Allowing the Silence in

Finish-lineThis has been a whirlwind month. I am shocked by how many things I successfully juggled. While excessive busy-ness often warps my attitude, the month of May felt like a marathon I had been conditioning myself for. (Good thing I went to that retreat the end of April!) I managed to keep my focus and juggle a rush job on top of regular clients, editing, teaching, and my own writing deadline. I’m pleased to say I plowed through problems and projects alike. Like running a marathon, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment—and this was all happening those first three weeks of the month!

By May 25th I was ready for the lull before the next push toward the finish line. As often happens after a huge achievement, I spend time “recuperating” by resting, replenishing the freezer (need quick and healthy meals in order to keep up break-neck writing/editing sessions), and refilling the creative well with wonderful books and movies.

I also like to use music. It feels the silences and when I’m writing, I focus on the melodies at first, but soon typing thoughts to screen takes over and I no longer notice the music. It’s as if I have to ignore it so I can focus on writing. I often listen to either music of audio books as I work in the kitchen or do housework.

FloridaAtlanticBut this month, I found myself skipping the audio input. I relished the silence and as I worked straightening up or making meals. I allowed both thoughts and silence instead. It was refreshing, much like my recent retreat. I liked to hear the ticks and creaks of my house displace the silence. As my thoughts settled, and like drowning out the music with writing, I found myself generating new scenes or cobbling together new story ideas.

The silence became rich with meaning and words. Now I’ve been spending time each day in the stillness and silence. I cherish the peace and lack of busy-ness, then allow the words to take over.

In my writing, I have kept the reverence of the silence in mind for a few characters. Silence—the lack of sound—does count as targeting the sense of hearing within our manuscripts.

Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like "monks" holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!

What’s your Creative Identity?

Think about your creativity and desire to write (or create music, art, etc.). Now, complete this sentence: I am ______________. What do you put in the blank? Writer, author, artist, hobbyist, creative, imaginative? All are acceptable. All provide insight into how seriously you see yourself in regard to the writing occupation. Writers express through the written word. That simple. Period. In this sense, anyone working in business, anyone who needs to send letters or emails, is a writer.

You-are-a-WriterWhen I conducted writing workshops with at risk youth, the first thing I did was to convince them they were writers and readers. Dig down to the root, and everyone IS a reader, a writer, a communicator. We cannot get through the day without reading. Chances are we also have to communicate in writing, whether through notes, emails, or business documents. Getting these struggling students to embrace this fact had significant impact on how they saw themselves as communicators—and as students. For one group of these students, I made press passes for their name tags. They seemed to transform when they slipped into their seats with there “writing badges” on.

So what sets a creative writer apart from everyone else? The creative part. The need to share ideas, stories, worlds with others. Admit it. Few of us pursue this with the hope of sticking our manuscript in a drawer. Somewhere deep inside, we have a need to put these thoughts on paper and share them with others. This doesn’t require publication; we can share through email, blogs, desktop printed books for family and friends.

Conf-BadgesEven achieving this goal, however, will be hindered unless you think of yourself as a writer. If you tell people, “I’m thinking of writing a book” that’s what you’ll do–think about it. Be bold with your goal. Tell people, “I’m a writer.” “I’m writing a novel.” “I’m drafting my family history.” If this feels too bland, or uncomfortable, try these references to your creative identity: “I’m an aspiring author.” “I’m pre-published in children’s fiction.” If you want to show your creativity, tell people, “I’m a Disney-esque Imagineer.” That will get their attention.

I do remember what it feels like to have this desire to be published but to feel I was insulting those who had achieved this goal when I was still working to reach publication. It also felt that speaking my goal aloud was the equivalent of clomping around like a 3-year-old in her mother’s high heels. While searching out potential publishers, I asked to  borrow the recent copies of Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal at the local library. (This was well before the internet.) The reference librarian was quite big-shoes-to-fillsuspicious. I stammered through, “I want to be a writer someday and an author told me I need to read these journals.” Finally I just said, “Look, I’m an aspiring writer. A few mentors from a conference told me I need to know and read current books in my genre.” It changed her reaction. It also forced me to see myself as a “pre-published” author. I was determined and after that, I called myself a writer. When people asked where I’d been published, I’d say, “So far in a few children’s magazines, but I’m working on a book proposal.” Sure, I did feel I had a lot of growing to do to fit into the those “author” shoes I slipped into, but I did grow and they fit nicely now.

This can happen for you, too. Instead of thinking about the story you hope to write, begin thinking of yourself as a writer. You may be amazed at the difference it will make in your creativity — and in how your friends and families view you. Whatever you do, enjoy the writing!

