Rain and Writing

drops_wallpaper_texture_225146_lWe woke to rain in Portland this morning and I cheered. I know, I know, but as a native Oregonian, I love the rain. Plus it had been humid (by our standards) for awhile and it felt like we needed a good storm to clear it out.  And that meant I didn’t have to water the garden, and that the gamble I took on not watering my son’s yard (we’re caring for his house while they are in Hawaii)  yesterday paid off.

The sky is already brightening here, which means I probably get to go to my grandsons’ swim appointment after all. But today’s rain reminded me of my favorite writing and rain quote ever, by Tom Robbins:

“People ask me who I write for, I tell them I write for the rain.”

The funny thing is, this quote exists only in memory as a part of an article about Robbins in Esquire.  Despite wasting tons of time exhaustive searches looking for the quote I’ve never been able to actually find it. In honor of the rain this morning, I looked for it again and guess what came up?  A couple of my old (2011) posts.  The one that mentions the quote doesn’t have much of value in it, but another one did, including some gems from Annie Proulx (that link goes to a great interview with her) and Chris Guillebeau.

So, in lieu of a Five on Friday post, I give you this link.

(And, in a lovely bit of synchronicity, when I looked up a link on Robbins, it turns out that today is his birthday. Boo-yah! And happy birthday, Tom.)

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The Tyranny of Word Count

Every morning on my calendar I note how many words I’ve written (my main fiction writing time is early in the morning).  My goal is 1500-2000 words a day, which is a nice pace for me. If I’m on, I can hit 2K easily, but on off days, 500 words is a stretch.  Counting words is a great way to remind yourself of how much you’ve accomplished, and of course you know that what you focus on, grows. (I imagine myself staring at a page of words, willing it to multiply like the dandelions on our front yard.)

And its not just the daily word count that we focus on, but we think about it in other ways as well.  We fret and stew about how many words a book should be.  How long is a novella? How long is a short story? If I go over those standard word counts wills something bad happen? And so on and so forth.

And so even though I love checking in on my daily word count notations, I sometimes think they can become a bit tyrannical. And result in bad habits. Tell me I’m not the only one who:

  1. Writes complicated sentences–because they entail more words.
  2. Use two words when one will do. Because, word count.
  3. Catch myself repeating something and then letting it stand. Because, you know why, word count.
  4. Endures excruciating moments when I’m straining for just 100 more words to meet my quota.

Okay, okay, I am writing raw as coal-before-it-becomes-a-diamond drafts.  And I know that the value of rewriting is inestimable.  But still, sometimes I wonder if there’s a better way to keep track of it all, or if I really do need to keep track? To answer that last question first, when I’m writing regularly, I think it’s important to have metrics.  The novelist J.T. Ellison says that we must “touch our story, think about it” on a regular basis, and I agree. (Regular basis=daily.)  Keeping a word count reminds you of the importance of this.  When I wring my hands and tell myself I’m not much of a writer, all I have to do is flip open my planner and there it is, ink black and white (well, okay, color from gel pens), proof that if nothing else I do get up and throw words at the page regularly. And if there are lots of blank days with no word counts listed, I am reminded that I’m slacking.

But is there a better way to keep track? I suppose I could write to the end of whatever scene I’m working on and list how many scenes or chapters I’ve completed.  But often when I end my writing session at the close of a scene, I close myself off as well. (Hemingway famously ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.)  And of course, there is rating yourself by time as well.  If you’ve sat at your computer for two hours, you’ve done your job.  Except one could easily sit at said computer for two hours and not write a word.  I know, I’ve done it I had a friend who did it.

I dunno. Maybe you can tell me a better way?

The truth is I’m the worst goal setter in the world.  The standard advice to block out time for writing on my calendar doesn’t work for me, because I rebel against myself.  As in, look at my calendar and say, meh, don’t feel like doing that today. This is clearly a variation of the childhood refrain, “I’m doing it because I want to and not because you tell me to.” Yep, childish as all get-out, not to mention counter productive.  I actually love to set elaborate goals, goals that even the most vigorous Type A personality could never meet.

