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

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.

Monday, March 4, 2013


Adventures in Logophilia, Day 174:


 oil lamp
by louveciennes

to express studious efforts, working (composing, studying, reading) by lamplight.  I suppose this might be where "burning the midnight oil" comes in.  Whether it's late at night or early in the morning, we all put this to practice because art is calling us.  And there is something about a single lamp (whether electric or flame-illumined) lit in the dark, quiet hours that promises peace. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Writer's Black Hole

This has been an odd couple of weeks on the writing-sphere of my life.  I wonder sometimes if I have multiple personalities, a short attention span, or just a cranky "artist-child", as Julia Cameron would say.  The fact is, despite my daily visits to the blog and to Twitter, I have been in a dry spell since I finished my novel in September.

I remember looking forward to this period, journalling about the "free-time" I'd have to work on the blog, to pursue smaller projects, to experiment with other crafty things.  This was supposed to be a break, a wonderful time to regroup and recover and rebuild my creative energy.  And yet... having been deep inside this novel, in the minds and hearts of my characters, for the last year and a half, I found the post-novel experience to be frighteningly empty.  Perhaps, even lonely.  It's that moment when you realize, suddenly whilst swimming in the ocean, that you can no longer touch the bottom, and you begin to panic and sink. 

Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital.
 I didn't understand why I felt so bereft, empty, melancholic, etc, etc.  I came up with a variety of self-diagnoses (like a psychological version of House): I need a big project to fill the void; I need to work on something new: those stories that have been sitting in limbo forever; I need to stop whining, stop beating myself up and read, read, read.  These diagnoses were met with many a vacillation and excuse from my unappeased and unsatisfied "artist-child."

1.) The next "big" project would be the sequel to the novel I'd just finished - the novel which is in back in limbo, waiting for an agent.  At first, I thought - of course!  The characters are still fresh in my mind.  I want to return to them so badly... And then I keep worrying about the state of the first novel - whether anyone would really want to represent it, or if it needs another wash-through altogether.  Conclusion was that working on novel #2 would only make me worry about novel #1. 

2.) Working on the limbo stories is absolutely fine.  I have two of them: a scene where a historical character jumps from the tower in which was being held captive, and a sort-of fantastical bent on Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener."  Awesome ideas.  Really!  But I couldn't (and still can't) figure out why my attention span and enthusiasm about these projects wavered from day to day.  Fear?  Yes, maybe, but isn't that obvious?  But fear doesn't always keep me running in the opposite direction.  It was torture to sit and stare at the partial drafts, having ideas in my head but being unable to bring them any further.  Finish them, finish them, part of me said.  But I was/is too tense to do so... as if suddenly an enormous amount of pressure was on my shoulders, trying to convince me that the only way I'd be taken seriously as a writer would be to fill up my portfolio with a variety of things... and didn't these make the most sense? 

3.) Not writing on any story was the other option, a complete surrender.  It's comparable to the glee of a child let loose at the end of the school year.  Yayyy!  I wanted to give myself a break!  Here's a break!  I'm going to watch as many episodes of The X-Files, Farscape and Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes, I'm a nerd, but you knew that) as I possibly can while I wait for Downton Abbey and Sherlock to air!  I'm going to devour more books!  I'm going to make all of my Christmas gifts by hand this year!  I'm going to become proficient in Latin!

And then the euphoria faded once again.  I was still empty.  Still hungry, perhaps that's the better term.  The story that was still vivid in my mind was... the sequel to the in-agent-limbo novel, even though I'd authoritative told my "artist-child" no.  "No.  It will only make you nitpick and stress out about what you have to fix for novel #1.  You're too anxious as it is, trying to come up with the plotline for novel #2.  Go play with Fantastical Bartleby.  Or, do your Latin.  You like Latin, remember?"  And my artist-child instead took none of those options and chose to sit in the corner, pouting.

As much as I like Julia Cameron and the "artist's way", I don't want to attribute this to being "blocked" and try in vain to "unblock" myself.  Blocked feels like such a negative, unproductive term.  I don't respond well to diagnoses like that - as I do struggle with anxiety on a daily basis.  Blaming myself for not writing isn't a cure.  And making myself write what I don't want to write is hardly a solution, either.  And... journalling and blogging have been a part of my daily routine since before the novel was finished.  Is that blocked?  No. 

So... I've come to several conclusions from this massive wallow in the writing black hole. 

1.) Anxiety about my first novel and whether or not it's "good enough" for an agent to want to represent will always be there.  I'm not the only writer to struggle with this, I know.  And how could we not be anxious?  This is our brain-child!  We want the best for him/her! 

2.) I am not blocked.  Period.  I'm between projects and enjoying a rest.  I am blogging and tweeting and using my brain.  That's good, right?

3.) I don't have to work on Fantastical Bartleby if I don't want to.  He can wait until a better time.  There will be a better time for him.  It's just not now.

4.) Work on novel #2 if I want to.  The characters are still vivid and beautiful in my head.  They're close to my heart.  I love them.  The most foolish thing would be to push them away.  And even if novel #1 needs another wash-through, that doesn't necessarily nullify my work on #2.  (If anything such revisions would be on language, not on plot or story.) 

5.) After so long without the "need" for watching tons of television, I am gorging myself.  I need to go on a Netflix diet but not completely deprive myself.

