Category Archives: Be here now.

Make Time

I’m still here, making time.

What?

The theme of this blog is how to make time. In spite of all of the obligations we face as writers who also work full time, raise children, love to lose themselves in reading books, enjoy creative side projects (for me lately that is brewing my own kombucha and making vegan cheese)–in spite of all of these things and all the other pulls on our time I didn’t list here–how do we make time to write?!

Why?

If you are my audience, I don’t have to explain the why. It’s not logical, practical. There is no publication goal you have to meet in order to legitimize what it is that you do. You do it out of a need that only other creatives will understand. You do it for the joy of creating.

 

The joy of creating. Remember that. Next time you spiral into some crisis of confidence, some self-imposed or peer-inflicted question of your legitimacy. You do it because you enjoy creating stories. You are drawn to frivolous creation and in the act of creation, you find a kind of connection to the universe, a stripping away of the self that is transcendent.

 

I haven’t been blogging much lately about how to make time, because I have little time to make for many months now.

How?!

I wake at four most weekday morning to squeeze in an hour or more of writing. How much time I get depends on whether and how many times I hit snooze, whether I let in distractions, whether I have a clear goal in mind,  and all the other factors that make up any effort to sit down and focus on the task of writing.

 

This school year I am working an extra class period, which somewhat amusingly (knowing what I know) is called a “super FTE” by our school district. This means six classes instead of five in a day, no planning period. An extra class to plan for, grade for, with less time allotted. I am also coaching Speech and Debate with takes up a couple of hours for practice in the afternoons for the first five months of the school year and nine or so weekends for tournaments.

 

Point being, making time has been extra difficult lately. But I keep getting up, keep working toward my goal, log the writing work I do each day on my calendar. I go easy on myself on days when I oversleep, am too tired and get little done, fall into some distraction that takes up all the time I have available.

 

All of you who are out there also doing this work are a boon to me. My writer’s group peeps who I see every Monday too. I am grateful.

 

I have been thinking again lately about the power of mindfulness in the act of writing. I’ve read a couple of books on the subject and the idea is tied to my long-term interest in yoga and meditation. I’ve written before about how other meditative acts such as yoga and running can strengthen our writing practice. That still emerges as a core truth in this question of art and time. The idea has been living in me since I read Writing Down the Bones at age sixteen and did all the exercises Goldberg offers in that classic book on how to free the creative spirit from the grip of doubt, fear, and anxiety and just get some words on the damn page for starters.

 

I’ve got about twenty-five more minutes left before I need to get ready for work, so I’m going to go edit two pages before this writing session is over. I just wanted to pop in to remind you that I am still here making time and so glad that you are here making time with me.

 

Love,

Liz

 

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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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beach path writing retreat

Learning from a confidence crash: Reflections from a writing retreat.

I started this blog as a way to keep myself writing. It was the same kind of desperate attempt to build good habits that causes people to talk their significants into doing dietary cleanses with them. I needed an audience, some accountability outside my insecure self. It wasn’t enough to just remind myself why I was writing, how I was writing, that I deserved to make time for writing. I needed to shout it out loud.
That’s still true, but over time it has become a creative work of its own. A voice has emerged, a voice I didn’t know I had. A voice strong, confident in the fact that she has something to say that’s worthy of being heard.
I’m in Ocean Shores on a writing retreat now. This is a place I know well. I’ve spent many hours with my cousins on the beach, the adults who brought us sheltered from the wind in the car we’d driven right onto the beach. Yesterday, I drove into town on my own to pick up a few things from the store, get gas, shop for some souvenirs. I went in to pay for the gas, began pumping, sat in the driver’s seat to wait for the tank to fill. That’s when it happened. My self dissipated. What was I doing here? Who was I kidding? What kind of fraud had I perpetrated, masquerading as a writer for over twenty years?
I’m mostly immune to these kinds of identity crises, though as a young writer they plagued me. You see, I’ve built good habits in getting up in the morning to write, keeping this blog, annotating every book I read. I love the work and I’m not so worried about who approves anymore. In the face of this unforeseen confidence crash, I parked my car at the IGA and went for a walk through town, breathing deep and consciously, feeling the straps of my backpack, each stride. I shook it off, remembered I don’t care about that shit anymore. I simply make time and do the work. Beginning my summer vacation with a writing intensive that includes my summer writing schedule (up at 5AM for a run, shower, then pour a cup of coffee and get to work) is likely the cause of the crisis (when you retreat for a week to write the pressure to get work done is great) and now that I’ve recovered, I’m glad I had that moment. Because when I had returned to my body and was breathing freely again, I felt immense gratitude, commitment to do the work, to stay in the room, focused on the goal or two I’ve set for the day.

 

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trail running

Monday, a run through the driving rain, hail, a sweet reminder.

