Showing posts with label writing healthy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing healthy. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Creative Life in Progress

Summer is on the wane. You can hear it in the crickets and the cicadas, the crows and the tall, ripening corn. The days have been getting shorter since June, and blissfully cooler mornings are returning to give us brief respite from the notorious August heat. As time goes on, super moons come and go, I've been working as usual on writing and life in general. Nothing terribly earth-shattering or noteworthy, just life. And that's okay.

Sometimes, I realize, I don't run and hide from this little blog so much as drift away from it, enjoying a bit of insular creativity. I've not been writing in a vacuum per se - no one can really do that. This summer has been an exercise in Not Caring (so much) What the World Thinks: untangling myself from the habits of reading tweets and visiting beloved blogs, avoiding online "advice", and making my own way on this creative path. For a person who gets easily confuddled and stressed out the more "voices" are speaking, this was the sanest choice.

One thing I re-learned this summer - which happens to be my first summer in my solo apartment - is how creativity isn't just about working on a novel, coming to the journal on a daily basis, or even strictly for whatever art may be your heart-work. Creativity is a way of living, of solving problems, of stretching little skills. When you're a writer working a not-so-lucrative job and move into a small solo apartment, you find ways of making up for things you need that roommates previously had (i.e. a juicer). It's also nice to discover what things you don't need and won't miss. Life suddenly becomes flexible, manageable, and fun.

I didn't have a spice rack when I began to stock my tiny kitchen. I love to cook so I had a fair number of little jars of thyme, nutmeg, cloves & cinnamon. As I get older, I seriously questioned the logic of buying something brand new just to hold a bunch of spices, although, frequenting Michael's and other crafty places it was darned tempting to fork over my money for something that was simple and cute and maybe made out of chicken wire. I stopped, had a think and realized I had a CD rack sitting idly by, pining away without a purpose. An idea was born. Probably not the first time such an innovation was made, but sheer brilliance where I was concerned. After all, I use iTunes like I use air and CDs have long come to be nothing more than ultimate wasters of space. These were sequestered into storage and out of my hair. Then, I cut up pieces of binder cardboard, covered them with craft paper and voila:

Many innovations have followed. That old wooden pizza paddle? A cutting board. The tea kettle that is missing a handle? Utensil holder. No lid for a sauce pan? Use that little skillet. What about this useless (except for Christmas) pudding tin? Look: it's a reservoir for all my chargers. What about these pretty but broken tea cups and saucers? Soap dishes and make-up holders. The vases that seem to multiply every time I visit my elderly neighbor? Holders for pencils, silverware. That chipped tea pot (I have two nicer-looking ones)? Planter. Paella pan? Tray for the living room ottoman. Old tea tins? Again, pens and pencils, loose change. What can I use for a rolling pin? A wine bottle. A juicer? The top of a tea pot or your fist. Fruit bowl? That bundt pan I use twice a year. When you think about it, the possibilities are endless.

I have to admit that I was in such a repurposing frenzy that I almost, almost used the back of my old (cheap, Target, fiberboard) book case to make a room divider. I waited ten minutes, the scales fell from my eyes, and into the dumpster it went.

Another big innovation, which raises eyebrows in some circles, was my headboard. It's one of those bookshelf headboards - great if you like reading in bed but not if you happen to have a wily cat who likes to explore and drop things on you as you're trying to sleep. Besides, it rattled. And it looked funny against the windows. And I don't read in bed all that much anyway. One day I unscrewed it from the bed frame and hauled it into the closet to serve as a dresser, which I desperately needed.

I have no pictures of it because my closet is rather unslightly. I've decided that the shelves don't really work to organize piles of tights and t-shirts, so plans are simmering in my brain to find tote-boxes or baskets that fit the headboard's particular dimensions. I also want very badly to paint it a softer color. Wood is great, but this "piece" is beat up and in no way interesting, and I'd like it to flow with the rest of the closet. A little walk-in, I'd like to give the space a more opulent look. For now the closet is cleanly painted but acne-pocked from decades of wear. The headboard, you see, fits into a much larger make-over project that will involve paint, temporary wallpaper, tension rods and shoe racks. A "before" picture would be embarrassing, especially before an "after" is possible.

