’m content to live on the sidelines. I also realized last year that I’ve accomplished the things I’m most proud of by taking risks.  I have a thing about wasting time (see above) and I think I shy away from risks because I’m afraid I’ll have wasted all this time on something that failed.  But, as the universe has been reminding me lately, we learn and grow from our mistakes and failures, maybe even more than our successes. More news on specific risks to come.
  • Simplicity – I took down the decorations last week and I kept going, getting rid of items in the house I no longer use.  I also deleted a ton of shows from the DVR, shows I know I will never watch.  My closets are next.  I work best in clean, uncluttered spaces.  This applies to intangible things, too.  I’m done beating myself up over things I “should” do.  And I’m not going to let people steal my time – I’ve always been good at this but circumstances necessitate even more vigilance.  There, less mess – physical and emotional – and more time to write.
  • Self-care – This comes closest to a resolution.  Mainly it means getting enough movement and good food and sleep to stay healthy and functioning.  But I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t lose 10 pounds or get to the gym every day.

So, we’ll see what happens.  I’m off to tackle my closets!