Thursday, December 03, 2015

Homework for the Rest of Your Life

"Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life." - Lawrence Kasdan

At first blush the thought of having homework for the rest of my life sounds depressing. After journalism school, law school, and an M.F.A. program, I thought I was done with homework. But after giving it some thought, I realized having homework for the rest of my life might be a good thing.

First, it gives me a purpose. Chronic depression sometimes makes me question my reason for being. And I'm not talking about the state of the nation. My mind with its terrifying mental twists need not look beyond the four walls of my office to find a way to bring me down. Writing gives me a reason to exist. Writing gives me the motivation to carry on. That book won't write itself. It's waiting for me to show up.

Some days, writing gives me a reason to get up in the morning. Especially if I've made plans to meet another writer to work on my project while she works on hers, I'm more likely to make it out of bed and into the shower.

Writing is also an antidote to boredom. With writing, I have no reason to be bored. I have a book to edit, another to write, query letters, revisions, and on and on. There's not enough time to be bored.

It's also a multi-faceted cure for loneliness. My characters, real or imaged, keep me company. I'm rarely lonely when writing. Plus, when I immerse myself in the writing community, I have a host of like-minded friends who understand the trials and tribulations of attempting to put words on the page.

When I mentioned the idea of eternal homework to my husband, Ed, he extolled the benefits of "the eternal quest for knowledge!" I don't get that. He's an intellectual. I'm a gut person. But for him and others, writing as a quest for knowledge is a boon. Some people love seeking information and learning things they didn't know.

Of course, I could easily turn this homework business into a weapon and bludgeon myself with the work I haven't done or the lack of quality I perceive in the work I have done. That's why it's important to have good readers who want me to succeed. If I have chosen carefully who sees not only my early drafts, but even my more polished work, I have cheerleaders along the way.

So no. Having homework for the rest of my life is not a bad thing. Remind me of that the next time I complain. Okay?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Only You

"Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there'll always be better writers than you and there'll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or that - but you are the only you." - Neil Gaiman

When I was a little girl, I wrote about horses. As I got older, I wrote about the people I loved. Older still, I wrote about myself. My writing professors said, "Write what you know." I tried to oblige them.

I think Gaiman explains this concept more accurately. It's not that I have to write about horses, the people I love, or even myself, but I have to tell whatever story I'm telling from my perspective. I see the world through a particular lens. Any story I tell will have that frame of reference. Even in fiction, my personality will come through.

Let's say I choose an unreliable narrator. Even then, the story is mine because I choose how the narrator will hoodwink the reader. I select every detail. And my unconscious will have a lot to say about what decisions I make.

This, I believe, is a gift. If each of us is unique as a snowflake, then no two stories told by two different authors will be alike. There may be similarities, common themes, and familiar characters, but underneath, if we are true to ourselves, a special something will lie. The foundation will be our personality. And this is what makes our story marketable.

At least I hope this is true. I've written what I believe is my unique experience running a marathon. I'm a middle aged woman who was overweight when I began running. That's not unique by any means. I also suffer from several mental health challenges. That doesn't separate my story from those of others either. I run with my dog. I know plenty of folks who do that as well. But no one else has had the specific experience of living with my brain and body during this experience. No one else has had my precise thoughts and feelings as I walked (or ran) through this adventure. And that, I hope, is what will sell the book.

We'll see. I've done my final edits . . . for now. My next step is to begin querying agents. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

A Horrible, Exhausting Struggle . . . that I Love!

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” ― George Orwell

Writing a book isn't quite that bad or I wouldn't do it. And I make it more of a struggle than it has to be. I stall, him and haw, second guess myself, delude myself into thinking it will be a best-seller, then beat myself up for writing such drivel. Still, I have the affliction for which there is only one cure: writing. I have the bug. The illness. The fever. The plague. I've given up writing more times than I've brushed my teeth and I have good dental hygiene.

I'm at that "horrible, exhausting struggle" stage in the current draft of the book about running. The first draft was more like a fever. What I've got right now is the tail end of a nagging cold with a lingering cough and exhaustion. The worst is behind me, but it's still rough going.

I'm doing what our 4-H adviser used to call, "turning down the screws." It was the detail work we did before taking our animals or exhibits to the state fair. The pieces are in place, the screws are in, and you grit your teeth and tighten. It's tedious, precision work. The book must be in top shape before the next step. So I drag myself to the page and complain a lot, but I do it.