Recently, I've been conscious of the blank walls in my apartment. A few weeks ago, I remembered the hideous framed poster I'd stashed behind my cubicle. A coworker found it in an unused office and needed to get rid of it. I'd casually said I might be able to do something with it, but it was hideous. A 1988 "desert flower" (or something) print. It lurked nearby for a year until I realized, yes, I could do something with it, or at least the fairly decent black frame that came with it. See? Hideous:

I discovered the poster was glued to the backing, so I once again utilized craft paper and covered it over. Then, I went through my old calendars and took apart three-years worth of radiograph flowers (Stephen Meyers), arranged twelve of them and patterned them with cardstock. I painted the frame a warm grey. Hanging on my dining room wall, it is a nice eye-catcher.

Radiograph flowers (calendar pieces). Left to right: top row- cyclamen, brugmansia, alstroemeria; 2nd row  - rose, clematis, lily; 3rd row - iris, tulip, anemone; bottom row - calla lily, cup and saucer, columbine. 12 down, 24 to go.

Another project of note was making the best use of my tiny kitchen. A tiny kitchen doesn't bother me, but awkward shelf space does. And as the landlady has given an absolute "NO!" to screws in her walls (which is understandable), I had to find a way to nail things up in an orderly fashion.

This photo pretty much shows the extent of my kitchen. To the left of the sink is a "bar" or a window of sorts, and to the right of the stove is the fridge. The wooden shelves go up to the ceiling but they're hard to get into if you've got something cooking. The obvious solution was to use the space immediately behind the spice rack. That strange corner used to be a coal shaft. 

Then I experimented with picture nails and hooks and baskets. Yup. That is my kitchen. Blink, and you miss it. You can also see the (green) kettle that holds utensils, the pizza paddle cutting board, and the spice rack sitting in a shelf. I'd like to figure out how to make a back splash without putting adhesive on the walls.

In order to maximize space and keep the cat off the "bar", I bought a few little shelves and decided my dishes would be there, within immediate reach. Nothing is worse than finding cat hair (or worse) on your clean dishes. Ninja can no longer get up there - victory!

What I'm proud of most of all is a new found ability to use and reuse the things I already have. My philosophy is "sure the label says it's a CD rack, but does it have to be a CD rack?" or "What is the fundamental difference between a utensil holder and a vase?" I'm not looking into these solutions to be trendy, but savvy. I get a kick out of that kettle, by the way. I thought it was absurd to throw it out.

The nailing and hammering, painting and glueing down, rearranging and repurposing are skills I apply every day to writing and rewriting my novel, penning my journal and blog entries. Nothing is wasted, nothing is meaningless... and if by chance it is, then I don't hesitate to get rid of it. (Okay, perhaps I hesitate a little bit.) There is always more than one solution to a dilemma. This goes for storage space in a tiny kitchen and a scene in a novel that just won't work. All it takes is a little time, a little patience and a little creativity.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"I should be" Versus "I am"

Write and forget the rest of the world.
"Write and forget the rest of the world" by Mary Grace Ardiente de Castro on flickr

I often find myself plagued by the ubiquitous word "should." This author does this, therefore, I should be doing that, or I must do that.  The work clicks in when I measure myself against the success of other authors: failing to make a thousand or more words on a page, not getting anywhere with agents, not having time for my online writing community.  For whatever reason, negative messages pop up in brain like weeds and choke out all the good beautiful foliage that should be there:

- "I should have been trying to get pieces published in high school."
- "I should be getting up at 5 a.m. to write and fulfill a word quota for the day."
- "I should have been done with that story by now."
- "I should write this one story because it seems marketable."
- "I should be blogging at least once a week, in a witty and engaging manner using lots of graphics, video and subliminal messaging."
- "I should be tweeting and posting on Facebook and commenting in articulate paragraphs on other blogs and writing reviews on Goodreads and making social connections and...."
- "I should have more to show for my writing career."
- "I should go to that one writing conference because all the other up-and-coming writers are going, getting advice, getting agents."
- "I should be an extrovert."
- "I should be able to write anywhere and everywhere, even with a jackhammer right outside the office window."
- "I am doing this all wrong."