A Measure of Productivity

measure-success How do you decide–day by day or week by week–whether you’ve been productive? When we work for someone else, the tasks are spelled out one way or another. Meeting deadlines, reaching the bottom of an in box, completing a project, preparing for a presentation. We often spend the day answering phone calls and emails and leave at 5 (or 6) p.m. knowing we’ll be paid for a full day of work.

pieces-add-upPerhaps, as I once did, you spend your evenings and weekends writing (or pursuing some creative project) hoping one day you’ll eventually get to quit your “day job.” Or, perhaps you are now a self-employed or freelance writer (or artist or musician or …) and so your progress fall squarely on your own shoulders.

How do you measure that your time is well spent? Writers often talk of word count. When I coach writers this concern for daily output seems to cause tremendous anxiety. It’s true that a book length project is especially daunting. (Not to mention the misconception that it’s completed in two rounds–draft and revision–when my published projects have taken anywhere from five and up.)

It’s rare that I track my word count during each writing session so when asked, “How much do you write each day? Each week?” I have no idea. I write as I always have–allowing sentences and paragraphs and pages to stack up. In the end, you are not “done” when you reach the 70,000 word target for your novel anyway. You simply have your draft and then can begin the real work of shaping it into a finished product.

onestepjpgIt wasn’t until I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November and then CampNaNoWriMo, that I realized why my coaching clients were stuck on this word count thing. For NaNoWriMo the goal is to draft 50,000 words in 30 days. That equates to 1667 words per day. That amounts to 6 or 7 manuscript pages (double-spaced) each day.

onestepattime Now I get how overwhelming a focus on word count can be to new writers. Now I understand why the thought of sitting down to write can be daunting. Now I see how important it is to place output into perspective. Do this: First, sit down to write. Write a scene and note how long it took. One hour? Thirty minutes? Fifteen minutes? Now, look at the output. How many pages? How many words? It’s true that every scene and every writing session will vary. But knowing what you accomplished in whatever time it took will help you see the words adding up. Second, ask yourself how many sessions you can fit into your week. Two? Three? Even one will help you make progress.

During CampNaNoWriMo in April, the word goal is flexible. It’s the end of season for me and very busy so I selected the lowest goal: 10,000 words. I wanted the challenge to make time to work on a new novel idea even in the midst of other commitments. Putting this into perspective, I needed to write 334 words per day to “win.” That’s only 1.5 pages (double-spaced MS format) OR not even a full single-spaced typed page. But, I didn’t plan to write every day. The first weekend, I wrote as I normally did and produced just over 2,000 words in one sitting of several hours. That was 1/5 the month’s goal and the equivalent of writing for 6 days. Setting time aside twice per week, I met my goal. (Actually, I ended up meeting this goal plus wrote scenes for a second work-in-progress for over another 5000 words.)

wordstackI put this into perspective, thinking: If I can write everyday (on this one project), imagine what I’d accomplish in a month! When you do the math and put your productivity into perspective, it’s a lot easier to see what you’re capable of–which makes it easier to commit to writing on a regular basis. In the end, it’s not how many words or pages you write per day or per week; it’s that the paragraphs, scenes, and pages add up. Getting started is the hard part. Once you do, it becomes easier. Until you do, commit to writing just one sentence a day. (I’ll bet you’ll find it hard to write just one.)

Write Through the Holidays

The holidays have arrived. Allow me to wish you a most merry holiday dash! For many people, CharlieBrownTreemyself included, the holidays herald the added stress of a longer to-do list, too little time, and frustration at fitting in writing time. When I was still working full-time and freelancing (instead of writing full-time), it was even more stressful because I’d offer myself an early gift of making more time to write. Disaster. Over the years, and especially since transitioning to full-time writing, I’ve learned to balance writing and all the holiday prep using four guidelines:

broken-orn First, back off on your expectations (and this applies to non-writing parts of life, too). This is NOT the time to set outrageous goals to get your family to support or encourage you as a writer. Be realistic. If you normally make time to write four days a week, aim instead for two or three days per week during December. You have twice the work load with holiday shopping and prep (especially if you’re hosting family for dinner or celebrations).

Second, make a list of writing-related activities and target achieving those instead of adding word count to your work-in-progress. What is one thing you can do daily (or four times a week, or whatever your goal) to make progress with your writing? Items for this list might include, reading, exploring publishers, finding authors similar to your project (for the pitch letter), drafting a project summary or cover letter, making outline notes, or even thinking about how your character will face the next obstacle. These are all related to writing and your current project, even if some do not include putting words to paper. For example, reading articles about writing craft in a magazine or on a website about will help you with your writing after the holiday prep is completed.

