Category Archives: On writing

journal with inspiring word on it and a pen

It’s really tempting to just binge-watch and eat all day.

It’s really tempting to binge watch and eat all day while scrolling through all the distractions on my phone. One second another breaking news alert about the death toll or social distancing, the next minute a recipe for a black bean buddha bowl I just have to try.  And it’s okay to spend some time doing that. This blog is about how to make time to make art even when we work full time, have families to tend, have other hobbies and interests, etc. Basically–How do you make time to do the solitary, hyper-focused, emotionally taxing work that is art?

All of a sudden I find myself with nothing but time at home. The high school where I teach is closed. My yoga studio is closed. I can’t meet my friend for coffee. This is no longer about making time for me. This is no longer about setting a timer to squeeze a spare half hour before work to make progress on my novel. This is about how to set aside the anxiety of the moment to get some writing done. Some things that are working for me: 

Wake up early

On weekdays I am still setting my alarm for 4 to get up and write. As always, this is my best creative time, because the house is totally quiet and the sun is not yet up. There is no solitude like the solitude before dawn. 

Put your phone in quarantine

I am leaving my phone downstairs at night, not checking it until after I write, and setting it aside or turning it off for big chunks of time during the day. There is this app that sends me a digest of the news on any given day that takes two minutes to read. Over the course of this past week, I’ve noticed something. Spending more time than that reading my news feed does not give me more news. It just gives me more time worrying about the same news. If you really feel that you must be an informed public citizen, pick a publication you love and trust that reviews the news and set designated time aside to read just that publication. 

Get you work out there

If you’ve got work ready to send out into the world, get it out there. Whether that means submitting work to agents or journals, updating your artistic portfolio, self-publishing, or whatever it is for you that is equivalent for you putting your work into that little paper boat and sending it across the water–do that. Yesterday, I revised my query and sent it out to two agents. Just that act was enough to float me through the day. But then–guess what? They both replied asking for more pages. Getting our work out is how we artists who are solitary beings by nature connect. Now is the time to connect. 

Make a schedule and be gentle, but firm with yourself about keeping it

It’s taking me much longer to get settled into the work, and I’m much more distractible, but if I set a schedule to sit at my desk writing from 5–9, I am going to set at my desk attempting to write from 5–9. Will I waste some of that time? Sure. No big deal. Just sit for the time you’ve promised to. 

A note for those of you with younger children

Our kids are grown or mostly grown, but I realize that some of you may just have flipped time. Time you would have been at work, you are now spending homeschooling your kids. I have seen a lot of advice online for parents about how to make a schedule for their kids. For your sake, I sincerely hope that part of that schedule includes (if your children are old enough not to be a danger to themselves) unstructured playtime where they can do their own thing and you can get a couple of hours of creative break time for you. Especially moms out there–kids need to see you reading, making, and living apart from them and they need the same. Take a cue from famed short story writer Alice Munro, the most badass stay-at-home mother/ writer ever. 

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picture of a zine made by Liz Shine about how to make time to be creative

I love the feeling when a new story starts to take shape…

I wrote the prologue of my new story last week. It’s maybe 1000 words, maybe not even, and I know I will need to go back to it. It took me two weeks to write. I dipped out of writing often to research. I spent a fair amount of time just staring at the blank page. I wasn’t in love with at the end. 

This morning I started in on chapter one. This book is a multiple point-of-view book about three women who were in college together and have grown apart. It’s about the scripts we fall into and how difficult it can be to rewrite those scripts. It’s also about isolation and how social media shapes our thoughts and feelings. I think. It’s awfully early to say what the book is about, but I think it is about those things. 

As I started chapter one, I almost immediately had that skull-shining feeling that one gets when a story begins to take shape around you, when it’s no longer just you trying to type words on the page, but there are these characters, and these places, and these desires that you want to follow to the end. 

Needless to say, writing went well this morning. Despite the fact that my brain glitched and stalled when I first sat up in bed at four and reached for my laptop. No matter how tempted I was when I say that my computer was going to take time to update to just close the damn thing and go to bed. 