None of these are necessarily true, although it is strange how much we believe them.  And when, say, I physically cannot get myself out of bed at 5:00 to write, the whole day is ruined before it starts.  "I'm a bad writer!  I can't get my act together!  I'm not disciplined!  I only wrote one whole sentence today!"  And what of these fantasy writers who are getting agented all over the place?  Is this really true?  Is it really that easy?  Or is it just part of the negative static clogging our creative minds, keeping us forever in the past?

So we're not like that hypothetical group of successful, smiling, rich, creative, brilliant people. They are an illusion.  No one has an easy writing life.  Writing is freaking hard.  Period.  Writers come on a vast spectrum of disciplines and habits and quirks.  You may not be able to function at the writing desk without a shot of whisky, or maybe you need complete silence.  Some write in bed.  Others on the subway.  Some can write in little snatches on the go, others need to stick close to home base.   Or if you're Dan Brown, you need to hang upside down to get the creative juices flowing.  Where you fall on the spectrum of discipline and a quota of words is part of you. 

The point is we should be focused not on the writers we think we should be, but on the writers we already are and what we're accomplishing now

I'd thought the whole scenario of getting up early and getting work done made perfect sense.  And it did for a few days.  It did feel awesome to be up at 5:30 and writing away, but the weekends came, I'd sleep in and it turned out to be a very difficult routine to maintain.  I'd panic - there was no time or mental space to tinkering with my WIP at work (jackhammer noises coming from the elevator shaft - there is no quiet way to disassemble and replace an elevator) and by the time I'd get home, I'd be too beat to do anything creative.  Coming home at night is the bookend of the day - things are winding down, kitty needs to be fed, the trash taken out, my dinner made, the dishes washed, the shower taken.  So I've been spending time at a coffee shop not far from work for an hour to two afterwards.  I have found more enjoyment working there at my own pace, without the constraints of time than when I was forcing myself out of bed at an ungodly hour.  Who knew?

I haven't been measuring word counts, either, because I feel - especially with a tentative draft - it is a great way to perpetuate loads upon loads of meandering Nothing.  I cringe at the idea of National Novel Writing Month, of having to spit out 1,667 per day with little room for thoughtful brainstorming or rest.  But that's okay. Many people enjoy the exhilaration of diving right in, to "get 'er done!" as the great Nebraska philosopher Larry the Cable Guy says.  It just doesn't work for me.  There are times when quantity cannot replace quality. 

Personally, I feel like I've spent a great deal of time trying to imitate those visibly successful writers, join bandwagons and get swept up for a spell in a particular creative zeitgeist. I joined Twitter only to panic that no one was paying attention to me and that I couldn't write a 143 character tweet to save my life.  Nor did I have the energy to dance across the internet leaving an electronic trail of comments, shouting "I'm out here!  Pay attention to me!"  I hated myself for trying. 

There is no magic formula for success, particularly success in writing.  No set time frame.  No standard career plan.  And yet we still believe that if we hang upside down just like good ol' Mr. Brown, we might be just as successful - a wide readership, bestsellers, movies, mansions.  If we're smart or well-read enough we might get the Man Booker Prize like 28 year old New Zealander Eleanor Catton did this month.  And... if we don't we tend to think, "hey, I'm 28. I must have missed the mark and my big break.  My life is forfeit."  Bah.

The things we tell ourselves.

Of course, there isn't anything wrong with social media, with conferences, with challenging yourself, but in the day to day, while we're in-progress and still working full-time jobs, it is so much better to focus on the gifts and the circumstances we were given to continue on with our work.  To write because we're compelled and made to write, not to conquer everything in one day or judge the whole of one's budding career by a string of bad days or where others tell us we should be.  If we're trying our best to hone our craft and navigate the publishing world, that's success.  Success might take years and years.  It doesn't matter what it looks like to anyone else.

