Tag Archives: writinglife

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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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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nanowrimo novel writing

Reflections on Nanowrimo at the midpoint, plus the not-so-sexy-after-all struggle

Yesterday morning I made it to 25,800 words on my Nanowrimo novel. My writing morning went as usual, with one significant difference. My alarm blared Bryan Adams “I’m Gonna Run To You” (Jack FM) at 4 AM and I slammed down the snooze button. Twenty minutes later “Come On Feel The Noize” and I slammed down the snooze button again. I got dressed, made coffee while the dogs ate fresh heaps of kibble, then donned my faux fur lined jacket for a walk which only a few months ago I took wearing shorts and flip-flops. Now it’s dark and cold and even the dogs want to just get down to business.

I pour two cups of coffee with cream, placed a plate over the top of one to keep it warm, because although Chris’s alarm will go off any  minute, he’ll also want some snooze time. I sit at my writing desk, set my electric blanket across my lap (thank you, Carrie), then I start a session of freedom.

What’s freedom, you ask? It’s an internet blocking service I’ve known about for a while, but didn’t use. I choose a sixty minute session. This is my fourth day of freedom and I have seen the light. True, I can’t fact-check as I go, can’t look up synonyms to get the wording just right, can’t check my email “real quick”, can’t find the perfect pop culture reference for the time or browse books published the year my story takes place.

I have no choice to keep writing forward.

I’ve known for a long time that this was a good way to write a first draft, but for me struggle is the sexy dark horse. Meaning, it would be too easy to take that good advice I’ve come up against again and again. I am that person who when the yoga instructor says to pay attention to how it feels in your body, I think it’s a “good stretch” when there is a dull throbbing pain up and down my leg. Because I tend to stubbornly persist through whatever quagmire I find myself in. Because I am a person who works hard and perseveres and is resilient. Why would I take an easier way out? Plus, I can be a bit of perfectionist with my sentences, reading them aloud until they’re just so.

Why has it taken me so long to understand two thing that I teach high school students all the time?

 

  1. Have a process.

 

As I teen I was fascinated by ritual, terrified by the idea of falling into too many patterns, imprisoning myself. I was obsessed with trying to force spontaneity. The paradox I’ve discovered in writing (and perhaps it applies to life too) is that the more ritual I have, the more spontaneous my writing can become. There is a freedom in the space of writing when the creative mind is familiar with that territory, has been there before, when the process is clear. Also, patterns will emerge, with or without your input. Don’t you want to have input? Don’t you know better than your fear? Your laziness? Your self-loathing?

 

Be as specific about your process as you can. Borrow from others. Don’t worry about whether it’s perfect for you. Pick something and try it for a while. Your process can and will change, but you’ve got to have one.

What times and days will you write?

What are the rules for writing your first draft?

What will you look for in your first revision?

At what point will you invite other people into your work? For what purpose?

 

Keep a logbook and/or spreadsheet of each time you write or edit to track your work over time. Include in your logbook notes about struggles that emerge for you in your work.

 

  1. Time, place, manner.

 

Have a process and trust it. Draw boundaries for the steps of your process. What parts of your writer self will you invite in with the first draft? Will you kick the editor out? What will it take for you to do that? What will you focus on for the second draft? The third?

My process for the past 20+ years has been to sit down and write, then go back and revise. It was a miracle when I sat down to write at all, and when I did, it was often a battle with aspects of myself, particularly the one who wants to write the story and the one who wants to pick it apart along the way. While I’m writing the first draft of the novel I’m working on now, I’m making a list of revision consideration for the second draft. Writing them on that list is my way of setting them aside for now. I am learning to hold myself to the idea of a first draft. I’ve heard this advice over and over again. The struggle was too sexy. I couldn’t resist. But I’m getting it now. I no longer think cool boys in leather jackets are enticingly mysterious and I get that writing can be more or less difficult. More difficult if you don’t follow a plan, including to show up every day. There is a time to pick apart your sentences. It isn’t in the first draft. Just like there is a time to talk about your grade in my class. it’s not in front of the whole class, in the middle of explaining a new present moment assignment. Oh, and put your phone away. You should have checked your grades before you came to class.