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quill pen with text that reads "make time"

Make Time in 2020.

The Dark Side of Grit

It’s been almost a year since I last posted to this blog. Things had gotten to the point that if I had any time to spare for writing it had to be for working on my manuscript. No time for free writing! It was also right about this time I resolved to let it go in 2019. And what let it go meant to me was to let go of work that I took on just because I could, because my impulse to prove my worth had become so automatic, and I was so run-down and divided. I wrote all about it in my igloo builder post, where I explored the darker aspect of what has always been a fond memory of my ability to persist. This is the trait that help me run a marathon. This is the trait that got me through college with a 3.8 GPA and a toddler in tow. But is there a dark side to this grit and determination? Turns out that yes there is, and thankfully nothing is fixed forever. I am still revising my story, after all. 

Finding a Way

I spent the year cutting out work and consciously slowing down. I set up a meditation space and started using it. I started writing down three things to be grateful for every day. I added the most gentle yoga class offered at my studio to my weekly practice (thanks, Anne, if you ever read this). I quit my coaching job. Bit by bit, I quit overparenting and hypervigilance about little things that didn’t seem to concern anyone else, so why was I making such a deal? I have been learning and am still learning the power of knowing when to take a deep breath and let it go and when to hold fast and strong. I have also become more apt to ask for help around the house. In the process I’ve realized how everyone benefits from housework. Overachieving in that realm deprives family members of opportunities to build self-worth and connection to home and the people who cohabitate there. 

It’s a New Decade, Friends

What has resulted? For starters, I have the energy again to write in the mornings, and I am finally learning to play guitar. I have longed to play my entire remembered life. All those memories of my mom plucking away and singing. Perhaps one of a few times I knew for sure I was safe. I knew those songs and even if they were sad, I knew what was coming. Those are the same songs that I sing to soothe myself to this day when right in the middle of life panic takes me and squeezes me in its unrelenting fist. I am working on a new book (working title: Scripts) and am deep in edits on another. I wrote for almost two hours Monday morning and again this morning. Pretty amazing considering it was the first Monday after winter break! 

The peace and relaxation I feel has paved the path to eliminating my near daily habit of needing wine to unwind all the tension I accumulated during the day. I haven’t needed to do that in two weeks now, and at the moment, I have no desire to. It seems like such a waste of precious time. 

Precious writing time!

My goals for writing in 2020 do not include making any specific accomplishments. I simply hope to make time for writing whenever possible and to enjoy the spaces in between. I will seek opportunities to get my work out into the world and take those opportunities without hesitation. I will invoke my spider muse.

I woke this morning and finished a rough outline of my new novel. All I ever write are rough outlines. I am one of those writers who doesn’t know the way until she sees her characters come to life on the page. This means I will never finish a book Kerouac style, and I am okay with that. Tomorrow I will write the prologue. My only goal is to have a few pages to bring to writer’s group next week. 

Friends, I hope to write something that might inspire you in your creative goals this year at least once a week. If we aren’t making art in the face of it all, we aren’t truly doing all we can. So let’s keep making time.

 Send me a personal note about what you are working on in 2020 and I will send you some inspiration in return. Email: eatyourwords.lizshine@gmail.com.  

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turtle

Write slowly.

The cult of speedy writers.

There is a lot of hype out there tying triumph in writing to your ability to write fast. Success in self-publishing seems to have more to do with the number of works a writer can churn out than anything else.The goals seems to be to create a link of works that can be consumed one after the other after the other. NaNoWriMo has done it’s part to popularize, even grossly extend, the virtues of the so called shitty first draft.

Writers everywhere seem obsessed with word count. I have tried these ways and I don’t argue that they work for some writers really, really well.

What mindfulness has taught me about myself as a writer.

As the new year got rolling, I re-committed myself to writing and slashed some commitments that were getting in the way. I started using an app to write in singularly focused short bursts with breaks. My goal right now is at least three such intervals every day. I also re-committed to a regular meditation practice and I’ve only missed a few days all year. I believe these two practices in conjunction have allowed me to observe my habits and reactions a little more clearly.