I return to Anne Lamott's advice about the one-inch picture frame: tiny assignments - write one description, one little sentence and see where it takes us.   And from there, just write moment by moment.  Focus on what can be done today, or this hour, or until the baby wakes up from his nap, not what "should" be done in a week or even a month.  Otherwise, writing becomes the ultimate in Sisyphean feats. We must follow a string, a stepping-stone path of little goals - keeping the future in mind but not comparing goals to others' achievements.  We're not "there" yet, but we will be.  When we do get there, it will look worlds different than how we imagined it.  Our job for now is simply to hang in there.  How you "hang" is completely your choice - not Dan Brown's, Stephen King's, Margaret Atwood's or Charles Dickens'. 

So.  Enjoy the ride.  Spread your wings at your own pace, exercise them everyday, practice flying further and further toward that horizon.  You'll get where you need to be soon.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Discovery of Garlic

It is finally August.  The air is thick with late summer humidity, the drone of cicadas and crickets, the smell of lavender, thunder storms and dry grass; the sun is at its strongest, its most radiant.  I've been out tending to my bit of earth and weeding as much I can around the side of the house where the roses are riding out the heat.  I have what you might call a greenish thumb: gardens enchant me and I'd like to plan and sculpt and keep a garden someday when my situation is a little more permanent.  Until that day, I am enjoy the garden as a place of discovery and endless musing.  This is good exercise for the writer's brain.

One such discovery this week was that of wild garlic clusters growing up where the irises are situated on the south side of the house.  Granted, in the few years I've lived here I'd always wondered what those white pod-looking things were but always tore them out in an effort to maintain order and never once thought to compare the shape to the typical bulb you buy in the produce aisle... or put it my mouth and bite down.  I was thrilled when that taste burst across my tongue, and I instantly had the thought that if this was some post-apocalyptic world, a discovery of garlic might just be a gold mine.  I wonder what Katniss Everdeen would trade for wild garlic.

These little garlics aren't single bulbs, but a little bundle of tiny kernels - exactly the size of popping corn.

Wild garlic kernels bursting from their pouch.
This discovery sparked to life old memories of similar finds from childhood.  My parents had green thumbs and hands when I was growing up: vegetables from tomatoes to squash to accidental corn; and wide variety of roses, flowering bushes and our own little patch of annuals (bachelor's buttons, zinnias, marigolds) we little ones took pride in.  My parents would use mint and basil and chives from the garden, and once in a while when Dad was doing his autumn-time chipper-shredding, a wild onion would accidentally wind up in the chipping pile and get into his eyes.  Once, I found a little patch of wild strawberries once growing cozily alongside the roses.  I remember my little heart jumping for joy when I saw those little red berries - and they tasted so sweet - different from the ones you buy in the store. 

The little strawberries made me think of the wild blueberries my sister and I discovered behind our relatives' cottage in Maine.  The cottage was a rustic little house - no air conditioning, antique furniture, a tide clock (which impressed me; everything about coastal Maine, tide pools and sea creatures fascinates a child who grew up in Nebraska) and the smell of saltwater and sand.  I first tasted saltwater taffy in this place, and perhaps even my first lobster.  I remember scores of family members - sadly many, many of them gone - crowding into that house.  And then the blueberries.  We were told not to eat the berries, but we went out when no one was looking and gorged ourselves.  Mom must have noticed it smeared on our faces or something because she flipped out: she thought we were eating the poisonous red berries from the bushes that separated the cottage from the neighboring plot.  Until we were caught, it was heaven.  Years later, we returned for a visit to find the cottage torn down and replaced with a snazzier, fancier, air-conditioned house. The blueberries were gone.  It was almost as if I'd dreamt them.

I think it was the idea that you could grow food in your own backyard that thrilled me.  Your own berries!  Your own tomatoes!  Your own herbs!  My father's parents had two or three apple trees.  I remember helping to pick apples and put them in baskets, and how the baskets were shaped: bucket-like with wooden slats.  Gramma would make pies and applesauce.  And I have the strangest recollection of being told to be careful of worms.  Papa would peel the apples with a knife, which I thought was strange because Dad had a special apple-peeling device with a crank that seemed to make it so much easier.  When the apple trees died, we played on the empty stumps until they were finally pulled out.  Gone were our apple adventures and the climbing posts.  Gramma and Papa's yard seemed so empty without them.