Already my unruly "artist-child" is feeling better.  I might still vacillate a bit about what to do next, but I'm not going to flagellate myself whatever I decide.  At this point "artist-child" wants novel #2, and we'll see where it takes us... but anything is good if it gets me out of the black hole and back into a better mind set, to fill the void left by that novel. 


On another note, I'm glad I decided not to participate in NaNoWriMo this year.  It would have had me stressed out on day one!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Computer Diaspora (Jillian)

Alas, the time is coming soon where I might have to part from my beloved laptop on a temporary basis. Long story short, my laptop – friend and ultimate writing tool – decided it no longer recognized its AC adapter and refused from that point on to charge its battery. There is, of course, no logical explanation for this sudden bout of computer amnesia. I had two different partial diagnoses from two different “geeks”, and, believe me, a new adapter did no good despite their insistence. Hence, the fear that the geeks’ favorite way of solving things – that is, sending said machine off into the great unknown so someone else can attempt repairs and wipe the drive for good measure (grr…) – will have to be implemented.

Forgive the moaning in the above paragraph, but I am sure you can relate. When a writer’s preferred tool of crafting and performing her art is mercilessly taken away, a feeling of hopelessness settles in. Last year, I had the misfortune of falling down marble stairs at work with the same computer. Result? Cracked screen, just like a car windshield, but in retrospect, it could have easily been my skull. It was taken a repair shop where it languished idle for about two and a half weeks. Never mind how expensive that venture was, it was next to impossible to overcome the feeling that my hands had suddenly been cut off, and I could not write. Period. I dread returning to that state of writing paralysis again.

As I consider sending my dear friend away for another necessary respite, I cannot help but think how ludicrous the “writing paralysis” is. Yes, it is almost excruciating to be separated from the thing that has been such a vital instrument in my writing, but… I can write… because essentially writing is not about the computer. My brain works the same. My hands still work. The story is in my head, and not necessarily in its most consummate form on the hard drive, anyway. And, I must remind myself, writing via word processing machine is only a recent trend. After all the likes of the magnificent Mr. Chaucer and Mr. Shakespeare, many before and many, many after, produced manuscripts without use of a laptop, spell-check, online references and dozens of fancy fonts. Quills, hand-made ink, grossly expensive parchment and/or vellum, blotting paper, and candlelight… those were the tools. And what wonderful tools they are!

In fact, only last year (if you recall), Agatha Christie’s writing desk went on sale, no doubt for a pretty sum. I read Lucy Davies’ blog on the Telegraph website, and was intrigued some time ago by an entry devoted to those who collect the palettes of van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Mattise, etc. Anne Frank’s diary is preserved under glass. So is the Magna Carta in its various surviving versions. I wonder sometimes if I ever become noteworthy (ha! If at all, long after my demise!) would they preserve my laptop behind glass? Would it convey the same meaning as Jane Austen’s simple writing table, or would it be just another old computer with a black, dead screen? Hm…

Jane Austen's writing desk, from the Telegraph

I must remind myself that I do have these simple tools, too. Wouldn’t it be such a challenge, such an adventure to continue work on my novel as if nothing ever happened… except the change in medium? If all those others can make use of simple paper and pen, why can’t I? I already do.

So, I am beginning to toy with the idea of writing actual chapters via legal pad. While I have not yet lost the ability to write with a pen and paper, I don’t know if I’d have the patience for it. Another idea… old typewriter? That would definitely be an easier transition. But where might I find one that is both functional and semi-affordable?

A lot of things to think about. My only hope is that any crazy experiment can cause me to grow into a more versatile writer… the kind of person who can write a novel on a train or in a coffee shop, even if all I have is a napkin. After all, that’s what J.K. Rowling did – legal pads, coffee and a cafĂ© after hours.

By Jove! It’s so simple, it just might work!

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Scribbling Suit (Jillian)

Another “rediscovery” I have recently made is that of Little Women, and the ways in which art comes out of the lives of the four March sisters; particularly Jo with her fiery, independent spirit and passion for writing. I’ll share with you a passage:
Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex,” as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for that till that was finished she could find no peace. Her “scribbling suit” consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?” They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo. [page 260; Louisa May Alcott.]
A scribbling suit. I am intrigued by the little rituals we perform in order to bring about the fullness of a writing session, or prepare and properly clothe ourselves to enter our respective “vortexes.” I know I must clear my desk of non-essentials, light candles, don fingerless gloves, and perhaps make tea. Sometimes there is music, sometimes not. The windows must be open, and the cat safely barred from entering the writing space. These benign little performances are good for us; the writing space (whether window seat, desk or the back corner of a coffee shop) transforms into a personalized palette on which to experiment with ideas… in all their colors, hues and textures. Thinking on Jo, she can put all other things aside and enter into something new, something entirely immune to curiosity from the outside world. Not an escape; but an expedition.

I also think on other literary characters who possess creative inclinations. Jane Eyre. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). Cassandra Mortmain (I Capture the Castle). Jo’s sisters Amy, Beth and Meg. Dorothea Brooke Casauban (Middlemarch). What strikes me about these characters (and many, many others) is not that a tendency towards art sets them apart from other characters (i.e. make them by contrast to be eccentric or unique), but that their art shows them to be creative beings, striving to achieve the most of their human potential: not simply to be, but to discover, to create, and to find joy in their own particular corner of life.


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