I noticed at first that when I started the timer and didn’t have words immediately ready to flow from my pen, I got nervous. Time was literally ticking after all! I observed this a couple of times and then began to examine this way of thinking. Was it okay to spend some of my writing interval staring out the window wondering what was really motivating my character in the scene I was working on?

The answer was of course, yes. I may be setting a timer, but I am not running a race. Or if I am, I am running tortoise style, because over the years that is the way I have always felt I should be writing. Sometimes I need fifteen minutes to write a sentence, sometimes fifteen seconds. Trying to write at a certain pace, obsessing over word counts–these habits not only don’t work for me. They suck all the joy out of writing for me. They cause me to focus more on the end product than the experience of each moment in a story. The former makes me feel anxious and insecure; the latter is what flow looks like for me.

Be a tortoise or a hare.

So, be a tortoise or a hare in your writing! There is no right way to go about this work. As for me, I will ignore all the buzz about writing fast and making word count. It’s just not how I’m gonna roll. At ease with my tortoise pace, I have finished four new stories in six weeks time without really trying to.

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The word writer, hashed out with a don't sign

Five ways to sabotage your writing time

Want to sabotage your writing time? Have I got some ideas for you.

1. Do anything else “real quick”.

This includes checking email, social media accounts, doing a little food prep for dinner, taking out the trash. There are so many important tasks that will show up as soon as you event think about writing. Just do a few real quick.

2. Listen to negative self-talk about your story.

When you are in the middle of death-defying act like sky-diving or some crazy triple-flip aerial is that the time to question whether or not you are cut out for skydiving or gymnastics?

No.
Same goes with writing. You want to kill your mojo real quick? Let all those negative thoughts in. Engage with them.

3. Be narrow-minded about when and how much time you need for writing.

If you’ve decided that if you need two hours for writing, but you’ve only got an hour and a half, bag it. Go watch TV instead.

4. Always take your work seriously.

Don’t ever freewrite. Don’t ever intentionally write your story as cliche, full of adverbs, and over-told as you possible can for a laugh. Always be severe in your expectations.

5. Work on more than one thing at a time.

Hope springs eternal, right? If you finally sat down and made time, why not try to bust out two short stories instead of one? Do some research and write a blog? There’s no effing way you’ll get past the first thing on your list and you’ll feel like a failure, but goals are good–right?

 

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flying clocks

Dear Teacher-writers: the idea that you’ll have more time to write in the summer is a myth. Let’s face it.

I often tell people that part of why I teach is so I can spend my summer writing.

I don’t mean to lie.

Before I became a teacher, I thought this would be how it would work. I mean it makes sense to believe this. If I’m not working, I should have more time, right?

I have found that the answer is NO!

Every year since I started teaching I hold out hope that summer will bring all the time, inspiration, and motivation I need to write with speed, fluidity, and voice. Truth is, in summer we still have to work to make time. For one thing, there is nothing more devastating to a writer than losing her routine.

The routine is the only thing keeping the momentum in spite of self-doubt, exhaustion, and criticism. What happens to teachers in summer?

The bell ring. *Poof* No routine. Or maybe a new routine if you have a summer job–which is equally devastating.

Two weeks ago I wrote a summer writing schedule and a fall writing schedule. Then I downloaded an app to track my writing time. I’m ready! Tomorrow when that bell rings, I’ve got a plan in place and I’m not lying to myself this time. Writing this summer will not be easier than during the school year. In fact, at first, it will be harder because of the disrupted routine.

It helps to know that you will be here making time with me.

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Write it Down

Make a plan. Write it down.

Still here! Still doing the work! Because I took on some extra responsibility in my doing job, it’s been enough this school year to find time to write, let alone keep this blog about making time to write current. I have a schedule that I keep in my digital calendar that allows one to two hours of writing time, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. Having a schedule for the week is something I’ve done for a long time. Here’s an additional tweak I’ve added since this year when I’ve learned that when you only have an hour here and there, it’s important to get right down to work. you don’t have any time to spare. Here’s my advice: Make your writing goals for the week in advance.