Third, keep a notebook with you. When I was starting out, I wrote magazine articles so I kept a notebook with me at all times, making notes and jotting ideas based on my experiences with family and friends. An article about what women do while men watch football? Tips for faster clean up to get out of the kitchen and back to the gathering? Ideas for occupying little ones during “boring grown-up talk”? I recorded them all, without judging the quality or feasibility. (Those decisions were made later.)journal Likewise, I noted mannerisms and details that could be used to make fiction characters come alive.

Four, journal more frequently. This is still my trick for making writing progress during the holidays. I faithfully wrote daily in my journal (though I frequently skip days at others times of the year). This gave me the chance to clear ideas from my head and record plot and scene summaries for current writing projects. It also served as a way to put words to paper on a regular basis, even if I only wrote a few paragraphs. After the holidays it’s easy to look at these summaries and plan, then get back to a regular writing routine. Like working out, it was easier to get back into full swing because I kept the muscles warmed up with daily short writing.

If you do not normally journal, now is a great time to take it up. At the very least, jot thoughts and ideas in a notebook for use later. It may provide an added “gift” of creating a regular writing routine to build from after the holidays.

HappyHoliday

Fresh Step Forward

I always enjoy this time of year. Granted, it comes earlier here in Florida, but back-to-school time is ripe with fresh starts. As a kid I loved buying new clothes and school supplies. As a writing instructor I stocked up on pens, pencils, markers, highlighters, and paper for my own use as well as to offer to my students who needed them. As a freelance writer I find uses for quirky and unusual office supplies.

InsectPaperClipsMore important than these things is the mindset for a fresh start. This year I prepared by refilling my creative well during a week during which I “retreated” from social media and distractions. My intent was to give myself time to create new routines, but I now realize it allowed me to take a fresh step forward.

Like a true retreat, my aim was to quiet my mind so I could make decisions on which direction to take my coaching/teaching business as well as my writing career. To quiet my mind and refill my creative well, I spent time:

Devour books!

Devour books!

Reading. Not only did I devour books from one of my favorite services, Book Bub, but I discovered Overdrive, the service my local library system uses for ebook borrowing. I read so much there were a few days I only ate, slept, and read. When the stories began to merge together, I knew I needed to slow down–and work on some of my other goals for the week.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

Reorganizing & Planning. This was another key goal for my “retreat” and an important step toward creating new routines. (Not to mention releasing the clutter so I could make decisions to move forward, which I blogged about earlier.) I also returned to diligently using my planner. This year I bought it from May You  Bloom and love the quotes and petals on the “life wheel.”

Fun with watercolors.

Fun with watercolors.

Tapping into my inner child. I love the May You Bloom site and weekly Blooms I receive by email. One of the best parts about this site is the “permission to be playful” and do something for ourselves every day. So, I embraced that idea and pulled out paints, colored pencils, and markers. I colored as if I were still a kid. Then I painted quick and simple quirky angels to place around my office. They inspire me.

Meditating and relaxing. You can’t “retreat” without tapping into the quiet. One of my favorite guided meditation coaches is Max Highstein. I love the Healing Waterfalls and others, which I used during my downtime. It helped me find calm center from which to make these important decisions and to work toward goals.

Two weeks later I’ve maintained a balance of work and relaxation that is both creative and energizing. Though I’ve cut back on all my teaching (dropped the college level altogether), I still keep my hand in through local workshops. So, technically, I’m not facing a new school year. Still, it’s gratifying to to put a fresh foot forward toward new goals. And my “retreat” helped make it happen. What are you doing to create a #freshforward this autumn?

Shifting Perspective

“We accept the verdict of the past until the need for change cries out loudly enough to force
upon us a choice between the comforts of further inertia and the irksomeness of action.”
~ Louis L’Amour

I’m celebrating the start of a new month. Though the south may herald in springtime with the snowbirds heading north at the close of “Season,” I am grateful for the change. Like sprouting flowers, new hope is alive in the air. I’ve always enjoyed the change in season or the start of a new school year. It’s a time for new routines. While I’m a creature of habit, a key part of my habits is to make changes at intervals, to switch things around. So, I believe this is why I look forward to the changes that new seasons or other regular transitions bring with them. With new routines come new perspectives.

Like changing the channel on the TV, I’m glad to have a shift in perspective. It’s been challenging so far this year but the summer shows hope and promise. I’ve set goals for projects and look forward to creating the routines that will make them happen. What might you do to shift your perspective and welcome the changes ahead?