I started running at twenty four. I could not even run a mile before I started to wheeze. But, within two years, I was up to five miles five to six days per week and within two more years I was training for my first marathon. Running helped me through some challenging years, gave me some sweet solitude when solitude was hard to come by. It made me strong enough to make some tough decisions, eventually.

By the time I moved home to Olympia in 2006 from where I’d spent seven years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d run a dozen half marathons and three marathons. Returned home, I ran a dozen more, joined a running group. I was proud of the fact that I could run a half marathon without training at all, if I wanted to. It wouldn’t be pretty, but I could do it. I took that strength for granted.

No that I’m back to running regularly after two years of minimal to no running due to stress fractures, I am humbled. A three-four mile run is currently my limit, a run I would have called a short run a few years back.

In order to keep myself true to a schedule, I now keep extra clothes and shoes in the closet at work, so I can have accomplished a run before I even get home in the evenings. Going out again for a run after returning to the comfort of home is not easy for me. The moment I walk in the door, responsibility beckons. So, last Monday, a burst of sun broke through a cloudy day at about 3:15 in the afternoon and I hustled to change and get out the door. Being mid-March, I knew that sun could disappear in an instant. And, it did. The rain started in a downpour that turned to little hail pellets bouncing off my skin as I ran at a slow pace, head down up the Garfield Nature Trail with a brain freeze, something I had no idea could happen from getting hailed on.

What did I feel in that moment?

You might be surprised to hear that I felt strong and ecstatically alive. Well, okay, at first, I felt cold and annoyed. But as I propelled my cold, wet, annoyed body forward, I remembered how the struggle we face on a particularly hard run and they way we learn to breathe and move through that struggle makes us stronger for all of life’s struggles, gives us strength, endurance, and trust. Then, I felt strong and ecstatically alive.

I’m glad to be back in my running shoes. Not just glad, but grateful. This shift back to running is part of a larger reconnection with my physical body, a body that saved me from so much, so often. It wasn’t just the injuries, it was also work stress, and life changes. Not only was I not running, but my yoga practice had also dwindled to almost nothing. I’m back on the mat too, beginning with a minimum of thirty minutes per day. I celebrated spring yesterday with 108 sun salutations, something I used to do twice a year, but hadn’t done in…six or seven?

I suppose whether it’s running or yoga or hiking, which I also love, or any other practice that demands movement of the body and breath, doesn’t matter. So long as we go there. I wrote a novella about the role of breath and movement can play in saving a life, yet in the midst of the second draft, I broke, and then other things rushed in to fill the empty spaces where those practices had been. Things have a tendency to do that, which is why we have to MAKE TIME for the practices that fulfill us. We have to run, write, stretch, breathe–move.

 

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Washing the dishes

Just like the themes we are threading in our stories, these topics about the creative life resurface again and again. I’ve written many times before about focus, about staying in the room until the work is done, about committing to a particular project and seeing it through. But this is easier said than done and our talent of complicating the work is insidious.

My current process for writing is to sit down and first write the date at the top of a page in my writing log, then list out my writing goals for the day in the order I’d like to achieve them. I’ve been doing this since April. I use this writing log to journal about the work, especially if I’m stuck on something, and also to track word count for the day and to sketch out scenes for the story/chapter I’m working on. This new habit of keeping a writing log has benefited me in so many ways, a couple of them unexpected. First, because I keep a log each day, it’s easier the next day to jump in where I left off because I’ve left some clues about what I was working on/struggling with. Second, and the topic that is the focus of this blog entry, is that as time has passed, as I’ve become more regular in my writing routine, my ambition and impatience have reared up: My list of goals get longer and longer.

What occurs to me as I look at my expanding list of creative must-dos is that I am headed toward a writing practice that is joyless, each act one stone that must be turned over to get to the end of the day. I’m at risk of becoming a suffering artist. Friends, when I get there, it’s time to abandon the work. The writers I admire most are the writers who when you read them you can tell they enjoy the work of stringing sentences, that it brings them joy. This is why I’m spending my time here.  So I am recalling this morning how Thich Nhat Hanh describes washing dishes:

 

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them.Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity,for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”–Thich Nhat Hanh
If you are feeling that the writing is work lately, perhaps it’s because you aren’t writing at all. You are moving through the act of writing, but your thoughts have skipped ahead or are looking behind. When this happens, what are your tools for bringing yourself back to the work? I tend to follow my breath, dive into a scene. Blog about it, so I can really know what I think. Another trick I use is setting my meditation timer for writing goals. Until now, I did this with a chuckle, because I was using something meant for one practice, for a completely different kind of practice.

Is it all that different, though? When you are really in the flow of the work?

 

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A celebration of the pause.

