Tag Archives: inspiration

summer days

Dear Summer Days, (Letter Series)

If you click on Letters under categories of past blogs, you’ll see the whole series. This series is a nod to the idea of letter writing, which I love with a burning nostalgia that makes me long for the days of slow communication, letters written by candlelight. Well, until I remember they didn’t have mobile phones or the Internet…

Happy Monday to you. Happy new writing week! Enjoy this new installment in my Letters series.

 

Dear Summer Days,

You trick me every time. The way I can walk across town reading a book under your forget-me-not sky and then forget the day of the week entirely. They way you inspire nostalgia, what have I got to lose, and might as well live.

I can remember a time when summer really did last what seemed like forever. Long enough to get bored and grow out of my favorite shoes. Long enough for a love affair to begin and end.

When I became a teacher I imagined I would get these summers back. Don’t laugh–it’s an easy trap to fall into. While it may be true you can’t repeat the past, is there any harm in trying? Summer days, you are for wandering, for wonder, for making art, for learning ten ways to tie a scarf and more ways to say, yes, I do.

Looking forward to your impending visit,

Liz

 

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procrastinating mind

Dear Procrastination, (Part 2)

Dear Procrastination,

I’ve written to you before, but you didn’t reply. You look at me the way my grandmother used to when I asked a stupid question. I get it, you are necessary, and if I spend too much time with you, well, that’s my fault, isn’t it?
You are necessary. You are where the sketch before the painting happens, the outline before the outline. I know I said I would write and now I’m walking the dogs, stringing a beaded necklace, knitting a hat, cleaning the gutters, alphabetizing my books, dusting the cobwebs from the corners. Can you believe these things are part of the process too? Not always, but sometimes, when I’m meditating on story.
I’m sorry I came off adversarial before. I was trying to gather my courage to write. I did not trust you. I lashed out. I get it. I get it, you are part of the process. Can I possibly welcome you? Even find joy in you? Trust myself to know when to close the door on you and get to work, when to open the door again and go out to play?
I will try, dear friend, I will try.

 

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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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Imagination

An invitation to let go and burn, baby, burn.

Getting to sleep earlier proved harder than I thought for a few reasons this week. I’ve got a lot crammed into my weekdays and last week was an especially bloated example of that. I went to two critique groups, one Monday, one Thursday, attended three yoga classes and coached Debate until four Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I tried to cook real meals when I could, which is especially important now that I’m vegan. There’s more, but you get the idea. Getting to sleep by nine was hard and the fact that I was so focused on it made it even harder. That is the way our minds play tricks on us. Oh, you need to get to bed early, do you? Let me throw some random fears your way and see how you do. Did you leave the oven on? Did you send that email? Does someone need you and you weren’t there?
But I tried every day. I shut down early, put a sleep mask on and committed to tossing and turning. And I will try again this week and the next until I’ve retrained my body and mind to be asleep by nine.
My second goal for the week was to get my word count in on weekends and weekdays. I did not even try to do that. Saturday I spent sleep-deprived judging Debate. Sunday I went to yoga and to a movie with Chris, and now here I am writing this blog, the first words I’ve penned all weekend. I blame this in part on the fact that I back-tracked in my writing week and so need to push myself forward again. I rewrote the outline for my novel and rewrote some beginning sections. It’s a first draft and I’m supposed to be writing forward. You know as well as I do though that these re-grouping moments are a crucial part of the writing process for any draft. I’ve got a new outline and am ready for another go at my goals this week. How about you?
My goals: 1. Write 500 words each day, including weekends. 2. In bed, eyes closed by nine on weekdays. 3. Do the Wednesday prompt (Red Dress Press) for fun and practice.
What are your goals?
The movie Chris and I went to see was La La Land. There’s this moment toward the end of the movie where the aspiring actress played by Emma Stone suffers a crisis of confidence familiar to anyone who has ever gone out on a creative limb. It hurts too much she says when she finally gets to the heart of why she wants to throw in the towel. She means the rejection and the not feeling good enough. It does hurt to put your best work out there and have it rejected or torn down in critique, even to attempt to create something and never have it come together as you envisioned it would. The movie is a boon to artists if you haven’t seen it. An invitation to follow your dreams, however difficult or impractical they might seem.
It’s the heart of winter and here in Olympia the coldest days of the year so far. We’ve had over a week of temps in the low to mid-twenties. We are all in need of an invitation to keep our fires burning, our imaginations moving. I hope this post might be one for you. Set some goals for the week and do your best to get there. That is all. Let go of attachment to a particular result. Simply show up and do the work.