And for some unknown reason, writing to word count, tyrannical as the process is, works for me. It is the only thing I’ve found that keeps me productive on a regular basis.  And so on bad days I groan and strain and complain until I reach at least 1,000 words and on good days I pat myself on the back when I easily sail past 2K.

Nobody said being a writer was easy. (And if it was, we’d be bored.)

What metrics do you use to keep track of your progress?

And by the way, for the truly nutty among you, my friend Milli Thornton runs 10K Days for writers every month, twice a month. There’s one coming up tomorrow (July 20) that I’m participating in, and one this Saturday as well.

Happy writing!

 

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The Writing Reframe: Ditch Your Eeyore Statements

EeyoreI’m working on a book with an awesome client and we have the best conversations as the book flows out.  We talk about a lot of spiritual and universal principles as she tells me her story.  One anecdote she told me last week has stayed with me. There was a time when she was confused as to where to go next in life and business, and walked around saying this exact thing to herself, and anybody who would listen. Until one day it occurred to her to reframe that story and instead talk about how she knew exactly where she was going and what to do next. And, ultimately, a mega-successful business was born.

Now the idea that you get what you think about isn’t exactly new news.  But sometimes I you have to be hit over the head with a concept numerous times before you really get it.  So I’ve started to watch how often I lament over my writing, saying things like:

It’s so hard.

The publishing world is so slow and elitist.

I can’t figure out where my story is going.

That character’s motivation doesn’t make sense.

I can’t write every day.

And so on. Eeyore statements. (You remember Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, don’t you? He’s the gloomy old donkey whose head is always hanging down.) I’m sure you can add a few of your own.  So lately I’m trying to catch myself at these and turn them around. The trick is, of course, you have to become aware of them. For me many of us, this attitude is so ingrained we don’t even realize we’re thinking/saying them.

Even if it doesn’t make a whit of difference in the ultimate scheme of things, and I’m convinced it does, looking on the bright side will make you a happier writer.  (Because who needs all that negativity?) And if you’re a happier writer, you’re happier in all areas of life, right? Right.

What are your favorite Eeyore statements? Please share in the comments.

And remember, there’s still one spot left in the France retreat! We had a last-minute cancellation. And by the way, flights to Europe may be cheaper than you think–so if you’re at all interested, check it out.

 

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Five on Friday: July 8, 2016

RocksWell, howdy. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a Five on Friday, mainly because I’ve been busy doing stuff but no particular things stand out, if you know what I mean.  But since I know you’re just dying for an update (ha, like you don’t have five million things going on yourself), here goes:

What I’m pondering: Podcasting. As in, good ones to listen to. Podcasts for writers and creatives. Got any recommendations? Also, as in, maybe I’d like to start one. Do you listen to podcasts? Would you be interested in one on motivation, inspiration, productivity, etc., for writers and creatives? It is somewhat of a big production so I’m pondering this even longer than usual.  I get these big ideas and then realize how much work they are going to be and forget about them.

What I’m watching: Le Tour de France. I’m so excited to be returning to that beloved country in two short months (I just booked my Paris hotel today) and I adore the shots of the glorious countryside. There’s only one problem–all those bicycles zooming along are like the best soporific ever. Hub and I both fall fast asleep.

What I’m reading: Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo, so that I can read his newly released sequel, Everybody’s Fool. And because we might use it for the France workshop.  And books on organic gardening, weaving, and food.  Oh, and Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt’s book, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. 

What I’m looking forward to: A writing retreat on the Oregon coast with my friend and biz partner Debbie. Two full days to write! I’ll be working on the most recent rewrite of The Bonne Chance Bakery.  And a few other bits and pieces here and there.

