Living the Astonishing Writer’s Life (A Love Letter)

As you read this, I’ll be finishing up a five-day stay in Louisville, Kentucky, after a conference/celebration at Spalding University, where I got my MFA.  The celebration part was to honor Sena Jeter Naslund, the founder and long-time director of the MFA program, who is retiring.

Sena is the author of many wonderful novels, including my favorite, Ahab’s Wife, and is also an amazing teacher and inspiring speaker.  One of the things she says is, “writers get everything everyone else does—plus the pleasures of a writing life.”

That quote encompasses everything about the life of a writer and why it is the best life imaginable.  We get everything everyone else does—and more.  And, conversely, everything in our non-writing world (that part everybody else gets) impacts our writing world.  It’s sort of like the double helix of the DNA strand—our writing and civilian lives combine and recombine, constantly fertilizing and enriching the other.

A walk on a beautiful fall day inspires description for a novel. A snippet of overheard dialogue makes its way into a scene.  Reading a book deepens your understanding of your main character.  And you also get to enjoy those things as aspects of living life.  A beautiful fall day, some interesting eavesdropping, the pleasures of sinking into the world of a book.

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your astonishment,” says Annie Dillard.  “Instructions for living a life: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it,” says Mary Oliver.  We writers are the lucky ones because we get to not only be astonished, but then tell about it.   We get to live twice, as Natalie Goldberg points out.

And that, my friends, is astonishing, no?

I do often wonder how non-writers make it through. I can’t imagine living without a writing practice, be it journaling, writing this newsletter, or crafting novels, in which to process my thoughts and figure things out.  How do people live without a container in which to place their astonishment at the world?

Aren’t you glad you’re a writer? Leave a comment and tell me the best part about being one.

 

 

Don’t listen to writing advice (A love letter)

One day this week, I rose at 5 AM.  I worked for an hour and a half—nailed the organization of a book project—and then drove to my son’s house for emergency babysitting duty at 6:30. By 9 AM that morning I’d knocked a big item off my to-do list, watched George, eaten breakfast and done the crossword, showered and gotten ready for the rest of the day.

I love getting up early. It’s when I get my best writing done, and over the years my brain and body have adjusted to this and cooperate by waking me with the dawn, or before, naturally.  Rising early works for me.  But I’m donesies by dinner—I’ll do no work requiring energetic thought after 7, and by 9 I’ll be dozing in front of the TV.

So if you asked me to advise you on the best schedule for productivity, I would enthusiastically endorse waking early, telling you that by creating time to do what’s most important to you first, you set yourself up for success the whole day.

But consider my friend Robin.  She gets her best work done starting about the time I’m dozing off. By midnight, she’s in full work mode, often staying up until 2 or 3 AM. And I know not to text her first thing in the morning, because she sleeps in until 10 or 11.

If you asked Robin the secret to productivity, she’d tell you to stay up late.

My point, which I’m sure you’re already gotten, is that what works for me may not work for you. This goes for how your schedule your days, how you live your life, and yes, how you write. We are all different, thank God.

There are a ton of experts online and elsewhere who want to tell you how to write and when to do it. I’m one of them!  Many will try to convince you that their way is the only way. But don’t listen to us. You know best what works for you.

And, here’s the caveat to this: you are responsible for figuring out what works best, for following your own path.  And that’s not as easy as it sounds, and its where we “experts” come in. Read what we have to say, absorb it, put our brilliant advice to use and see how it works.

Experts can help light many ways, but only you can figure out what way is best. Knowing yourself is a lifelong pursuit.

Please do feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you’ve taught yourself!

Go With The Flow

This morning when I got up at my usual early hour (made even earlier this week with the time switch), I had plans to work on the rewrite of my novel. Because that’s what I do when I get up early to write. It is my sacred time, devoted only to writing fiction. (Except for those times when I, ahem, devote it to reading blogs and interesting news articles.) It is part of my daily morning routine.