There's a saying in running, "Forward is a pace." That's my pace: forward. And for today, that's enough. I can see the end of this stage of the project. There may be a jagged cliff beyond my line of vision, but I'll deal with that when I get there. In the meantime, I'll tend to my symptoms and continue working on the book.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Habit

"First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice." - Octavia E. Butler

Several writing habits keep me involved in the practice. The first is an on-line writing group I joined back in 1999 after attending several writing workshops with Natalie Goldberg. A group of us formed an email list. We agreed to send eight ten-minute writing practices to each other. Eventually the list grew and now it is a listserv, but there are still a handful of us writing and sending these writes to each other.

This newsletter is another set of habits. Throughout the month I gather events that I see in the paper or other sources and individuals email events to me. On the first of the month I scan fifty to sixty websites for more events. On the third of the month, the day the newsletter is due, often at the last minute, I write an essay to include.

I rarely know what I will write about ahead of time. Sometimes I use a quotation to feed my thoughts. Other times I take the dog for a long, slow walk and an idea will form. And sometimes I do sitting meditation and allow an essay to arise that way. It's as if my body and mind know that it's the third of month, time for the essay, because only a few times when I've been in extreme emotional distress have I been at a loss for words. These habits have served me well.

What habits do you use to get the writing done? I'd love to hear about them.

Monday, August 03, 2015

How Deep Are You Willing to Go?

"Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean." — Christopher Reeve

Saturday I taught my semi-annual class, Writing From the Inside Out. Teaching reminds me of all the things I forget between classes. I have to review the materials, especially the rules of writing practice I learned from Natalie Goldberg, and be awake enough to explain them to other people.

We had an splendid mix of novelists, poets, lyricists, memoirists, and children's book authors. They asked interesting questions and each contributed to the conversation. One woman lamented that the in-class writing practice was taking her places she didn't want to go. This gave me the opportunity to talk about Natalie's suggestion to "go for the jugular" meaning to dive into the dark scary places that come up.

The reason for this "rule" is simple. Those unwanted memories lie below the surface whether we write about them or not. You wind up writing around them. Either they crowd out the more important things you want to say or, more often, they are the important things you need to say. That's where the heat is, the juice of the writing. If we don't at least acknowledge these dark places, they fester and interrupt the writing flow. Better to get them out in the open and shred or burn the writing practice later if you must, than let these unspoken truths suppress our writing dreams.

My writing is no different. In my current book project, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I had to face some dark places in my mental health journey in order to show how much running has done for me. There was no hiding. To do so would have cheated both the reader and myself.

Are you willing to go out in the ocean with your writing? How deep are you willing to dive to pursue your dreams?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

When is it done?

"Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other." - James Scott Bell

When do you know a project is finished? I'm not done with the book about running. I continue to layer the mental health thread through it. And I'm not sure even after I finish that if I'll be ready to let my baby fly.

When can you let it go? When is it ready to see more than just the eyes of the few folks you've entrusted to give you feedback. The essays and magazine articles I've written were only completed with a deadline. There could have been another round of edits, another writing practice to find the perfect description, another review by someone else. But I had to let each piece go. An editor was waiting.

I haven't sold any of my books before I've written them so it's different. I'm the one creating the deadline and it hasn't worked that well. I'm a critical critic, an evil critic even. The product is never good enough. Now honestly, the previous book-length projects haven't been finished, not even the one about my father that I worked on for a decade. The shape is still not there. It might be good enough for someone else, but it's not enough for me.

That's the dilemma. How do I get it to a place where it's ready for me to let it go? Perhaps it would be easier if I did have an agent or an editor. Perhaps then I would accept that person's judgment and say, "They say it's done, so it must be done." But I'm not sure if even that will soothe my perfectionistic heart. There is so much space between the idea that's in the mind and the black and white squiggles on the page. A vast distance, that.

What's a writer to do? For today, I will continue to work. And when it feels right inside of me, I'll start sending it off to agents. I might have to ask for help letting go. We'll do some ritual. We'll chant or do an incantation. Then we'll burn a symbolic copy of the manuscript and toast it with decaf lattes.

How do you let a manuscript go -- other than by abandoning it? This is an area where I really need to grow!