What I’m excited about: Rocks! Some time tomorrow, God and the delivery truck willing, we will have gotten a yard of small river rock dumped on our driveway apron. We have an awkward spot in the backyard by the fence to our neighbor’s backyard. We love our neighbors. Our visiting dogs love their dogs.  So much running about and barking in this area ensues, leaving it unsuitable for gardening.  So it is going to become a sculpture garden.  It is likely that I am more excited about this project than hub, because my job is to rake rock as he loads wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load and transports it to the backyard. Fun times!

What are you working on? What has your attention?  Please leave a comment and let me know. Also–there’s one spot left in the France workshop. It’s going to be awesome!  Let me know if you’re interested.

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Well Hey, Otherwhere, It’s Nice to See You Again!

I’ve been remiss in providing you with Otherwhere links for quite some time now. The problem is not that I don’t have enough, it’s that I have too many.  And when I start to corral them, I get overwhelmed.  Okay. Deep breath. Here we go (and forgive me if they are not in any particular order):

Finding your voice from Jen Louden (she’s doing a cool self-guided retreat on this, too.

Having empathy for characters not like you

The Ultimate Summer Reading Flowchart

Three Easy Edits for Better Emotional Impact 

When You Don’t Want to Write

How to Get Unstuck

Great Advice and Ideas from Asian-American Writer’s Workshop

8 Literary Gardens to Escape to This Summer

How I Organize My Time, Tasks, and Creative Ideas (from Sandra Pawula)

Okay, I could go on…and on…and on. But my cats are begging me to feed them and besides, this ought to be enough to keep you busy for awhile, no? Do weigh in on what you’re looking at on the web in the comments.

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Out of Sync

united-states-army-385786-h (1)I’ve been out of sync with my writing lately.  (And my blog posts, too, as you may have noticed.) Off my feed, unchained from my computer, thinking about things other than my writing.

I’m best when I write every day, or close to it. I get into a rhythm and it becomes just something I do, not a task I avoid, or a thing to obsess about (when I could just as easily be writing).  But as soon as something throws me off my schedule, I’ve got to find ways to get back to it.  I struggle a little bit, and sigh and wring my hands and think about how awful life is. How I don’t have any time to write at all, ever.

And then I remember that my life is pretty damn good and actually I do have time to write, if I would only take advantage of it. I quit sighing and struggling. But those are all just interim steps. I still have to find my way back to my groove.

Today, as I spent another morning doing something else very important besides writing, several items that will impact my procrastination fell into my lap. Well, more like my computer.  Anyway.

First was this article by Barbara O’Neal about how she started listening to dubstep and it increased her output exponentially.  I’m still experimenting with this. (And please don’t ask me to explain dubstep, I actually don’t even know it when I hear it yet.) And never mind that going to Pandora to find some dubstep led me to ponder if I should try Spotify. Of course the answer was yes, and that took a bit to set up an account and then I remembered that Beth Orton had a new release out and…you get the idea.

I really am out of sync.

But here’s another one, a TedX Talk about how to find fascination in the every day. It really is worth a watch.  Thank me next time you’re staring at a pile of dishes in your kitchen sink.

And then, trying to be positive, I thought about the things I’m doing to get back in sync. That would be writing in my journal every morning (call them morning pages if you like), playing around with writing to prompts, and rereading my WIP.  Organizing my craft closet (not by choice–a huge yarn avalanche occurred when I opened the door and fell all over my office floor). Thinking deep thoughts.

I’ll get back to it soon. I have to, because I have another rewrite to accomplish.  There will be deadlines and such. Or at least I hope so, because giving me a deadline is another surefire way to pull me out of a slump.

What do you do when you get out of sync?

Photo from an army contest in 2004. Go figure.

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The Glorious Avidity of the Beginner’s Mind

A giant Sitka Spruce

A giant Sitka Spruce

“In the beginning mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Suzuki Roshi

I don’t know about you, but I consider myself an expert. Yep, I sure do.  Because I’ve been writing novels for a gazillion years and teaching fiction writing for half that time. I’ve studied long enough to have earned an MFA and blogged long enough to remember when WordPress barely existed. So, yes indeedy. Expert here.