This love of fruit and veg thriving in the garden is still alive in me.  I maintain tomatoes, peppers and beans with my roommate. We are constantly fighting the weedy grape vines (that WON'T die no matter what we do to them) that have been blocking the sunlight from the tomatoes, and the "volunteer" trees that grow between the fences.  But there is something fulfilling in tending to these plants, deciding what stays or goes (if it's a pretty weed, it can stay), and discovering wild lilies or garlic... or finding that the violas, once bunny salad, have finally grown back and have flowered magnificently.  There is no greater joy than that.  

Gardens must be tended, but it's amazing what can grow on its own unnoticed in the shade, in the random corner of the yard, around the cedar tree, behind the shed... without having to be coddled, pruned or yanked out by the roots.  Writing is this way, too.  Sometimes you have to let it grow wild and rampant in order to see just what's in it. 

Bunny salad no more: my violas are finally thriving.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Thoughts on Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Once in a while, I stumble upon a work of prose that turns out to be a breath of fresh air and a genuine comfort to me.  I've recently discovered Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, subtitled "Some Instructions on Writing and Life."  If you've not read this wise and funny little book, I recommend it. 

Bird in hand
Bird in hand by jcandeli 

It is always a great relief to discover someone who has also struggled with writing anxiety and has learned to thrive in spite of it.  It's also a comfort to know that I'm not the only one plagued now and again by the strange terror of dying suddenly before I can fix things in my work-in-progress. Bird By Bird is very much a conversation between Ms. Lamott and her readers about the process and perseverance of the writing life with an electric sense of humor.  Most of what she has to say I'd absorbed before in writing classes and workshops, but it was oh so good to read it again in her voice.  "We are just going to take this bird by bird," she says (p 20), in other words step by step.

One ray of sunshine that she offers us is the concept of the "shitty first draft."  In fact, it's not a concept - it's a fact.  "All good writers write them.  This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts... I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. (p 21)"  I need to pin this to my board (or my forehead), because I have do have a wild tendency to fantasize about published writers and the apparent ease with which they "should" be working.  But art isn't easy.  It's really hard, and yet really good.

Perfectionism messes us up and keeps us from completing anything: "the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and your shitty first draft" (p 28). Lamott emphasizes the beauty of sheer effort, perseverance, writing for the sake of the story, silencing the voices in our heads that tend to lead us off course.  Trust your intuition - the creative, irrational part of you, she says, "but be careful: if your intuition says that your story sucks, make sure it's your intuition and not your mother. (113)" 

We should be focused on story and conveying truth through our characters, getting to know them instead of forcing them to conform to some preset notion of what a story is. The thing is, we won't know what the story will be, what will happen unless we follow our instincts and continue unconsciously down the path of discovery. Ms. Lamott reminds us that we shouldn't write solely for publication, but to write to give something back to others, to let something out of ourselves.  "I tell you, if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy" (214.) In other words: aim for the joy of story, not publication.

The over all message from this book that I intercepted was that the rest of the world will think I'm crazy, but that's okay.  It struck me that I should be writing a wider variety of things - bits and bobs, journals, bloggings, stories - persevering in them and pushing back the road blocks to enjoying the writing life.  I do have days when sitting down to my awful first draft (or any draft, if we want to be honest) feels like climbing Mt. Everest in 4 inch heels with a broken toe.  I'll just take a couple of deep breaths, put the nagging overly-rational voices aside and tackle the story - whatever it is - bird by bird.  Thank you, Anne Lamott. If we should chance to meet sometime I will greet you with a big hug.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Adventures in Logophilia, Day 192:


dwelling or situated on an island.  This has come to mean narrow-minded, as well as isolated and detached.

a Croatian island by Sphinx

Lately, I've come to realize the value of writing in an island mind set.  This is similar to my ideas in the post on hermetic, writing in an air-tight environment, keeping the door shut and visualizing Schrodinger's cat.  "Island writing" would point not only to keeping things contained, but also separating oneself so nothing can come in.  This is a challenge in the internet age where were swamped with commentary and blurbs and tweets and informational flashes everywhere we turn.  There is also a greater pressure for writers, especially for beginning, unpublished writers such as myself, to "build our platforms" online or create a following on Twitter, as well as visiting blogs, keeping blogs, reading, reading, reading the insights of others out there in the world.  It is confusing and exhausting.  When most of the time, all I want to do is write.