 

What’s your process? How do you make it happen?

 

 

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dandelion

A reminder to Make Time.

Hello writer friends!
By this time of year I’ve normally posted an anxiety fueled post about the start of the school year, the subtext of which is always HOW IN THE HELL AM I GOING TO FIND TIME TO WRITE? The title of this blog is called Make Time for good cause. Make Time is a tip of my hat to a truth that’s taken me a youth to arrive at. We don’t find time for anything. If it matters, we Make Time.
What can really drive you crazy is when you can’t find time because you are making time to please and impress everyone else around you. Your laundry is folded on Sunday. Your lesson plans are hot enough to post on Teachers Pay Teachers (yet another potential distraction promising immediate monetary compensation for your ideas). And by crazy I mean dreadfully unhappy, jealous, and resentful. That is what happens when you don’t Make Time for the creative impulse that is calling you particularly.

Why have I not posted such a blog yet? When we’re now six weeks into the school year already?

Well, I’ve been busy writing. I just looked at my writing logs, and–WOW–I’ve been keeping a regular schedule since April 1. No fooling! I get up between 4 and 4:30 most weekday morning to write, plus I write Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and on weekends. When I wake up to write in the morning, I open a word file, not my web browser (distraction!)

When I stop to think about it, I fall to my knees and kiss the ground. I’ve been trying to find time since the 90s and much of that time has been me wishing time would fall in my lap while I dutifully went about making other people’s lives easier.

This morning, after writing, I spent some time sifting through old files on my computer, getting organized. I found this folder FULL of articles I’d downloaded from EBSCO Host in 1995, all on the craft of writing. I smiled to recall myself then, eager as now to write. That was the year my son was born. He’s twenty now. What other permission do I need than that to carry on? That’s no short lived impulse.

Writing exposes us, along with all our fears and doubts. Good writing requires solitude in the drafting, an audience in revision. You must take what matters to you and make it matter to readers. This is not something you find time for. You can do better than that, my friend.

Make Time.

 

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makeawish

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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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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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comfort zone

Get out of your comfort zone

This is easier said than done, yet this is the message I’m hearing loud and clear. A message without pretense or subtlety. Let me explain what I mean, and also how it applies to my writing life–and, perhaps, applies to you and the work you’re doing too.
I am a cautious person for good reason. There has been little security or stability in my life. Until now. In response to a tumultuous life, I have nurtured certain aspects of my character: strength, independence, and shrewdness among them. I am not comfortable in vulnerability, dependence, or non-judgment. Like everyone else I have zones of comfort I prefer to stay in. This is the nature of survival. Yet, as an educator, I understand that after basic needs are accounted for, we each have exponential potential for growth and the way to expand our potential as human beings is to get uncomfortable. This is how we get better at math and it’s also how we develop compassion.

So, back to this message I’ve been receiving. In these past couple of years I’ve gotten away from a regular yoga practice, and lately I’ve been trying to get back to the mat. I am not as strong, not as balanced, not as flexible, not as focused. Classes for me have never been a necessity, just an occasional treat. I began practicing yoga at fifteen and had no idea classes even existed. I’m sure in 1989 I wouldn’t have found one in Aberdeen or Hoquiam anyway. But I had books, and books are definitely my comfort zone. I’ve practiced yoga over the years with dozens of books propped open next to my mat. However, that wasn’t working for me this time. I’d lost the passion and curiosity, needed to be led back into practice. So I signed up for two yoga series, one with my husband, one on my own.