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at will change.”
~Dr. Wayne Dyer

 

Anticipating . . . a Day of Writing

Children’s writers learn to look back on their childhoods to develop stories young people can relate to. It’s not looking back just for the memories but for the emotion too. For example, do you recall being in elementary school and looking forward to a new day because something good was about to happen? Maybe it was the first day of summer break. Maybe it was the start to a family vacation. Maybe it was your birthday. Or, maybe it was a simple as going to a movie, getting a book you’d been looking forward to, or the new Saturday cartoon line up every autumn.

When was the last time you, as an adult, looked forward to a weekend day with that same sense of anticipation as a long-planned for vacation? When was the last time you, as a writer, looked forward to crafting the next scene in your story or starting a new novel? I’ve thought about this sense of anticipation a lot during the past three months. It reminded me that when I still worked full time, I wrote in every spare minute I could find. To add to my writing time, I used to plan a long weekend with the intent of writing for 3 days straight.

The joy of making serious progress as I focused on a specific writing project provided the same break as a weekend getaway. At some jobs I had to use vacation days but at others they allowed personal days scheduled a week or so ahead. Whatever those circumstances at my job, I planned for my long writing weekend with the same attention I spent planning a vacation. I made decisions about which project I’d focus on and whether I’d stay home or turn it into a “private retreat” by reserving a motel room. I planned nutritious snacks to keep the creative juices flowing, and I scheduled my time–complete with exercise breaks and time for reading writing books or magazines and to connect with other writers (or get some feedback on my writing).  The progress I made on my project buoyed me through my day job.

Now that I write full time, I juggle a lot of projects and balance teaching writing workshops with client work and contracted writing (mostly nonfiction). During scheduling turmoil in the past year, I realized I was missing that sense of anticipation in my writing. So, I designated Fridays as my “writing” days, meaning I work on only my projects. Client deadlines infringed and again I realized I was lacking that sense of anticipation. During this year I’ve designated Wednesdays and Fridays as “my projects” days. It doesn’t always work out the way I planned (and “my projects” has broadened in scope) but I’m happy with the sense of accomplishment at the end of those days. I haven’t felt that since my weekend “writing vacations” of the past.

So, are you feeling that sense of anticipation in your writing life? Do you awake happy that at some point that day you’ll get to focus on your story, book, or article? If not, consider proclaiming one day (or even a half day) as your “my writing project” day. Mark your calendar. Plan what you’ll do. Let your family know and ask for their support. Then, wake up with anticipation . . . to write!

Listening In for Motivation

As a writer, incorporating sensory description is important to me. I’m partial to those frequently overlooked senses: hearing, smell, and taste. I seem to zero-in on sounds and scents. I wake every morning joyful to hear birds singing outside. Now that it’s cooler, I love opening the windows to deeply inhale fresh, clean, jasmine- and hibiscus-scented air.

I like to listen and note the sounds I hear so I can later incorporate them into my writing. Lately, however, settling down enough to write is a challenge.

Enjoying a good book on a 5th-grade Saturday afternoon.

Enjoying a good book on a 5th-grade Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes I feel I would rather curl up in a good book and escape, but the To-Do list is heaping with extra tasks. Recently I decided to tackle some of the more mundane tasks (like sorting, clearing, cleaning) while listening to an old “book on tape” (which was actually an MP3).

It was a delightful experience that reminded me of elementary school when my teachers spent part of (almost) every afternoon reading a chapter or two in a novel. I even recall a few middle school teachers doing this on occasion. Back then, I enjoyed the “down time” as we were allowed to just listen and enjoy the story unfold. I recall thinking about the story later that day and sometimes even telling my younger sister about it.

Today, I enjoyed the time spent cleaning and thought about the story long after the tape concluded. I wanted more! It was a pleasant way to multitask and if I couldn’t stop the squirrels scampering through my head long enough to sit and read a book, then recorded books were a great option.

Listening to audio stories while organizing office.

Listening to audio stories while organizing office.

Then it hit me. The iPod icon on my iPad! I have rarely used it but now I opened it to discover I’d subscribed to several when I purchased my iPad, but I’d never listened. I went in search of short stories and writing-related options. Now, every afternoon I listen to someone read to me or interview a writer while I get tasks checked off my To-Do list. I feel more energized and settled — just as I do when I have a chance to read a good book — but I’m also trimming away that mile-long task list. And, in anticipation of the upcoming holidays, I’m looking for a few holiday stories I can listen to.