You’re probably an expert, too.  Maybe in writing—you’ve probably been at it for a while, too. Or maybe in other areas of your work and life.  By the time you reach a certain age, you’re a bona fide expert.  That means you and I know a lot.

It also means we have a lot of preconceptions.  Maybe a mind that is a tiny bit closed to challenges to our knowledge.  A brain shut tight to new ideas, to an expansive openness that lets the light in.  And we may not even notice, being so very busy in our expertness.

I was reminded of all this last week when I taught a group of beginners (or raw recruits as I liked to call them). Out of a group of eight, seven came to the novel-writing workshop with no prior experience writing full-length fiction.  They had ideas, but some were vague.  They knew nothing about plotters and pantsers and plot points and character dossiers or how to write a scene or structure a novel.  By the end of our three days together, they walked out with a plot and characters firmly in mind, close to being ready to write.vertigo-dizzy-dizziness-321395-h

I attribute this readiness not to me, but to them—and their marvelous beginner minds.  They soaked up ideas like the moss on my sidewalk soaks up water during rainy Oregon winters. Their beginner minds filled up with knowledge and ideas at an astounding pace and they inspired me—and this post—along the way.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with attaining expert status.  There’s the whole 10,000 hours thing espoused by Malcolm Gladwell , who claims you need to practice a thing that many hours to be considered an expert.  Do a quick spin around the interwebs and you’ll find all kinds of references to mavens and experts and specialists and professionals.  And they are all good. We need their knowledge and expertise.  But there’s something amazingly wonderful about approaching one’s work with a beginner’s mind, as I witnessed last week.

Following are some ideas for maintaining a beginner’s mind. But also go read this lovely article about it from a Buddhist abbess.

Be open.  I know, duh.  But how often to you find yourself listening to another person and eagerly pondering what you’re going to say in reply? Or getting defensive and upset about their words? Yeah, me, too.  So, for instance, if a writing friend is going on about how great it is to write without an outline and you fervently believe the opposite, try just being a tiny bit open to his point of view.

Be willing to admit you’re not always right.  Often we desire to be right more than anything. I’m not sure why this is—perhaps it gives us a sense of power or security in the world.  But it can be detrimental, too. Though my husband and I like to joke that I’m always right, I can think of some times when I’ve been very, very wrong. A willingness to admit it would have saved me tons of grief.

Be willing to admit you don’t know everything.  There are all kinds of literary terms whose meaning I don’t get. Okay, I admitted it.  And I still sometimes get confused about omniscient viewpoint.  And don’t even get me started on math—my son, the mathematician has explained prime numbers to me at least five times. I still don’t understand them.  And that’s okay.

But don’t close your mind just because you don’t know.  Don’t let not knowing keep you from being curious.  I could probably stand to learn Excel, for instance, an app I’ve told myself repeatedly I can’t master.  With an attitude like that, it’s likely I never will.

So the not knowing thing cuts both ways.

Approach life and writing with a sense of adventure.  Every time I’ve said to myself, “Life’s an adventure,” it has turned out to be.  You can’t have an adventure with a closed mind, you just can’t. And life and writing are ever so much more fun when you’re adventurous.

Okay, those are my thoughts. And now I’m going to go apply a beginner’s mind to looking at my WIP (work in progress for those with beginner’s minds).  I invite you to come on over to the blog (        )  to comment on how you cultivate beginner’s mind.

Photos: top by me, lower right by woodleywonderworks.

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Meanwhile, I’ll Be Busy Making S*&% Up

Writing a novel is, at heart, all about making shit up.

That phrase–making shit up–became the constant refrain of my Mapping the Novel workshop at the Sitka Center last week.  (It was the BEST workshop ever, mostly because of my wonderful students, but also because of the fabulous staff and the spectacular location. I could go on and on.)