 

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One day spent chaperoning debate nerds. Two insights about writing fiction.

I say nerds admiringly. After all, I was one of them back in highschool when I regularly skipped other classes to work on my debate cases. Am one of them, really. I no longer geek out on arguing the ethics or efficacy of various philosophical schools, all of which I was  learning solely to build my rhetorical arsenal. All of which were making me more befuddled as to what I really thought and believed. Now, for me, it’s books and the things that make up books. Precious sentences!

For the two judges sitting across from me in the judge’s lounge that day it was crossword puzzles. To be precise, four of them. Another judge they knew, a tall bespectacled man carrying a fresh copy of the New Yorker, noticed they were currently working on the LA Times and proceeded to rib them. How could ladies of their caliber deign to do any crossword puzzle than NY? They laughed. They had that one too, tucked under the LA Times. This was the seed of my first insight of the day into writing fiction. It has to do with character, specifically archetypes and models. As I was sitting there drinking the coffee but trying to avoid the white sugar parading as mini bagels by munching out of my baggie of trail mix, it occurred to me how far one can get in developing a character’s identity by first figuring out what social sub group they belong to. You can sketch a lot about what they wear, what they do in their free time, what topics of conversation they lean toward, what books they might read, even what they value. The danger of course is to stop there. And since I had ten hours of basically just sitting around watching people that day, I did a lot of sneaky staring and character sketching. I eavesdropped on stories and began to see the individuals emerge in this group that at first seemed strikingly aligned. What emerged for me from this exercise was that it’s useful to begin sketching a character by identifying a model. The danger is to stop there. Perhaps a more pervasive danger exists in fearing models that are out of our own social comfort zone We must push past the judgement that emerges when values clash to create human characters who inhabit ways of being that are difficult for us to empathize with. Because, in the end, characters should be individuals, not models.

At one point I grew bored even of people watching and decided to go for a walk around the University of Puget Sound’s campus. I had no idea where I was going, no destination. That became part of the fun. As I walked, I began to build stories in my head, urged on by what I was seeing with my eyes. A persistent yellow rose, a bit weary, but persevering winter. An old style chalkboard on wheels, some unknown equations written across it. A fountain with the head of a fish next to the head of a lion, the leo and the pisces locked in natural conflict. A rooftop fire escape. I even hopped onto an elevator at one point and pushed the button for the floor I thought was the one I started on. The doors closed, but the elevator didn’t move. I almost panicked, then browsed the buttons again, selected my second choice. The elevator lurched, moved. The doors opened right where I began. What had been on the floor it wouldn’t let me out on? My imagination scrolled through story possibilities for what was on floor M. And here’s where the second insight into writing came to me. Be present as you adventure into the world. Collecting images of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Taking photos and writing descriptions in our journals or recording our own voices describing these things on our mobile phones. This builds the muscles of our imagination.

 

Here’s a prompt and a challenge for you. Take one of the images below and turn it into a poem or a short work of prose. If you’re willing, share it.

 

I’m wishing you all another week of flowing words. As for me, I’m just past the half point in the first draft of a novel I’m writing called It May Look Like Disaster, the first in a series of three Olympia novels. I’m waking up at 4 AM on weekdays to write and trying to edit stories and type in handwritten pages in the evenings. I submitted stories to three journals last week and my goal is to submit every week of 2016.
Blessings to you. Make time.

 

 

 

elevator gargoyle fountain yellow rose         escape spider web

 