But this morning I awoke and the juicy bits at the top of my brain were for newsletters.  (Which, if you don’t know, I send out every week–I post them here but you can get them right into your inbox by filling out the form to the right.)

So I did what any self-respecting writer would do–I argued with myself. Told myself I HAD TO WORK ON THE NOVEL AND NOTHING ELSE.  But the newsletters wouldn’t let hold of my mind. And when I tried to connect with my novel, nothing was there. It was like a blank wall in my brain.

And so I grudgingly did what my brain was telling me to do.  I ended up knocking out two newsletters (I’ll be out of town next week so I’m setting one up ahead of time) in no time at all.

What would have happened if I hadn’t gone with the flow? Knowing me, I most likely wouldn’t have gotten either the newsletters or the work on the novel done. Instead, in trying to force my brain somewhere it didn’t want to go, I would have ended up not doing either and heading off to my procrastination default of farting around on the internet.

And now, later on in the afternoon, I’m going to steal an hour or so to work on that novel rewrite after all–because I got everything else done. So sometimes it is a good idea to release expectations of what you should be doing. We should ourselves way too much anyway.

What do you should yourself about? Leave a comment!

On Writing and Determination (A Love Letter)

Hi Writers,

I babysat my 10-month-old grandson George one day this week, as I do most weeks, and as he gets older and more mobile I’m struck by one thing: his determination.

He’ll attempt to climb on his rocking moose, for instance, but miss and plop on the floor. Up he scrabbles again.  Then he discovers the moose’s handles, but in so doing, takes a header. Cries for a minute, starts over again. He’s teaching himself to walk by pushing chairs across the dining room floor.  Up, walk, walk, walk, fall, cry or sometimes not, up again, walk some more.

The sheer amount of effort it takes to grow from a baby into even a tiny toddling-size human is astounding, and I’m constantly in awe of his determination to get there. And observing George reminds me that writing takes energy and determination, too, just of a more cerebral kind.

I’m not naturally good at it.  Determination, I mean.  Sometimes I wonder what people would say my biggest tragic flaw is and I think I know—I give up too easily.  I remember how, early in my career, I got good comments from agents when I sent out novels but the faintest whiff of rejection and I got discouraged and quit. I also often made the rookie writer mistake of hiding something I’d written away when somebody critiqued it.  Note: I said critiqued it, not criticized. Big difference. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I wasn’t good enough.

I lost faith in myself.  Over and over and over again.

And that’s the underlying key here, the one that I’ve discovered as I’ve aged. Determination is tied to faith in yourself. Because that’s when I quit. When I convince myself I’m not good enough.  When I lose confidence.  When I get scared I don’t have what it takes. I think that’s when we all quit.  If you have no confidence in yourself, it is hard to go out and face the big, scary world.

But—and here’s a big but—I’ve learned this about myself over the years. It is my natural tendency (yours, too?) to flounder when it comes to having determination and faith in myself.  (Getting older is good for some things. Quite a few things, actually.) And so now I can catch myself when I’m quitting because someone said boo to me. Or if I start worrying too much about product versus process when I’m writing. (As in: what will my agent think of this? What will my beta readers think? What will the public think? And of course, the thing is, the public will never have a chance to think anything about it because the writing won’t see the light of day if I keep second-guessing myself.)

Babies are good for reminding adults of lots of things, especially when said adults are grandparents and have a bit more distance from in-the-trenches, day-to-day parenting.  And what George reminds me of is this: we’re all born with this determination, or we wouldn’t be walking, talking adults.

And so next time you get rejected by an editor or agent, remember this.  Next time you throw up your hands in disgust because you think your writing isn’t good enough, remember.  Next time you decide you don’t have what it takes to finish Nanowrimo, remember.

Remember and go back to the page. Or back to the next person on your agent list. Go back to that novel rewrite. You can do this. You just gotta muster up a bit more determination. But I know it’s there somewhere.  It has to be—you got this far, didn’t you?