In order to write a novel, you’ve got to make a lot of shit up. You just do. But then you have to shape the stuff you made up into some kind of form.  And that was the premise of the workshop–that you’ve got to let your right brain roam free but also learn the structures through which you will corrall it.

It is easy to get hung up on any part of the process (she said, having experienced getting hung up at many points along the way). But bear in mind that structures are part of craft and can be learned. You can study plot, scene, character, style, and theme. It’s hard, but you can figure out how to apply it so you make a novel with a cohesive whole.

What is harder, arguably, in this day and age, is the making shit up part. It’s the part where we let our brains run free, and allow our hands to follow them, putting word after word on the page–even when we don’t know where the words will lead us.

The making shit up part is why we become writers.  I mean, who sets out to write a novel because he wants to master plot? There may be a few of you out there, but I’d wager a bet that most of you want to write a novel because you’ve experienced the glory of writing, how good it makes you feel to lay down those tracks.

The making shit up part is fun–and its also sometimes really freaking hard to get ourselves to do.  But really, all you have to do is go do it.  Take a prompt, any prompt, set a timer for 10 minutes and go write! Do it now. Go make shit up.  You’ll be glad you did.

Leave a comment and let’s discuss your favorite way to make shit up.

**I had a couple of great photos from Sitka picked out to go along with this post but some reason, WordPress doesn’t want to let me upload them. If you want to see a ton of them, go to my Instagram page (and follow me while you’re there–it is one of my chief social media outlets).

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Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway — For Writers and Creatives

The_ScreamFeel the fear and do it anyway is one of the great all-time phrases ever. And I certainly can’t take credit for the words. It was the title of a book that came out years ago, by Susan Jeffers, and I clutched that book to me like a life raft at the time.  I was reminded of the book again last weekend when the minister of my church referred to how she also found it life-saving back in the day. (Books really can change lives, never forget that as you write.)

I’m heading off to teach today, and I’ll be honest, I’m nervous. I’m not nervous about the material because I’ve taught it a million times (just not in this format). But I’m nervous about logistics, and getting there on time, and about how I’ve put everything together, and what to wear, and the biggie–what will people think of me? Will they like me? If you stop and think about that one for a minute, it is the most ridiculous fear on the planet.  We can’t control what other people are going to think of us. We can be kind and open but if someone takes an instant dislike to us, there’s not much we can do about it.  I can’t tell  you how many times I’ve taken an instant dislike to someone–and later become close friends with them. Yet this is one of the most crippling fears people have. Oh, we humans are a funny lot.

And here’s another funny fear: that of putting words on the page. Or paint on the canvas. Or stitches on the fabric. We creatives face the blank page and panic.  But why? Because all those thoughts about how people will react to the words on the page (which actually aren’t even there yet) crowd in and stop us.  We tell ourselves we don’t know how to do it, as if everyone else has innate knowledge of it that we don’t share. That’s simply not true. They learned it by doing it, just like everyone else. The one exception is my four-year-old grandson. He comes up with the most amazing facts and when I ask him where he learned that he just shrugs and says “I just know it.” Which is, come to think of it, probably the best attitude any of us can take.  Shrug and tell yourself “I just know how to write a novel.” “I just know how to put paint on the canvas.”

The thing is, if you’re afraid of something, it’s probably yours to do. That is one of the truest things I’ve learned through the years.  And so here’s my best advice as to how to deal with fear:

Take action.

That’s the best antidote to fear that I know. It doesn’t have to be big action, it can be something little. Tiny, even. Because teensy actions pile upon each other and cumulatively become big actions.  I remember reading Susan Jeffers book back when it first came out and being so fearful that the thought of taking action was simply overwhelming. Back then, I could never have imagined publishing a book. Leading writing workshops in France. Or teaching others. But little actions built up. I went to a meeting of a writer’s group. Joined a critique group. Put words on the page regularly and started shaping them into something more than journal entries. Took the scary step of showing those words to others.  And one day I found myself on the plane to Paris (alone–something else I couldn’t have imagined).