Here are a few of the “regular” podcasts I’ve been listening to:

EscapePod — new science fiction story each week
Clarkesworld — weekly science fiction story from the magazine. (To listen online, click a story title then “audio version” if that link appears.)
Fiction by The New Yorker — monthly story
Odyssey Writer’s Workshop — audio excerpts from workshop presentations at the annual Odyssey conference/workshop for fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers.

Look for them in your app/iTunes store or follow the website links to listen online. (Obviously I like science fiction.) Don’t forget the voice feature on many ebook readers either. Take the time to listen in and get motivated.

Insights on Aging from Charlie and Algernon

I’m plagued by thoughts of aging lately. Not so much in myself, though I’ll admit to moments of decrepit muscles and wormy memory. No, I’ve been shocked by changes in people around me. Perhaps it’s from having watched my father decline during the past year, but as neighbors return for “Season” I’m surprised that they seem much older and less spry. Because they are dressing younger and trying to act younger, my guess is they have aging on their minds too. It’s unsettling. I’ve always believed that you are truly as old as you feel and members of my family have been assumed much younger due to physical fitness and energy.

So where does this anxiety over aging come from? I’ve found clues in recently rereading Flowers for Algernon,  Daniel Keyes’ Nebula-winning novel. (Actually, the story has probably exacerbated my anxieties.) I had to read the novelette (which won the 1960 Hugo award) several times while in school. But I’ve finally read the novel, a goal ever since reading the book Algernon, Charlie, and I by Keyes about the writing of this award-winning story.

A writer's journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing "Flowers for Algernon."

A writer’s journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing “Flowers for Algernon.”

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the flowers are for the grave of a lab mouse named Algernon. Algernon was the successful subject of an experiment combining neurosurgery and a combination of enzyme and hormone injections to triple his intelligence. At least the researchers thought his results were successful. That’s when they decided to test it on Charlie Gordon, a young man with an IQ of 68. Within a few months his intelligence surpassed that of everyone involved in the research. Not until Charlie and Algernon are “displayed” at the annual psychological convention does Charlie realize a major flaw in the experiment.  By now his intelligence has peaked and Algernon is showing signs of decline. Charlie races against the time he has left to find a solution only to realize that the decline he will face is in direct correlation to the rapid increase in his intelligence. During the course of not quite eight months Charlie triples his intelligence and then returns to an IQ of around 70. The only problem is this time he holds a hazy understanding that the people around him whom he used to think of as mental giants are not as smart as he thinks they are. Unlike before the operation, he knows that when they joke with him they are really making fun of his low intelligence.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

As I read this novel I considered what it must be like to go from docile acceptance and contentment in a simple life to super-intellect marred by an inability to relate socially or emotionally with others. One of several problems Charlie faces is finding no one to talk to since even the brightest could not sustain conversations with his font of knowledge. Yet, how is this different from aging? Not simply the mental decline which may show itself in senility, but even the slower response as an octogenarian gathers thoughts before responding during conversation. Or, the slower movements septuagenarians develop to maintain balance and avoid minor injuries.

Charlie begins to stumble and must “remember” to walk carefully to avoid tripping — “knowledge” he regains in order to survive again with a double-digit IQ. I also think of Charlie having a sense that he used to know things, such as remembering reading a particular book but not recalling what it was about and opening it to discover he recognizes only a few words. Do the elderly have such feelings? Do they also have a sense that they used to know about a topic but cannot articulate facts or add to a discussion about it? I believe I saw such realizations cloud the eyes of my father during the last year. Not that the elderly have below-average intelligence but those feelings of “knowing” they “used to have” sharper reflexes, better recall, something to add which is new and thought-provoking—those realities of aging must make them at times feel like Charlie with a sense that what he once had is lost and he knows it.

The most touching part of the story is watching Charlie try to retain his knowledge but watching it slip through his fingers. Like sand in an hour glass, youth slips away. We can do nothing about it, really, except perhaps slow it, try to make it move at a different rate than it does for others. In the end, aging is a natural part of the cycle of life. Whether we work hard, play hard, or both, we move through the process of growth and decline and are left with a “knowing” that we accomplished something, that we lived our life. For some, like Charlie, we can feel happiness despite not being unable to recall why.

It’s interesting that children want to age, be older. I recall trying to look and act older all during my teens. And then, when we finally have that wisdom and respect we seem to seek in our youth, we feel the need to try to reverse time’s influence by dressing and acting younger. This cycle of life is strange indeed. Thanks to both Charlie and Algernon, I think I have enough insight to alleviate my anxieties. Here’s to living in the present and enjoying the knowledge, wisdom, and physical abilities we have in this moment.