Leave a comment and tell me about a time you used your determination. Or just say hi.

On Fitting it All (Including Writing) In, A Love Letter

Meditation. Love it or swear you’re going to scream if you hear someone say the word one more time, right?

I had a great meditation practice established for a long time.  Fifteen or twenty minutes every day, sometimes even twice a day. I loved meditating. It made me calmer, helped me focus better, and expanded my creativity.  It felt like putting my brain through the laundry.   Never mind that half the time I fell asleep during the rinse cycle. I always came out feeling mentally bright, shiny, and new.

And then I stopped. For a variety of reasons, most of which were subconscious.

For one thing, I went to France for a month. There, I was busy each day teaching, writing, eating lots of fish, and drinking the good, cheap, local wine. There wasn’t a lot of time for meditation.  Because: good, cheap, wine. And lots of good people to drink it with. And, to be honest, I forgot about it.

But there was also walking, and lots of it. Walking into town several times a day, walking to gaze at the nearby Mediterranean, walking to partake of some of that divine wine and food.  And walking was a big deal for me. Because for the last few years, walking, one of the things I’ve loved to do best in the world, has been painful. Sometimes very painful, thanks to mild arthritis in my left knee.

This year, though, I was determined to be able to walk as much as I wanted in France. And so I got a cortisone shot. Went to physical therapy several times a week. Rode a stationary bike to build up my leg muscles. And yes, I walked a ton in Collioure and Paris.  When I came home, I wanted to keep walking.  And so the time designated for exercise every day has become devoted to physical exercise, not mental.

And there went the meditation practice.

Lately, though, I’ve been missing it a lot. I’m working on finding time to fit it back into my life. Along with walking or riding bike.  And eating, and showering, and reading, and answering emails and all the other things that make up my day. And oh yeah, that other thing—writing.

Doing all the things that are good for us to do take time.  I put off having my hair cut or getting a pedicure because those things take time.  Which I’m forever trying to find more of, my main goal in life finding more time to write.  Yes, writing takes time. Lots of it. And it takes devoted time, time when I’m able mentally and emotionally to focus on putting words on the page. Because that is the crux of it, isn’t it?  When I’m trying to make time in my life, it’s because I want time to write.  When I’m doing things that are good for me, it’s because I hope they will enhance the writing.

And yet.

I so seem to have time to read my favorite blogs.  Scan the news sites.  Look at Ravelry for knitting patterns, or Etsy for tools.  I’ve realized, though, that something all these activities have in common is that they are about consuming. The things that really make me happy are about creating. Creating a strong mind, physical health, books to be read, warm shawls to wrap around me on a gloomy, gray afternoon.

And creating takes more energy, whether it is physical or mental, than consuming. But in our culture, consuming has become the predominant activity, fed by the 24-hour news cycle and a voracious online marketing machine. (Which I’ve got nothing against, I do just about all of my shopping online these days.)

I’m pretty sure there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do. But I do know that taking a closer look at the things I’m actually doing—consuming versus creating—makes me much more aware. And hopeful that I can tip the balance most often toward creating.

So, yeah, that’s about all I’ve got for you. No magic answer. I don’t know quite how to fit everything I need to do into my life. But I do know this. Whether it is meditation, or walking, or writing, when I practice it, even a little, I feel better. I’m a big believer in the Kaizen theory of life—that taking tiny, small steps leads to big improvement over time.

And to start taking those small steps, we need to be deliberate in our choices. When I think about it, that’s the key.  Becoming deliberate and mindful in choosing what I want to do at any given moment, as opposed to going into easy, default mode.  Choosing creating over consuming.  And maybe, just maybe, creating enough time in the day to meditate and walk—after I’m done writing, of course.