Here is my schedule for this week:

Monday: Edit Chapter 3

Tuesday: Make a scene chart

Wednesday: Complete scene chart

Thursday: Edit five middle chapters

Friday: Freewriting

Saturday: Finish middle chapters

Sunday: Edit end chapters

Make a plan and write it down. Persist and forgive yourself every time your life intervenes or you sabotage yourself. Start again each day.

I am assuming that you are like me, that doing this work is so entrenched in who you are and have yet to become that ceasing to arrange words on the page in the service of story and the expression of thought and feeling means to lose a vital part of who you are, a part that gives you access to a very particular, ennobling joy and connection to others.

Make a plan and write it down. Also, allow time for play-writing like prompts or freewriting.

Because it’s April and I’ve been writing a poem a day in April for twelve or so years, that is my time to play right now. And I am almost caught up! Even though I bought a house and moved a week ago. Here are a couple of my favs so far, plus the prompts and a link to the prompt site I’ve been using.

It isn’t too late to jump in!

Here! I’ll share some of my work to inspire you:

 

Prompt: Write a poem in which mysterious or magical things occur.

 

Dark December morning,

woke before the alarm,

frightened bird heart–

cold sweat, hollow bones.

You moaned a protest to waking.

I stepped carefully

out the door

down the stairs

to brew the coffee, by habit:

grind, pour, wait, pour more.

Morning meditation,

that healer, habit,

evokes stillness, for now.

 

Prompt: Write a haibun that takes place in the natural landscape where you live.

Mud and ferns, rain falls unceasingly.

We are water-logged. Everything is harder,

plus the clouds shield us from the sky.

We can learn to stand tall

like the evergreens all around us,

to take their offering–

fresh air

that is meant to be breathed well–aware.

So that we might notice the fronds unfurling,

the light returning,

stand in awe of light and rain.

 

Access prompts at napowrimo.net

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spider web

I was a spider muse.

I was a spider muse? A dream catcher? A story weaver? I can’t recall, actually. I know it was Halloween and I had invented my own costume. The idea came right from my imagination and for once (I was reticent, insecure) I followed my creative impulse. I was thirteen, carrying around a body bloated by fear and anxiety, but I put on the gold tights, the hand-painted t-shirt, the dangling silver star earrings, the gold, and silver face paint.

I stood in the mirror. The self-hatred committee in my head had already started up their noise. But I went to school anyway. I had to be careful not to touch my face, smear the makeup. I sat on my hands the whole bus ride, my face burning hot with shame.

“What are you?”

I knew they’d ask. That was the point. I was no pop culture icon, no meme of the day. I had come fresh from my imagination and though that was the point, I found myself sputtering with hesitation now. I made it through first period somehow, the riot in my brain drowning out my senses. Mr. B’s blurred mouth moved, but I couldn’t make out the words. I thought I might fall dead right there in the middle of his lesson on The Declaration of Independence. Somehow, I made it through class, maneuvered the halls—eyes to the floor—to the nurse’s office. I lay on the nurse’s cot moaning for the stomach pain that, like my costume, had come right from my imagination.

When Mom picked me up from school, she said it was sad I’d put all that work into my costume only to get sick. I agreed, held all the rest inside.

I think of this girl, this day, from time to time. Sometimes I still am her and that terrifies me because I’m all grown up and know better now, plus I don’t give a damn what people think of me the way I did then. Well, mostly.

It’s a real pain in the ass when this scared, sad girl spoils my writing time. The act of writing is simple and happens in the moment. Words on the page. Words rearranged. Imagination let loose. Then she shows up and wants to know what it is I think I’m playing at, why I am wasting my time churning out mediocre stories when everyone knows you aren’t brave enough to free your imagination. She sees the worst in me, no worth in me.

I am inviting my spider-muse, dream catcher self into 2018. Take my hand, I tell her. Let it go, old friend. Open your heart. Walk boldly in your gold tights and face makeup. There will be others along the way who will open their hearts in recognition. That’s all that matters.

 

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Misplaced

This morning I misplaced an entire folder of work. Here’s what I realized.