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Daydreaming

“Every exceptional writer holds a Master of Arts in Daydreaming.” ― Richelle E. Goodrich

Daydreaming gets a bad rap. In our culture, if your mind wanders, you are labeled lazy and unproductive, two of the worst things you can be called.

In her Tedx Talk Rosanne Bane, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, explains the importance of daydreaming.

Bane confirms that writers and other creative types need to daydream. Daydreaming is a different mind process from focusing on tasks. Daydreaming allows parts of the brain to connect that don't normally talk to each other during a task-oriented focus.

Bane suggests allowing yourself to daydream while you're standing in line at a store or other times when you might normally stare at your smartphone. I'd add meditation and writing practice to the mix.

In meditation, while sitting quietly attempting to focus on your breath, the mind is bound to wander because that's what minds do. They generate thoughts. Meditation is inherently creative. Ideas pop into the mind and solutions arise that can't be force by trying to focus on the problem.

Writing practice produces similar results. If you keep the hand moving and write down whatever thoughts arise, that too feels like daydreaming except the hand is recording it as it flows. Many conclusions come during writing practice.

Do you allow yourself to daydream? As writers, we owe ourselves what some might call this "guilty pleasure." If someone says you're dawdling, direct him to Rosanne Bane's Tedx Talk. Explain how deep daydreaming leads to realizations. Daydreaming is part of the writer's job!

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Embrace the Suck

Yesterday at the Capital City Half Marathon, my pace coach Lynne brought signs for those of us who were cheering. Her sign read, "Embrace the suck." We stood at the twelfth mile of this thirteen point one mile race greeting the runners and walkers who had just climbed a hill. "One more mile!" we shouted. Their sweat-stained faces were filled with exhaustion. When they read Lynne's sign, most laughed. When they saw the twelve mile marker behind us, all of their faces lit up. They were so close to finishing.

I sometimes feel this exhaustion when I'm writing. I've revised and revised and received positive feedback, but there's still so far to go. Some days writing is difficult. Unlike the runners, I don't know how far I am from the finish, but I know it's out there. There's nothing to do, but face the difficulties and push onward.

At a recent writing retreat some friends and I were discussing how many hours we spend trying to make writing less difficult. We concluded that perhaps ninety-five percent of the time we're supposed to feel lost and worried that we don't know what we're doing. Maybe we've been mistaken trying to make it easier. Maybe expecting it to be hard might make it easier to embrace it when it is.

I don't have an answer to this question. Writing isn't always tough. Often it brings such joy I feel like the luckiest person alive. But on the more frustrating days I worry I've chosen a path of torture. That's when there's nothing left to do but embrace the suck and run up that hill toward the finish.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Learning to Sparkle

"Success rests in having the courage and endurance and, above all, the will to become the person you are, however peculiar that may be." - George Sheehan

I recently discovered sparkle running skirts. Today as the dog and I ran through our neighborhood I wore a multi-colored skirt with attached shorts and a matching tech shirt. I felt like a middle-aged woman parading as a little girl, but I'm practicing being the person I am. I need to practice this with writing as well.

Deep into the revision process of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, my memoir about running, I realized I'd need to show more of myself than I'm comfortable with. The book is subtitled, "The Memoirs of an Emotionally Unstable, Middle-aged Marathoner." The current draft has plenty of middle-age stuff and the beginning shows my mental health challenges, but a beta reader confirmed my fear that I'd lost the mental health thread halfway through. It was there in the first draft. I found it embarrassing and took it out. Now I need the courage to put some of it back.

The "emotionally unstable" part makes the book special. The mental health angle, I hope, will catch the eye of an agent and editor and differentiate my book from the other health and fitness memoirs on the bookstore shelves. For the book to do this, I'll need to show how peculiar I am and reveal some secrets I've kept hidden. It's terrifying and necessary. I'm afraid people will turn away. But I owe it to the book and to myself. And I owe it to the reader. The subtitle makes a promise. And nothing pisses off a reader more than a promise unfulfilled.

How do you keep your promises to your readers even when it's terrifying? I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

A Contact Sport

"Writing is like a contact sport, like football. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it." - Irwin Shaw

I'm incredibly fortunate. In MFA school where critiques can be brutal, professors Aimee Liu, Diana Gould, and Victoria Nelson were gentle in their criticism of my graduate school work. Their words were sometimes difficult to hear, but they weren't mean or bitter and I knew they wanted nothing but the best for me.