Why Writing is Like Eating (A Love Letter)

If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time, you know that I’m a big believer in doing things your own way.  In whatever way works for you.  How you want to do it. As long as you do it, the process is yours to decide. Right?  Ask any of my family and friends, and they’ll tell you I’m independent to a fault.  It’s that “to a fault” part that I want to talk about today.

Because sometimes being independent becomes the cause in and of itself, for no other reason than stubbornness. And this harms me.  Often, for instance, I won’t read a bestseller because everyone else is reading it, and I want to be independent. Then I read the book and love it. Or I’ll resist buying a Mac because I don’t want to be part of the cult of Apple worshippers. Then I buy one and love it.

I see this manifest in other writers, my students and clients, all the time. After all, we creative types tend toward the fringes of society, the edges where the independents reside.  And so we don’t like it when people tell us we have to do something. Like revise our first draft, written in glorious wild independence without thought of grammar or structure or rules. Or work on our writer platforms.  Who, me, stoop to marketing? Uh-uh.  I’m too busy writing with fierce abandon.

A friend of mine took her book proposal to a conference to pitch it. The multiple agents she met with told her it was one of the best proposals they’d ever seen—but to contact them in a year when she’d developed some kind of platform. Because she had nada—not even a website—because she’d been too busy writing. And being independent.  But publishers wouldn’t even look at her work without some kind of social media presence.  Despite how good the proposal was.

I tell variations on this to my people all the time—how they need to establish a platform, build a list, write a blog, do social media.  Market themselves.  And they ignore me.  “I’m too busy writing,” they tell me.   Or, “I’ll do it when I get a contract.” (Reread the previous paragraph please.) Or, “I don’t know how.”

Well, learn it.  There’s a million tutorials out there, many of them free. Because unless you are Stephen King or Danielle Steele, you’re going to have to do some marketing.  And it is not just for the indies out there.  Major publishers expect you to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to marketing.

But this is not a love letter about marketing. It is about doing those things you don’t want to do, even though you are a fiercely independent wild creative type. Like me.  And here comes the part where I compare your writing career to eating.  When it comes to food, we have to face the fact that we cannot eat everything (like sweets and junk food) we want all the time and maintain any kind of health.

I really am sorry to tell you this. I wish I could eat French fries and cheeseburgers followed by a tubful of macarons every night but, um, no. Maybe you’ve been blessed with an amazing metabolism that allows you to do this, but I am not.  Same goes for writing.  I’m not Danielle Steele so I have to do my own marketing. And yeah, I have to revise those wild and crazy first drafts, too. (At the rate she pumps out books I’m pretty sure she has somebody to do that for you.)

So here’s what I hope you take away from this rant love letter.  In everyone’s writing career, you’re going to have to do some things that are not quite as much fun as writing.  But who says you can’t make them fun?  Like the old saying, eat dessert first.  Writing is my dessert, and marketing is all the rest of it—like vegetables and protein.  But here’s the deal: I’ve grown to love vegetables as much or more as I love dessert.  Maybe you learn to love the parts of your writing career you now hate, too.

Please do hit leave a comment and tell me what you love—and hate—about your writing.

The Importance of Telling the Story

Tell the story.

A friend calls.  A terrible thing has happened. She’s okay. But this terrible, unthinkable thing happened.  She tells me about it in great detail, going over every detail and then back again, looping around and around.  I listen, giving her the space to say whatever she needs, to repeat the particulars as many times as necessary.

Because I know she needs to tell the story.

Years ago, we had a fire in our home.  My family and animals escaped from the burning house as fire fighters arrived to put it out. We were all okay. Displaced for many months, but okay.  I found myself telling the story over and over again. To people. To my journal. In my head as I walked.

Because I needed to tell the story.

Telling the story is healing, people. I would go so far as to say that it is a necessary part of life.  Which is why you need to tell your story—whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction. Because, guess what?  Not only is telling the story healing but so is reading it.

