In praise of writing festivals

At the beginning of November, I got in my car and took a solo road trip to Grand Marais, Minnesota, to participate in the North Shore Readers & Writers Festival: A Minnesota Voice. The trip marked the end of the busiest period of library work (September – October), a time when I probably wrote at most 500 words, and they weren’t even good ones.

I was worried I’d get snowed out, but the weather held. (It was unseasonably warm on the shores of Lake Superior.) I carted a bunch of food, some wine, and the hope that the festival would give me a chance to reflect, unwind and focus on my writing.

The festival itself was phenomenal. I met a bunch of super cool Minnesota writers. I learned a lot about craft and author promotion. I had good food, drank good wine and slept soundly. I also thought about the ways in which I do and do not prioritize writing in my life.

It’s a difficult balancing act, pursuing a writing career on top of maintaining a library career and having a family. I’ve blogged about this before – time seems to be one of my issues. Even as I was enjoying the heck out of myself at the festival, I was aware of the work piling up in the office, not to mention the deeper cut of a family who missed me almost as much as I was missing them. And of course, when I’m at the office, I’m aware of the story lines stagnating in my head and the short pieces that aren’t getting submitted. And let’s not even get into the emotional tangles of parenthood.

I don’t have an answer to this. Maybe the first step is for me to acknowledge the messiness. That I might never get to a mental or physical place where there won’t be other priorities requesting/demanding my attention. Maybe acknowledgment comes first and then I can work on how to respond by silencing those other demands for a time in order to focus 100% on the task at hand.

Hm. Any suggestions?

Rejecting Compulsion

Perhaps it is a function of age, but I’ve been slowing down and living with more simplicity over the past few months. It’s surprisingly countercultural, especially when we’ve agreed that being busy = being important, thus slowing down = risking being irrelevant. I’ve written before about simplicity being a guiding value, and this summer I began to explore what that looks like in my life.

I started the summer with a great deal of anger, mainly caused by challenges at work. (The usual challenges libraries face: “But why do we even need a library if everything’s online anyway? We’ll just go ahead and cut more staff & budget.”) In response, I imposed a crazy mandate on myself: write every single day for hours NO MATTER WHAT in order to¬†write AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE before returning to work at the end of the summer.

Not a good formula for quality writing – or for enjoying writing, for that matter. Or life. Following this compulsion only made me angrier.

So I slowed down. I reminded myself that writing is more than just accumulating (and bragging about) word count. I reflected more on the shape of the story. I bought a notebook where I sketched out scenes & chapters & made helpful notes to myself like, “don’t forget about the [illegible script].” I woke up in the morning & asked myself what I wanted to do today.

The great thing was, more often than not, what I wanted to do was write. My anger dissipated and I found joy on the page.

In the end, I didn’t blast through an entire novel rewrite in 10 weeks, as I had foolishly planned, but I somehow produced¬†wrote 8 (really good) chapters. And I enjoyed my summer a heck of a lot more than if I’d forced myself to write.

Writing isn’t as easy now that the semester has begun. There is less time to think, less time to reflect, less time to be still. This hurts my library work, too, as I’d do a better job with more time to think and plan. Slowing down isn’t particularly easy with small children, either, but even on the crazy days I am able to remind myself that stillness & simplicity are indeed virtues – no matter how countercultural.

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.