Before I started traveling regularly, I had a fear of flying. I’d grip the arm rests and hyperventilate during take-off and landing. But then I realized that if I ever wanted to go anywhere I better get over the fear. It is still not my favorite thing to do, but its not the worst, either.  Doing something over and over helps quell the fear (though I still get nervous about logistics, that’s for damn sure).

Write a word, make the phone call, visit the gallery you want to represent you. Send the query, ask someone for something you want, whatever it is that fear prevents you from doing.  Sit down at the computer and write the next scene of your novel or memoir. Because here’s the best part–once you’ve done that thing you’ll be flooded with the most glorious feeling of sweet relief.  Because you’ve overcome fear.  In many ways, I think it is the life journey we all share.

How do you overcome fear? Please share.

I’m off to teach at Sitka today, which is located on the beautiful Oregon coast, so I won’t be back in this space until next week. But follow me on Instagram for lots of photos!

The image is The Scream, by Edward Munch, of course, and it is in the public domain.

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Writing Your Way Back to Yourself

Hohos JournalsYears ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Madeleine L’Engle, author of one of the best books ever, A Wrinkle in Time, speak.  I brought my sister, a designer along.  L’Engle was inspiring, gracious, and fascinating and when her talk was over, my sister turned to me and said, “She makes me wish I was a writer.”

Isn’t that wonderful? L’Engle had presented such an incredible picture of what it’s like to lead the writer’s life that even non-writers got swept up in the vision. And to me, it just reinforced what I already knew: that writing is the best passion in the world.  There’s nothing I love more than being totally enraptured by a story I’m writing, or completely wrapped up in putting together an article about writing.

But there’s another reason beyond both of these, that I love writing. And that is because it constantly and consistently brings me back to myself. Through throwing words at the page, I write my way home, over and over again.

It’s easy to get lost these days. There’s a cacophony of noise out there—social media, news headlines, videos, a contentious and distracting presidential election.  It is way to easy to drown in all of the input our poor overloaded brains take in on a daily basis and to feel confused, puzzled or out of sorts—without even knowing why.  When this happens to me, I pull out my journal.

It is all too easy to sneer at journal writing as the purview of the wealthy who have nothing more important to do than write delicate entries about their fragile emotions.  And yet, when one is in the grip of emotion, confounded about how to respond to the anxieties of the world, there is no better antidote than throwing words on the page.  I went through a period, many years ago, when I wrote in my journal every day.  That hasn’t been true of me for a long while, but I do journal in fits and spurts, regularly enough to call myself a journaler.  At the start of this year, for instance, I filled an entire spiral with words. And then one day I was just done and I didn’t journal again for a long time.

Most often these days I don’t journal because I’d rather be writing fiction.  If one has limited time to write, one must choose what one is going to write carefully.  Also, if one wants to write fiction but is blocked, one can easily use journaling as an excuse!  All those caveats aside, I do think every writer should consider keeping a journal at least sporadically, because it is so tremendously helpful in getting the crap out of your head and onto the page.

For the record, I come from a lineage of diarists. My maternal grandmother, who I don’t remember because she died when I was barely three, recorded a diary entry nearly every day of her adult life. (Those are her journals in the photo—they hold pride of place in a shelf in my office.)  To my great disappointment, they tell very little of her inner life, but rather, drily note who visited, what she made for dinner, etc. (And to what will likely be my descendant’s great disappointment, my diaries tell very little of what happened in my world, but rather are dedicated to me figure out emotions and stories on the page.)

There’s all kinds of journaling you can do.  I could write helpful snippets about writing morning pages , or keeping a gratitude journal, or writing unsent letters,, or writing about your day. But I’m not going to, because honestly, the best thing you can do is grab yourself a journal, open it up, and write. Start where you are now, wherever that is, and end when you’re finished. That’s all there is to it.

Do you write in a journal? Come on over to the blog and tell how you use it!

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