When I read a memoir about somebody who overcame great suffering, I’m inspired. It reminds me that the problems I face aren’t such a big deal—and that I can overcome them, too.  When I read a novel with a fierce, fearless heroine I remember that I can be that way, too.

And there’s this: in our current political climate, people are seeking stories with happy endings.  In a story in Salon, bookseller Leah Koch says, “…we have seen more readers turning to romance than ever before, especially those who are new to the genre.” Others interviewed in the story back her up. People are seeking solace and healing in happy tales.

I can get mired in thinking, where’s the good in writing? Others are out there saving the world, being activists, building wells in Africa, researching cures for cancer. And I just sit at my desk all day and make shit up.  But then I am reminded of the power of story. We really can’t live without it.  And that’s what you and I are doing.  Our words allow people to live vicariously, and hopefully heal a little bit, too.

Never forget that. Telling the story is vital.  And that’s your job.

What story are you telling this week? Leave a comment.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. If you’d like it to come directly to your inbox, sign up on the form to the right. And–I’m gearing up to get back to regular blogging. More original posts soon!

A love letter about pain

This week.

It couldn’t have been more awful.  The terrible tragedy in Las Vegas, coming on the heels of a month of devastating natural disasters, was almost too much to bear.  People I know and love are suffering from these events. And on top of all that, I have a friend and a family member in the hospital—one dealing with surgery, one with the aftermath of being hit by a car.

My heart weeps.

And yet, on the other hand, things in my personal life are pretty good. I had a wonderful time in France, and got a lot of writing done there.  My agent is excited about my next project and still sending out the first book.  After a month of physical therapy and a cortisone shot, the pain in my body has lessened considerably and I’m walking more again.  I have great clients and fun upcoming teaching gigs. My family is amazing.

How to reconcile all this? How to exist, feeling grateful for what I have and yet heartbroken for the pain in the world?

While in France, I posted photos of all the things: the Mediterranean Sea by day and night, the phallic tower that rises above the water in Collioure, dogs and cats and beautiful old people. And all the while, back home, hurricanes and floods and fires swept the land.  Should I not have posted photos of what I was experiencing in deference to the disasters? Should I have included a disclaimer with everyone, something to the effect that I knew what people were going through and sent them love?

In other words, as I told a friend, I’m asking: what should my response be? How do I live in this world now?

Luckily, that friend was the very wise Patty Bechtold and she told something that really helped. She’d read it years ago, in the work of Robert Johnson. He likened such experiences as standing in the middle of a teeter-totter, with one foot on either side.   Balance. Getting comfortable with the gray area in the middle, even though most of us would much rather like things plain and simple, in black and white.

And maybe we just need to accept that this is how we must live now.

I’ll tell you what helps me live in the gray areas. Two things: creativity and connection.  I found solace in my writing this week. And I also found it in connecting with friends and family.  Maybe these things gave you solace, too. I hope so.

So here’s the only antidote I have to offer to make sense of the gray area: take to the page. Write your pain out. Or focus your energy on your current writing project. And when you are finished, go kiss a child, or a pet, or your spouse.  Call a friend; say hi to a neighbor. Email that aunt you’ve not talked to in a long time.

Creativity and connection. I’m astoundingly grateful for them both.

A love letter about time

I’m writing this to you at 4:30 in the morning, sitting at my desk back home in Portland.  Yes, you read that right: 4:30 AM. Because: jet lag.  I’ve been waking at this hour every day since we returned home from France on Tuesday night. It’s great for getting writing done, but hell for trying to stay up past 9 PM.

And it bears on the topic I want to talk about today: time.

As most of you know, I spent three weeks in the south of France (the less-crowded Lanquedoc region, near Spain) teaching a couple of writing workshops. And time flows differently there.  I actually began writing this letter there, in the Mediterranean town of Collioure, sitting on a terrace surrounded by ancient stone and concrete houses.  A typical day went something like this: writing workshop in the morning, delicious lunch (often three courses, with wine), a petite nap, and then writing.

