Category Archives: On writing

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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making of harry potter common room

Staring is necessary.

My IB students are reading The Things They Carried now and just finished The Great Gatsby. The order in which you teach books brings to light different aspects of them. I don’t believe I’ve ever juxtaposed these two titles before. So, as we read each vignette of The Things They Carried, the burden of being an observer in war is the thread I keep being drawn to. Both Nick and O’Brien seem to exist as a lens through which to view the story, take little part in the action, only rarely turn that lens on themselves. They are both writers. Go figure, I’m drawn to this persona, the observer. I know just what I’d do if I ever stumbled upon an invisibility cloak as Harry Potter did.
“Stare hard, retard,” people used to say when they caught me staring. And sometimes on my walks to work, I get so caught up in the physical details of the world around us that I just want to keep walking right past work, spend the day collecting images. I did this when I was in high school quite a lot. I’d walk to school, reach the building, decide to keep walking. I grew up in sister cities and I’d walk to the edges of them both, walk between them.
This is at least a part of why I prefer to walk to school even though Chris drives and works at the same place. This is why I prefer spring and summer days, because I can walk and walk without the extra weight of an umbrella or the inconvenience of getting cold or wet. I used to at least try to keep a journal collecting some of my impressions from the day. It’s been difficult to find time lately, but I’d like to try to get back to that practice, just a little writing before bed. *moves journal to night stand
I’ve sometimes felt ashamed of my observer personality (“Stare hard, retard”), but reading O’Brien I’m embracing that part of myself, feeling part of a tribe of storytellers. So, dear writer peeps, if this sounds like you, I have a challenge for you this week:

Spend 10-20 minutes sitting in public just observing everything you can.
Observe and record a conversation between two people you eavesdrop on.
Stare at an object. Stare again. Keep staring until you’ve written a two paragraph description of the thing.

 

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cell phone that says "my phone is my castle" on the screen

It is called a mobile, after all.

We had an unexpected dumping of snow in Olympia that afforded me a Monday snow day yesterday. This allowed me to easily and leisurely meet my word count for the day and also to reflect on the week, writing, the sheer size of the flakes floating down out the window. And that’s not even the whole of the day. I also read some of The Circle, which is turning out to be a page-turner and two chapters of A Moveable Feast which Chris and I are reading out loud to each other in preparation for the Book-It performance in March. It felt decadent to have the day, since the weekend had been so satisfying, and that, or at least the reason for the satisfaction is what I want to write about here.
As I’ve mentioned in past posts, weekends are the hardest times for me to get my word count in. This is counter-intuitive since I teach high school Monday through Friday and have weekends off. Shouldn’t I have more time on weekends and therefore write more? One would think so, but the opposite is true. I write less on weekends.
What made the difference this weekend? I turned off my cell Friday before bed and didn’t turn it on again until Sunday at noon. Lo and behold, I wrote double my goal and broke through two barriers in my story.
How can I explain this?
On weekdays I do my writing early in the morning while the house is still asleep, before picking up my phone or checking my email. It’s this sweet little pocket of solitude and leisure before I am standing in front of a classroom of sometimes reluctant always skeptical students. Always skeptical because they are high school age and they should be. (It’s the unskeptical ones I worry about. What innocence shaking novel should I slip them to shake them up and get them on track? Back to the point–) The weekend; however, is an unstructured free-for-all time wise and it’s easier to passively gawk on social media than struggle with creating fiction. So, I cave to my impulse to check in with the world of digital interactions and eye candy my phone has to offer off and on all weekend which makes it difficult to focus and relax, two things we need to write.

What will I do with this new-found self-knowledge?
It is called a mobile, after all, and I’d like to start treating it like one. A great device to connect outside of home. At home, I want to keep it turned off more often. Like from Friday nights to Sundays at noon, except when I’m out on the town. Also weekday mornings before eight and as soon as I get home on weekday evenings. This not only feels like a good tweak to my writing life, but a tweak that is consistent with how I’ve been feeling for a long while about how we come home and sink into our social media threads when we should be interacting with our families, cooking a good meal, reading a book, or just sitting and letting the day sink in. Resonates with how I feel about how we bring our phones to bed, to the table, to the easy chair. This feels like a right tweak, like an I should have thought of this long ago tweak, and I’m excited to see the effects.
I know that after a day and a half break, my shoulders were more relaxed. I was breathing more freely. I wrote with more ease and without distraction.

What habits are working for you to keep you focused?
What are your writing goals for the week? the month? the year?

Sneak peak: Next month I’m kicking off the daily writing warm-ups a little early. You know we’ve got poetry in April and scenes in May, so what’s in store for March?
In March, we will travel to a new place each day with a prompt to describe a place in 200 words or less. Stay tuned!

 

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yoga frog

Don’t push it. That’s my advice this week. Happy writing!