The series I’m taking on my own turns out to be way out of my comfort zone. It’s all women and what I call woo-woo. There’s hugging, chanting, and all sorts of verbal sharing, plus tea and conversation for an undefined length of time after class. I am introverted and struggle when called to make small talk. From the first class I knew this group would not be without awkward moments for me ( though I do like the class and the people in it), but being out of my comfort zone is precisely what is calling to me right now. I just figured this out, on a walk after my second class. And just as this insight came to me, my phone buzzed. Regarding a different matter, my Dad had texted me “thanks for stepping out of your comfort zone”.

Here’s where I come to the part about writing. As I walked on, my mind went to Suz, the central character in a collection of short stories I’m writing about food and body image, and how both are connected to love and happiness. As I walked, I imagined Suz in my new yoga class and understood whether that exactly needed to happen, it definitely needed to happen. Meaning I need to get Suz out of her comfort zone. You see what I’m getting at here? Good fiction demands we put our characters in uncomfortable situations. As writers, we’ll be better at that if we’re willing to do the same.

 

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A celebration of the pause.

149773_499110317246_6071155_n

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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lion pose

The Power of Play

At risk of sounding like the worst of self-help gurus, I’m going to sound off about the power of play in nurturing (yes, I said nurturing) a consistently productive creative practice. And at risk of insulting the dead, I’m calling for an end to the tortured, self-loathing writer. I’ll begin by telling the story that inspired me to write this.
Despite all my prayers that my son and only child would not struggle with the reticence and hyperconsciousness that I struggled with and that his father struggled with even more and despite the fact that at home he is opinionated and animated (and I mean animated like a cartoon character), he assures me, he is “shy”. Assures isn’t the word—he insists he is shy. So, I try not to dwell on it, not to smother him with encouragement, but to encourage him–damn it–encourage him. Though he was leery about playing basketball for his middle school because of the public spectacle of the competition, he loves to play. He was worried about being on the student news station they show every morning in home room. He was just worried that he’d be too shy to succeed. I acknowledged his feelings and made him try. Now, if he was that shy, there would have been no pushing him. It was to my relief that he reluctantly conceded the point.
How happy was I when he returned from his first practice red-cheeked and smiling? So happy! I knew he would sail through the first three weeks—only practice—and prayed that come time for his first game, camaraderie would trump “shy”. That didn’t exactly happen. The first three games weren’t painful, but I could tell from his reports that he was holding back on the court.
Now, here’s where I get to the point. Friday after the third game, his coach set up a practice based solely on play. He came home elated—chattering about kids laughing so hard they couldn’t dribble.
“You know how I’m usually so shy when I dribble?”
“Uh-huh.” I said.
“Well, today I wasn’t…and he was laughing so hard he couldn’t shoot…and I played so hard.”
“Uh-huh.” I said.
“The point guard said I should be point guard…he said I should be on varsity.”
“Uh-huh.” I said, thinking Yes! Yes! Yes!
And, what do you know? The next game he scored three points and said, “Now that everyone knows I can dribble, the expect me to…”
Yes! Yes! Yes!
I am overjoyed that he is conquering his self-diagnosed shyness, and every day when he comes home, this pattern of growth continues. Yes! Yes! Yes!
What does this have to do with writing? In order to push forward in producing work in spite of all the obstacles we face, there is this too often untapped resource—play. Here are some ways to not take yourself too seriously and so write more and feel better about it:
1. Put on your favorite dance tune. For me that’s Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”. Let loose.
2. Get outside and play first, then write. A tuned-in walk about town? Frisbee? Fetch with the dog?
3. Give yourself permission to write the worst lines. Do it on purpose. Write the sappiest, most trite, worst stuff you’ve ever written. Read it aloud.
4. Bite, poke, or otherwise harass a friend on facebook.
5. Brig a whoopee cushion to your writer’s group.
6. Kick your feet while you write, or engage in playful fidgeting of your choice.
7. Wear a funny hat while you write.
8. Write upside down (intentionally left up to your interpretation).
9. Doodle in the margins.
10. Fill a page with writing. Then, fold it into a paper airplane and send it sailing.

 

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