I've noticed that several months on Twitter leave me feeling this way at times.  Don't worry, I'm not about to leave the community, I'm simply taking this network with a grain of salt.  When those I follow tweet about insightful blog posts or articles, I am grateful.  Those things are innocuous, helpful and encouraging.  Some people really have a knack for crafting lovely, funny or intriguing tweets.  Yet... sometimes it amounts to a lot of distracting visual noise.  Too much of a good thing: read me! read this! you should be doing this!  you never should do that!  Ahh!

Much of this might be due to my struggles with anxiety.  When tweets suddenly feel like commentary on my personal writing life, I know it's time to retreat over the moat, pull up the drawbridge and write alone and unbothered in the tower... putting some distance between myself and others until the energy is back.  Just retreat and write.  It's all good!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wisdom from Oscar Wilde

The Telegraph yesterday featured an article on a recently discovered letter that Oscar Wilde wrote to a would-be writer around 1890.  It felt like he was speaking to me from the dawn of the last century:

Oscar Wilde

"The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread, and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer... Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice itself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you."

To me this sounds like: "so you're a novelist who earns her living as a receptionist? Excellent!  You're able to let your art remain art!  I know you dream of one day earning your living by your novels, but it might not be as rosy as you think.  Until then, use this time to grow as a writer and a student of language and see where it takes you.  You might go farther than you think."  Thank you, Mr. Wilde.


In a similar vein, author Matt Haig also had thirty pieces of encouraging wisdom to share via the Telegraph. My favorites were:

  • Being published doesn't make you happy.  It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones.
  • Success depends on great words and passionate people.  The words are up to you.  The people you have to pray for, and stand by them once you have them.
  • Beauty breeds beauty, truth triggers truth.  The cure for writer's block is therefore to read.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Adventures in Logophilia, Day 183:


This adjective describes something that is lacking in any sort of nutritive value, or (aside from food) without significance or interest, or something that is generally simplistic, naive or superficially rendered.  This is from the Latin jejunus, meaning "barren or fasting".  Somewhere along the line this came to mean "not intellectually nourishing." (Oxford Dictionaries)

It's important to be conscious of how we're feeding ourselves intellectually, because that will feed into the writing we produce.  The things we read - from novels to newspaper articles to tweets - can either amount to tons of cake or a bowl of highly nutritious blueberries.  Too much television is comparable to a surfeit of caffeine. Are we going for the superficial and the sugary or the vitamins and antioxidants?  Are we learning?  Or are we merely being entertained?  Are we energized or left feeling tired?  Believe me, I struggle with these things all the time.

Blueberries are better than cake.

I've learned that staying intellectually healthy may include:

  • Not letting Twitter run your writing life.
  • Reading "new" things - books and stories outside of the comfort zone, whatever that may mean.
  • Getting off the internet (ahem, Pinterest) and the computer and basking in some quiet time.
  • Taking walks without the aid of an iPod soundtrack.
  • Reducing caffeine intake.  
  • Keeping a journal and writing by hand (to maintain tactile connections between the act of writing and the connections made in the brain).
  • Watching television sparingly.  I don't believe that television is completely bad for us, because it is an alternate form of storytelling... although I find it is not very helpful on terms of craft.  Nothing clears the brain faster after a stressful day than losing oneself in an episode or two of something that makes me wonder about life.
  • Getting out of the chair.  We tend to work best planted in a sedentary fashion - there really is no way around that.  But getting up and moving around pushes blood into the brain and keeps us thinking.  Do it!
  • Sleep!


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