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want to read 2016

What I Read In 2015/Want To Read in 2016

I’ve been keeping track of what I’ve been reading since 2009 here on this blog. My goal for 2015 was to read 50 books. I came pretty close at 42, which is 8 more books than I read in 2014 and 22 more books than I read in 2013. During our hot, dry summer, I read a few books while walking here and there and really love to read that way. It’s different than reading on the treadmill (which I hate), so it’s not just about moving while reading, though I do think that is a part of the romance for me. Sometimes when I sit and read, my body gets antsy and I close the book to get up and move around. When I walk and read, I can read for longer stretches of time than when sitting still. And I can still take notes while I read. I only need to pause and make a note in the margin before moving on. Theoretically I could do this on the treadmill in any weather, but the treadmill is sooo boring to me and that boredom seeps into my reading. I’m not going to post a list of the particular titles I plan to read in 2016, though I will post a picture of some I have lined up by my desk that I’m interested in reading. I’d like to read a variety of books from different genres and stay open to new books too. I’d like to read a couple of books with Chris and all the books my book group chooses. I’d like to write down all the found sentences I mark when I read this time and look back at them at the end of the year. I always mark them by writing a heart in the margin, but I don’t consistently go back to pull them out later. I want to read more attentively when I’m at home, for longer stretches without checking my phone or getting up to put a load of laundry in. I’d like to spend at least one full hour a few times a week just reading without distractions.  Below is a list of the books I read in 2015 (the first five I absolutely loved, and I can’t wait to see The Brothers K at Book-It in May) and a picture of some I have queued up for 2016.

 

How about you? What did you read? Why? What will you read in 2016? How will you read?

 

  1. The Brothers K/ David James Duncan (novel)
  2. My Year of Meats/ Ruth Ozeki (novel)
  3. Through the Second Skin/ Derek Sheffield (poetry)
  4. Time and Materials/ Robert Hass (poetry)
  5. Song of Solomon/ Toni Morrison (novel)
  6. Fun Home/ Alison Bechdel (graphic novel)
  7. Glitter and Glue/ Kelly Corrigan (memoir)
  8. Ice Haven/ Daniel Clowes (graphic novel)
  9. The Interestings/ Meg Wolizer (novel)
  10. The Blue Flower/ Penelope Fitzgerald (novel)
  11. 10:04/ Ben Lerner (novel)
  12. Queenpin/ Meg Abbot (novel)
  13. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man/ James Joyce (novel)
  14. The Awakening/ Kate Chopin (novel)
  15. The Best American Poetry of 2009 (poetry)
  16. How to Meditate/ Pema Chodron (non-fiction)
  17. The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo (ALSO LOVED! Non-fiction)
  18. Praise/ Robert Hass (poetry)
  19. Maus/ Art Spiegelman (graphic novel)
  20. The Uninvited Guests/ Sadie Jones (novel)
  21. Persepolis 2 (graphic novel)
  22. The Round House/ Louise Erdrich (novel)
  23. Far From the Madding Crowd/ Thomas Hardy (novel)
  24. Making Shapely Fiction/ Jerome Stern (non-fiction)
  25. The Kundalini Yoga Experience/ Dharma Singh Khalsa (non-fiction)
  26. Between You & Me/ Mary Norris (memoir)
  27. Vox/ Nicholson Baker (novel)
  28. The Laughing Monsters/ Denis Johnson (novel)
  29. Slaugherhouse-Five/ Kurt Vonnegut (novel)
  30. My Brilliant Friend/ Elena Ferrante (novel)
  31. Paper Towns/ John Green (novel)
  32. Holy the Firm/ Annie Dillard (Creative Non-Fiction)
  33. Poser/ Claire Dederer (memoir)
  34. The Magician’s Feastletters/ Diane Wakowski (poetry)
  35. The Wisdom of Insecurtiy/ Alan Watts (non-fiction)
  36. Food Matter/ Mark Bittman (non-fiction)
  37. In the Woods/ Tana French (novel)
  38. The Likeness/ Tana French (novel)
  39. And When She Was Good/ Laura Lippman (novel)
  40. Brave Enough/ Cheryl Strayed (non-fiction)
  41. Merry Christmas, Baby/ Donna Kaufman (fiction)
  42. How to Relax/ Thich Nhat Hanh (non-fiction)
books for 2016

Want To Read 2016

 

 

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Skipping class

I’m not sure how it started, exactly. One day I must have been walking to school and instead of turning left toward the tall gray concrete building, climbing the stairs to sit in Mr. Lokken’s Algebra II class, I turned right toward the public library.

I spent the first few hours browsing. First flipping through cards filed alphabetically, kept in long pull-out drawers that sighed when you opened, then closed them. Next, walking up and down the aisles, pulling books off to browse because the title or a familiar author or the color of the spine.