Much better this week. Not perfect, but better. I wrote six of seven days. Slowly, but that’s my pace right now. I mostly got to bed by nine on the weekdays, save one or two restless nights. I hope do the same or better this week, but I’m not attached to that result. It doesn’t equal success or failure. Those are long-term, future-focused words that when you break down get pretty muddy in their true meaning. I gave this advice to another writer in my weekly critique group last Monday. I asked her what her goal was for her work and she said to finish it and get published.
Seems like the obvious goal, right?
In my experience, that goal will leave you hamstrung and miserable.
I choose joy.
Each day I sit down to write for all the time I have to offer the work. I am working on a first draft of a second novel in a trilogy of books that take place in Olympia and all feature a central character who is struggling to find his/her path. Around that main character is a cast of quirky characters who sometimes recur between books.
Of course, I want to finish them and publish them.
But I’ve learned not to think of that when I am drafting and revising. I try to take each chunk of writing time as it comes. I try not to set deadlines for when I should be done, because what I’ve found is that I will reach those deadlines. Even when I shouldn’t. Even when the work isn’t ready to be done, I will finish on time. And then after a couple of weeks away, of maybe sending the work out to the world, I’ll read it and see what I didn’t see before, face the truth. And sometimes my forcing the work to completion will have created more problems to fix than before.
I’m learning to trust the work to tell me when it’s done, to not push it with imposed deadlines. I am working on a first draft of a second book, trying to write every day, getting feedback on the first book in my critique group, and when I finish this first draft, I’ll set it aside and start in on draft two of the first book. Then I’ll write the first draft of the third book. I have no idea when any of this will be done.

Happy writing week to you, my friends. May your words flow freely and your heart be light.

 

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sleep well

Duh. Sleep. How could I neglect that?

Except for Friday when I needed to wake early to be on a bus to a Speech Tournament by six, I woke at four and wrote every morning last week. I managed to get my 500 words in, at least, though I need to work on making time on the weekends. I wrote no words on the weekend. This fact is a bit of a stumper for me since on many weekdays I am booked from end to end and I’m lucky if I can manage to make time to cook dinner, let alone write 500 words. Why am I more likely to make my word count on days that I work and therefore have less time? Take today, for instance. A typical Monday. I walk to work, walk to catch a yoga class before my critique group that starts at 6, am picked up from critique between 8 and 8:30, and am supposed to be in bed by 9 to get the right amount of sleep to make the four o’clock wake up productive and not sleep deprived.
So, one thing I need to work on is making time to get my 500 words in on weekends. That should be easy and I have no excuse, except that I just haven’t been doing it. Did I mention I’m a Speech and Debate coach? No? Well, I am. And this weekend I spent Friday and Saturday at the University of Puget Sound and while a good chunk of that time I was busy judging, I had ample time to get in my 500 words. That’s about practice. And we have another tournament coming up this weekend, so I will report next week on how that goes, and I will bring my story with me. This week, if I can’t make my 500 words on the weekend days…I will for sure need to make some sort of rescue plan for my behavior.
Back to weekdays and sleep deprivation, though. When you look at my writing log for last week, it looks pretty damn good. I woke up, I made my word count, I did it again the next morning. A+, right?
Wrong. I struggled to get to bed before ten or eleven every single night, but still woke up at four. Imagine the progression of the dark-eyed stare as I sat at my computer each morning, heaved an exhausted sigh and set to work. Okay, so now I’m laughing at myself. Let me tell you last night’s story.
On tournament weekends, I am gone until late Friday, home for maybe four hours of sleep before I need to get back on the bus Saturday morning. Home late Saturday where I pretty much collapse onto the bed and sleep like the dead. This particular Saturday I woke in a puddle of exhaustion drool. Okay, so Sunday then is my only weekend day left, so I wake up late and stiff and wanting to just stay in bed and read all day, which I do for a couple of hours. Until I realize that I have one weekend day to fit in all the weekend things I planned to do. So, I make a list and set to work, adding to that list go grocery shopping, make vegan cheese and soup, and watch a documentary with Chris. I even schedule the TV time. 8 PM. We’ve got the popcorn popped and we’re watching this documentary about the Barkley Marathons that if you have not seen is…just watch it. It is an amazing story of the human will and imagination. Anyway, I’m setting my alarm for four and settling in to read a chapter of my book before I go to sleep. It’s 10:30.
I open the book. The chapter’s subtitle: The Consolidating Role of Sleep. This is a book about how we learn, filled with examples about writers, because, really, when we write we really are learning, we really do need the learning aspects of our brains to be top-notch. Memory and problem-solving for instance.
I read the subtitle again and laugh out loud. I close the book, turn out the light, and settle in to sleep. What a fool I’ve been! I’ve been ignoring a critical part of this whole creative process and it’s even a part I like and am pretty good at. Sleep.
That is what I’m going to work on this week: sleep. Can I get up and write at 4 AM and get my 500 words in while still getting the 7-8 hours of sleep I need? I think so and I’m creating a little wind-down ritual for myself to help. At 8, I plan to drop everything and wind down with a little time spent practicing guitar (I am finally learning after years of envying others) and a few restorative yoga poses. Hit the pillow by 8:45.
Wish me luck, writer peeps! Goals this week: Sleep by nine and make word count on weekends. What are your goals for the week?

 

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