If you told me one day I’d be looking for a file on my computer I’d misplaced–a novel draft–and, unable to find it, I would shrug and think well I guess I have to start over without despair, with optimism even, I would have laughed, disbelieving. And yet, that just happened.
Here’s where I am in my writing at the moment. I surprised myself by making my way through a first draft of a second novel in a trilogy of books with somewhat interconnecting characters that all take place in Olympia (setting is key) and deal with the different character’s different anxieties that keep them from being fully present and alive. Huh, it felt good to write that sentence. I haven’t crystalized what the books are about on the page until this moment. I’ve kept the ideas, the connections rattling around in my brain. Writing it just now was like scratching an itch you didn’t know was there. I’m planning to write the first draft of book #3 for NaNoWriMo this November. I’ve written a partial draft of this book before, but it’s become a new thing since then. I can’t decide whether to even look at the old draft before I begin.
That’s the file I was looking for. It’s actually a folder containing seven chapters and an outline. I found it, but I didn’t panic. I would have been okay without it. What am I to make of this strange shift? My former self would have wailed and moaned, spent an entire day moping for the death of all of those precious words.
Here’s what I figure. Now that I’ve been putting down words regularly for more than twenty years and have folders and folders of false starts, flat stories, poems for no one’s eyes but me, I don’t value every single word effort as if each sentence is a thread of my worth and any loss could unravel the whole garment. Much of what I’ve written in my life was practice and that’s not just okay, it’s the way it should be.
You’ve got to be willing to lose whole books and still return to the page. You return because that page is Home and the click of the keys is your dance while no one is watching.

 

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flying clocks

What are you doing this week to make time? Me? I’m willing to change.

Most weekday mornings I wake at four AM and get to work. I’ve even gotten better at writing on weekends, which I explained in an earlier post–to my surprise–proves harder to make time than they days I work a full day. Yet, I still crave more time, feel it’s too little. My days, once I set off for work in the morning, lately don’t slow down until bed time. It’s hard for me to imagine that I used to write in the afternoons. Whatever time I had then, life and other interests have filled to brimming.
Last week–Tuesday, I think–I was feeling pretty whiny about how quickly my writing time passed, how soon I had to jump up and start getting ready for work. 6:00 AM to be out the door by 6:30, to Capital by 7:15. You see I walk to work most days, have walked to work most days for the last eleven years. I refused to change this habit even when we moved and my three-minute walk became a 45-minute walk two and a half years ago. It’s not just work. I have a thing about walking everywhere I can. I walk to yoga from work. I walk downtown often. When the weather is nice, you’re likely to see me walking just about anywhere. This walking is a life-long habit that started when I was young, maybe even as young as 11–certainly by 13.
Walking calms my anxiety. My thoughts unwind and reconfigure. Walking is my idea space. So many poems, story ideas, understandings about myself and the world occur when I’m out walking. Just as Tuesday while walking to work this idea occurred to me:
If I rode to work with Chris on the days he doesn’t leave early to take his boy to zero hour (1-2 days per week), I would extend my morning writing time by 45 minutes. I could double my word count in 45 minutes. And who says I can’t take a 45-minute walk in the evenings instead?

The idea is obviously good, yet I struggled with is pretty hard.
Why?
Habit is a powerful part of identity. Would I still be me if I no longer walked to work every day? No longer set out each morning, sometimes in the dark and pouring rain, sometimes with a too-heavy book bag, a yoga mat, and a lunch sack too?
Routine is the backbone of a healthy writing practice. Just read a few writers on the subject and you’ll hear the advice reverberate. But a routine that is too rigid can make us stagnate, keep ourselves and probably our writing too confined.
Be willing to change. Change the time of day you write. Change your word count goal. Change another habit (like walking to work) that frees up space to create.
When people hear what time I wake up to write, they say I could never do that.
That’s a lie.
You can.
If you want to make time badly enough, you will.
What habit can you change right now to make time?
I am writing this just after coming in from evening walk. Tomorrow morning I look forward to double the writing time.

 

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