I must have checked out five or six books that day, one was Rukeyser’s selected poems, which I carried around in my backpack way past the due date. Returning books to the library on time is not a skill I ever mastered. Messenger bag heavy with books, I walked out into the cold, quiet, empty streets of downtown Aberdeen to the new, hopefully to stay this time, cafe. I ordered a bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese and a cappuccino, found a table with a windowed view. I wrote through the afternoon with my new roller-ball blue pen–poems, snippets of stories, quotes from the books I browsed through. I jotted down pieces of conversation overheard at other tables.

“You wont’ believe what she said, Grace.”

“Well, you tell her she can go to hell for all I care.”

Not unusual for any day in Aberdeen, rain drummed the sidewalk. The tables were all different, but all varnished wood. Probably picked up at the consignment shop down the road, the one whose storefront took up an entire block. On my table a small faceted glass vase held a bouquet of fake pansies. I used most of the surface of the table to stack all the books from by bag, lay down my open notebook, set out some pens, a pencil, a highlighter, plus a corner for my coffee and my empty bagel plate.

An hour after I would have been getting out of school for the day, I stepped out onto the sidewalk, green umbrella popped open. I walked the entire eight miles home.

When my mom asked, “How was your day today?” I said, “It was okay”, then took a bite of the peanut butter honey sandwich I’d just made and went upstairs.

I believe that this is how it started, with this day. A whim. A trip to the library. An afternoon at the coffee shop. A long walk home. After that, I couldn’t stop skipping class. I skipped school  so that I could haunt downtown Aberdeen: the library, the coffee shop, one of three thrift stores. No stranger seemed to notice or care and my mom didn’t figure it out for months.

I suppose there were lots of reasons I started skipping class. A better day for an introvert. A day spent pursuing my own curiosity, reading the books I wanted to read. The compulsion to find some solitude to write. That compulsion that continues even to this day. At least once per week, sometimes more, I find myself walking to work so tempted to turn left toward downtown.

 

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goldfish

A defense of prompts, an opportunity, and a goldfish

The other day I may have bought a few books at the Half-Priced Books 50% off sale. While the checker was scanning each book (took a while), one book (John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction) sparked a conversation about writing. Would this be a good book for creative writers?, the college-faced checker wanted to know, blowing his blond bangs off his face from one side of his mouth. Chris, who was standing eagerly behind me, said oh, yes, the prompts are fantastic. Hmmm. The checker, replied. I never write to prompts.

At that point we gathered our books and left, never knowing the real story of the HPB checker, who clearly had some aspirations to write creatively. But the moment made me think about prompts and why and what we use them for, how I feel about them. Look at the writing section of any bookstore and you will see oodles of books full of nothing but prompts. I’ve owned a number of these books. One that influenced me greatly as a young writer was Writing Down The Bones, a narrative with prompts meant to help you write fluidly and freely without fear.

Between the ages of 17 to say 25ish, I was part of several writing groups, some more successful than others, one or two at least that never grew beyond me sitting alone in a coffee shop writing to prompts, sure that next week some other writer eager to connect with other writers would join me. During this time, I wrote often to prompts. Sometimes those prompts became stories.

Now, I’ve written four novel-length stories and more stories than I can count. I’ve also learned the art of editing, the most important part of the writing process. Yet I still think it is important to write to prompts. To write without regard for what will come of what you’re writing. As writers we should have notebooks full of writing that is just for us, just for practice. That practice is how we become better writers. Use prompts to warm up. Use prompts to get unstuck. Use prompts to spend some time simply playing with words without the pressure of how those words hold up in service of the work you are doing for real, the art you are hoping to send out to the world.

So, today I give you a prompt. Write something with the word goldfish in it. If you send me what you wrote and your mailing address, I will send you a thank you for playing with me. In case you can’t find it anywhere else on this page, my email is eatyourwords,lizshine@gmail.com.

goldfish

Photo courtesy of fishtankbank.com

Now, having written for twenty minutes, including a line of dialogue in which a girl asks her parents “Well, can we at least get a goldfish?”, I am getting to my work of the day, picking up the novel I’m working on to see if I can find my way to the resolution of Chapter 3.

 

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feelings

A Room Of Our Own: Don’t Always Trust Your Feelings

A paragraph came without warning. I was reading Great House on the way to a wedding in Seattle. I didn’t even have a notebook to write it down, so I wrote in on the inside cover of my book. Hardback or not, I wasn’t going to lose that paragraph.