My desk in Collioure

It doesn’t sound like the best time recipe to get a lot of work done, but I did.  I wrote the first chapter of a new book, worked on the rewrite of my WIP, and took one more spin through the novel my agent is shopping.  All the while feeling relaxed and happy.

How I wish I could replicate that feeling of productive ease here.  I ponder: was it the sea air? Walking several times a day? The wine? (I truly didn’t drink it every day at lunch. But, um, there was plenty of wine every night.)  But here at home, life presses in: appointments, client work, family obligations. Which is why, precisely, going away to write is such a great idea.

And yet, we can’t always do that, can we?

Time is such a slippery beast. It slows to a crawl when you’re waiting for something you want to do or someone you want to see, and it flies by without notice when you’re deeply engrossed in a creative project.  (Which is why the old writing saw, fast is slow and slow is fast is so useful to remember.  If your character is doing something with a slow past, dispense with it quickly.  If something is happening really fast, slow down the action.)  And most often, we end up feeling as if we just don’t have enough time.

In pondering all this, here’s my takeaway. I can’t replicate the atmosphere of a seaside village in France here in Portland, but I can consciously slow myself down. I can approach life with a more relaxed atmosphere and refuse to get caught up in the harried schedules most of us keep. I can say no once in a while (except to grandkids).

And hopefully, my writing productivity will rise in inverse proportion to my relaxed attitude about it.

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. If you’d like to join the list, see the form to the right.

And if you’re interested in learning about next year’s writing workshop, head on over to the Let’s Go Write website and join the mailing list there. We’ll have 2018 info ready soon.

On Writing and Travel (A Love Letter)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite letters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

Here I am in France, an American in Paris (having just spent three weeks down south, in the lovely town of Collioure).

One of the first things people ask me when I tell them about my annual jaunts to Paris is, “Do you speak the language?” And the answer is, I do not. I took French in college and can sort of read it, but when natives speak it, forget it.  And my halting pronunciation brings either a smile or a grimace from the locals.  Furthermore, I do not look like a French woman. I am short and round.  Every single French woman on the planet is tall and thin. (I think it’s a law they passed a while ago.) And its for certain I don’t have the classic French personality, which I think of as elegant and reserved.  I tend toward the, the put it charitably, exuberant.

So I am different when I am in France.  And I’m constantly aware of it. (One of the most fun things about travel is arriving to a U.S. airport and suddenly realizing I can understand what people are saying around me.)

But I have come to appreciate that feeling this difference is a good thing. I live in my comfort zone way too much.  I like my comfort zone.  But the job of the writer is (at least partially) to bring a different point of view to their reader. To teach them about something they might not otherwise have known about.  To open new worlds.  And how can we do that if we’re not venturing out beyond our own usual world?

Funnily enough, though so many of us shy away from putting ourselves in a situation where we are different, there are some advantages to it.  Because you can’t interact as readily, you can observe others more clearly.  You may only be able to find your way through observing! And because you are constantly straining to understand, you listen better.  Being different in a different world keeps you pretty much always in the present moment.  You don’t waste time pondering the past or worrying about the future when you are trying to figure out what the hell is going on right where you are at the moment.

Finally, you can be bold. Nobody knows who you are, so you can act anyway you want. (But please leave the Ugly American act at home.)

All these thoughts about being different lead me to ponder how we need to celebrate differences between characters in our work.  I’m painfully aware of how often my characters tend to reflect me, a white middle-class woman of a certain age, and this is something I’m trying to change.  Being in France makes me remember that, too.

But being home is going to be wonderful also!

Do you like to travel? Leave a comment and share your experiences!

If you’d like to receive these weekly letters directly into your inbox, please feel out the form to the right. You’ll also receive first notification of appearances, classes, and new books.

And please do join the Facebook group! Just click here and request access, and I’ll approve you!