Recently a former MFA advisor from the college I attended, thankfully he never advised me, wrote an essay criticizing his students after he had resigned. In reading his essay, I'm not sure why anyone wanted to study with him anyway. He had little respect for his students except for a handful he referred to as the "real deal." If I'd been assigned to him I would have asked for a different advisor as others did. And no, I'm not going to dignify him by linking his article or giving his name. If you must, sniff the interwebs for a recent essay by a jaded former MFA professor.

So be careful choosing who reads your work. Back in 2002, a close friend who had just begun to write made the mistake of giving her work to a former English teacher she met at yoga. There's nothing inherently wrong with former English teachers or yoga, but my friend realized too late that this woman was angry and blocked. There's little more effective than a blocked writer armed with the rules of grammar to kill a fledgling writer's mojo. The teacher's comments were petty and stung enough that my friend has written hardly a word since. Stories like this are endless. Some might say my friend wasn't meant to write if she couldn't withstand the criticism. I disagree. I think she subjected herself to criticism too early and trusted her work to the wrong kind of person before she'd built some resilience.

For my previous books, I hired two different editors after researching and getting references. I found their feedback genuine and helpful even though it sometimes hurt. Through the years, I've also carefully gathered a supportive net of what the youngsters like to call "beta readers." I've met these writers through classes, groups, and happy coincidences. For the manuscript of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I chose both runners and non-runners. But all were writers in some stage of an active writing process. None of them were blocked and none of them struck me as angry, bitter people. I respect each of them and will gladly read each of their work in return. Much of the feedback I've received is positive and the recommended changes honest and respectful. This is the kind of criticism I can hear.

How do you find critique partners for your work? How have you built a spine to help you hear criticism? I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Ten Minutes at a Time

"Your toughness is made up of equal parts persistence and experience. You don't so much outrun your opponents as outlast and outsmart them, and the toughest opponent of all is the one inside your head." - Joe Henderson

When faced with a task, if I spend too much time in my head, I'll convince myself I can't do it and won't even try. In the mid-1980s when I read Natalie Goldberg's best-selling book Writing Down the Bones, I learned to use a timer to combat this problem. She set one for ten minutes, said "Go!" and wrote without stopping. This practice still works three decades later. Whether it's keeping my hand moving in writing practice, editing a manuscript, or tackling a cluttered shelf in my office, the timer produces results.

First, I choose a task. It must be specific. Once the task is defined, I set the timer and Go! It might be reading part of a manuscript until the ten minute timer goes off. If ideas for changes come, which they often do, I'll start the timer again and begin revising. Sometimes it means reading page edits someone has given me. It's daunting to see what another person thinks of my work. So I set the timer and read until it goes off. I don't give myself time to think, just read. Once I've gotten started it's easier to make notes as I go. The key is to get into motion and stay out of the negative place in my head. With the finite period set by the timer, I can do nearly anything.

I keep kitchen timers all over the house, one in every room, to help me with all manner of tasks. It creates a pressure cooker effect that expands time and helps me focus on the task instead of worrying about how many minutes I have to go.

Other programs use this technique. Pomodoro has an app. HIIT exercise (short for "high intensity interval training") is all the rage. For me, it began with Natalie's simple suggestion of ten minute intervals. I can do anything for ten minutes. The timer is the "gym boss" at my desk turning difficult tasks into manageable ten-minute interval workouts.

Do you use a timer or some other similar technique? I'd love to hear about it.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Best Remedy

"Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness." - James Thurber

I have a vivid imagination. Unfortunately it lists toward the negative. If my mind drifts too far into the future, it projects tons of excruciating work followed by showers of rejection letters not to mention the death of all my family members, friends, and the dog. Some people can project a future filled with success. My mind won't play that game.

The past is no better. There I relive regret for work I've failed to complete, anger at imagined slights, and pain over the actual deaths of family members, friends, and our former dogs. Days gone by offer no solace.

Meditation helps me stay in the moment. Each breath brings relief from the relentless barrage of thoughts pushing to and fro. And after sitting there is nothing to do, but open the notebook and get to work. Work is the best remedy.

Only the present is safe. In the actual work I find peace. I relax into writing, taking tiny steps one after another. There my mind hums.