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I can be an intensely goal-oriented person, and mostly this has served me well. I wrote a semi-autobiographical novella in part about resiliency, or at least that was the seed. You see, directly and indirectly I have heard all my life that for me, success was unlikely, that my success is a particular miracle, unexpected. So I wanted to explore how it is that I don’t feel particularly resilient at all. I wanted to put a character in a situation somewhat like mine and see just how she might come to save herself. It’s true I was a welfare kid, a victim of childhood abuse, an intensely shy child who suffered severe allergies for all of my pre-adult life. It’s also true that genetically I am predisposed to self-destruct through addictive behavior and that I have suffered anxiety as long as I can remember.
My ability to set goals and work toward them has enabled me to manage anxiety without medication, to go from being unable to run at 24 years old to running my first marathon at 30, and to be a now National Boards Certified Teacher, 15 years of teaching experience behind me. I am a compulsive list maker and goal-setter. I can read through old journals and see that this pattern established itself early. But I’m not writing this blog as a celebration of goal-setting. I’m writing in celebration of the absence of moving toward a goal, a celebration of the pause, something I’ve come to appreciate these past few weeks.
Certainly my lists and goals serve my writing. It is this tendency that has inspired me to wake up at 4 and 5 in the morning to write first each day, that allows me to add practices to my work that keep me moving forward, like keeping a writing journal on my desk and writing down short and long term goals. But what I’ve discovered in this early morning writing time is that in the writing itself, I am best served when I can let go of all goals and give myself up to the writing itself. When I try to write fast, when I try to finish a work before it is ready to be done, when I rush editing, I ruin the work. I’ve done this over and over again.
Fortunately, I am a fan of Whitman’s insight about contradictions and I too believe I contain multitudes, thus am capable of writing slow, pausing to take walks or just stare out the window in spite of the anxious, goal-oriented me. Practices that strengthen my ability to pause include the writing itself, yoga and meditation, and time spent in nature. As I write this, I am thinking of this work we do as writers as a kind of dance where we are called to move through many aspects of ourselves to do our best work.

 

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zen accident

Zen Accident

I began writing poetry at fourteen or fifteen, some terrible lost and vulnerable age. I wrote reams of poems about how profoundly I didn’t understand anything, using juxtaposed words like vomit truth and playground nightmare. It seems I’d always been a gawker, but I started to write little snippets of what I saw in my notebooks: man at bus stop shaving his feet, woman screaming fuck you fuck fuck on her way to the library, or an orange is a globe of light. I also started to write down the sentences from what I read that sent a charge of delight up my spine. If I could write like that!

I’ve identified as a writer from a young age and over the years I have continued to write, record my observations, and collect sentences with inconsistent commitment. This blog is dedicated to the commitment I’ve made to make time for writing in spite of the real and imagined demands on my writing time. I’ve been distracted by so many projects during my adult life including running a marathon and earning a Masters degree, both of which took far less effort and commitment than writing a book does. I’m not saying I shouldn’t have done these things, not at all. One can’t write every single moment of every single day. When you are not writing, though, everything else is a potential distraction.

Over this past winter break I had a moment of epiphany regarding my sometimes absurd cycle of professing I need time to write, then getting that time and struggling to write three sentences, then drowning my sorrows in a glass or two of red which of course completely kills my impulse to write and clouds my thinking. Of course there are other times where the writing flows and I finish my writing time absolutely buzzed by the feeling that I’ve created something dangerously close to what I want to say and with some tweaking, by God, it just might do. I’ve strategized ways to induce this kind of creative flow. I’ve turned corners of rooms into writing nooks, made signs for doors warning: Writer At Work, snuck away to cafes, bought noise-canceling headphones, and on and on.

We’ve just moved to a new house and by winter break we’d been there nearly a month and I hadn’t even once sat in the writing nook I fashioned in one corner of our bedroom. I’d written, but never there. And that’s when a new way of looking at the whole situation struck me dumb. Over the next few days I sat to write at our family computer that is literally wide-open in the middle of the house in the family room, the most unprivate spot one could possibly occupy.

What happened? Yes, children interrupted me. Dogs too with their endless need for ear-scratches and lap time. I’m pretty sure Chris also asked me where I had put the coffee filters, which were right in front of his face where they always are, just tucked a little toward the back. As all these disruptions happened, I didn’t react resentfully to them. Each disruption happened, then I returned to the writing. This is how I finished the novella I’ve been working on for six years.

Happy accident? Result of a recently revived meditation practice?

I don’t know, but I’ll take it.

 

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Dear Present Moment,

Dear Present Moment,

The click of keys. The ponderous pause. The long-distance stare. Alert, alive, creating. The problems to solve are diverse, complex, and many and I must be some kind of brainiac because I am solving problems left and right. What is the mood here? What is the consequence? Will this seem real to a strange reader? Will it break his heart? What’s the story? A comma here?
Present moment, the struggle emerges when you elude me, when I focus on the future goal or that time I left critique group with a fresh bruise on my cheek, a deep scratch on my collar bone.

Seeking you,
Liz

 

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