I’d been struggling to revive an old novel all summer. It was working about as well as it has for me in the past to revive old boyfriends. A couple of good dates while hope and nostalgia are still fresh, then boredom and reality sit in.

I wrote the first draft of that book in 2005.

I’ve always operated under the assumption that everything we ever write is worth returning to, that time and distance allow us to return with a fresh view.

Now I see that this is only true to a point.

What’s at the heart of a piece of writing comes from an urgent need to communicate an idea. Those urgencies change as we age and experience (resolving old questions, asking new ones).

That paragraph?

The beginning of the book I needed to be writing now.

The very next day I started in on it and as I mentioned last week my goal was 1000 words per day, every day. That was a week ago and my word count total is now 3515. As that number implies, I had successful days and not so successful days.

The first chapter came easily and the writing was pure bliss.

Day 1: 793 words

Day 2: 1813

Day 3: 2824

Day 4: 0

The second chapter was a slog. It had moments, but the narrative voice and immediacy of the action of chapter 1 were not there. I was telling too much. Too much backstory.

I started to question the project itself.

Day 5: 3629

Day 6: 3821

As if that weren’t bad enough, I started to question what the hell I was doing trying to write novels anyway.

Imagine me sprawled belly up on a bed in the middle of the afternoon, whining, “I just don’t know what I should work on or why the hell I’m even bothering. There are so many other things I could do with my time.”

That is exactly what happened.

At the time, my boyfriend was gracious. He complimented me, offered words of encouragement, and promptly grabbed his children and drove to the lake, leaving me to figure it out myself.

I cleaned the house.

Three hours later, forty minutes before our dinner guests arrived, I started to work on an opening for a different draft of a different story I am also working on. I wrote three possibilites. None of which I liked.

My feelings of failure as a writer were unresolved after our guests left, but I had better perspective. Our friend had asked me over dinner how my writing was going.

I surprised myself by the clarity of my answer. I told them about my day and was finally able to laugh at myself. It had been a bad day, I said, laughing.

I read the first chapter of the new story to my boyfriend after our guest left. He loved it! But I got stuck in chapter two, I explained. Send it to me, he said. “I’ll tell you where you went wrong.”

I sent it. We went upstairs to watch the next installment of Breaking Bad.

The next morning he did read both chapters and confirmed for me what I already knew and listened while I strategized. I would highlight everything I would cut later (the telling, the backstory), but not delete the words. Deleting wasn’t an option. Okay, he said. Highlight, then. I could start chapter two with this line, he said. Or this one, I replied.

Writing today went well. Very well.

If I had trusted my feelings yesterday, I would have deleted all the writing I’ve ever done.

 

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A Room Of Your Own: Wake Up Early

A few days ago I was whining to my best friend (also a writer) about how I lack discipline and am not writing consistently.

We have this conversation quite often. We both teach high school and have families. We both have a tendency to want to solve everyone else’s problems before our own. We both really want to publish a book some day.

Now, we know that means sitting down to write on a consistent basis. Daily, really. We just don’t always do what we know we need to do. Sound familiar?

It’s summer and if I choose to I can sleep in every day.

I really want to sleep in every day. I love sleeping in. I could sleep through anything.

The problem is than when I sleep in, by the time I get up, I am drawn into the daily grind and too distracted to settle in to write. I go through my day promising myself that I will get to it later.

Later, I am too tired.

The early morning is a writer’s paradise. The world is quiet and no one needs anything or wants to talk to you.

I didn’t exactly wake with the roosters this morning, but I did set an alarm and was ready to leave the house before 9.

My friend and I drove to Bayview Market downtown Olympia and sat outside trying to write to the squawking of seagulls (a nice soundtrack for writing, I think).

I struggled. It had been days since I’d really gotten into a flow. I was beginning to doubt everything. I considered leaving after writing only a page (it had been an hour). Look what you did! I told myself. You wrote a whole page! That’s good for a day, right?

But when I looked over and saw my friend, hands on home row, focused and still writing, I stayed on for more.

In the end, I had finished a chapter I felt good about and written an outline.

*reluctantly sets  alarm*

What sacrifices are you willing to make to achieve your writing goals?

 

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