Tag Archives: creativity

Addicted to Writing

What’s an author to do when her latest revision is out with beta readers? I’ve cleaned out a filing cabinet, swept a patio, written thank-you notes, read a novel, done a Sudoku puzzle (more than one, actually), but lordy, after a week, I need to be back at my desk. Am I crazy? Why can’t I stop writing? Why does one morning producing the most mundane of sentences give me a greater sense of satisfaction than anything I’ve done all week?

They really are mundane, these sentences. First a blank page, then dribble. Starting from scratch. Again.

Used to be that I found math especially rewarding. The orderliness of it… the patterns… the equations and solutions and diagrams and 2-D illustrations of 3-D objects and later calculus and its functions and measurements of x as y approaches infinity… but I started to wonder, why am I doing this?  Continue reading

Get a flow going

Last month I posted about endings, then tried my own suggestion: I wrote a possible final chapter. Once I had it, of course I had to write the scene that would come immediately before it. Then I wrote the scene before that one, and on back, scene by scene, until my ending scenes connected with the chapters I’d written from the beginning.

I had a complete first draft. Finally!

And it was fun to write the story backwards. It was freeing. It was crazy, loose writing—a lot of dialogue—and I admit that the manuscript is now a mess. But a first draft is done. The story now has a shape (an emotional arc) and the characters have come alive, and I can begin to dig deeper into scenes and add sensory details and check for continuity, etc.

The best part is that along the way, I had fun! I got a flow going. I gave myself permission to let go. To relax.  Continue reading

Welcome Ambiguity

My brother-in-law emailed me a quote from Richard Rohr, and I printed it on a scrap of paper, taped it above my writing desk, and now read it daily:

Richard Rohr

“…you cannot grow in the great art form, the integration of action and contemplation, without (1) a strong tolerance for ambiguity, (2) an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and (3) a willingness to not know and not even need to know. This is how you allow and encounter mystery…”

Ahhhhhhh. Read those words again.

In the early stages of writing a novel, so much is unclear. The characters’ motivations, the way the plot will unfold, the scenes that are necessary and the ones that aren’t—the writer has to sort out all of the details. The task is massive. The time it takes might stretch from months into years.

This early stage is the place where I find myself today. I’m creating new characters—nudging them, interviewing them, finding out what makes them tick, what they care about, what aspect of their story is worth telling. Little is clear, and I could despair about that. But Rohr reminds me to embrace the unknown. To forgive myself for the messiness and inefficiency of my writing process. To accept and tolerate ambiguity. To believe that somehow, somewhere along the way, a story will emerge.

If you’re embarking upon a new writing project as I am, post Rohr’s words above your writing desk. Hang in there with the ambiguity. No, don’t just hang. Embrace it. Welcome it. The story could go in any number of directions. Let yourself explore possibilities.

Let yourself encounter mystery.

Happy New Year!

Stocking Stuffer for Writers

The Halfway House for Writers is a book I’ll read again. And again. And again. Like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, this new gem by Valley Haggard is all about craft and process and perseverance and not beating yourself up. I found it so affirming, I couldn’t put it down. Well, no, that’s not quite true. I put it down so I could write. It made me want to write!

For two years I’ve had an idea for a personal essay, and half way through Halfway House, the essay came pouring out of me. Then I read some more. Then I wrote free hand, stream of consciousness. Then I read some more. I went back and forth between the book and writing, and it was a glorious, productive morning.

The title is deceiving. I think Halfway House will inspire artists of all kinds, not just writers. It nurtures the creative spirit. Valley’s approach is fresh and honest and real—a new wisdom for a new decade. Here are some excerpts:

Sitting on the Edge of the Pool

Push gently against your comfort zone—feel out the edge and then give the tiniest little push. You do not have to burst that bubble, to reveal all of yourself at once. You don’t have to smear the guts of your insides all over your outsides the very first time you sit down to write.

I think of easing into the writing process as putting one toe into the shallow end of the pool and then getting your ankles wet and then your thighs, rather than belly flopping off the high dive—although you can try that, too. The only goal is to end up in the pool eventually, allowing yourself to be bathed and baptized in the full experience of water.

Experiment

It’s a good practice to experiment with the tools of tense and point of view. They can help change the atmosphere, mood and direction of the story you’re telling. Try telling the story from the perspective of one of the characters you are writing about… Can you write memories from your childhood as if you were once again a child? Even a subtle change in perspective and point of view can create big changes in how you see—and write—your own stories.

Valley Haggard

Valley Haggard

This little book is like a cornucopia—a container so small that the abundance of insight comes spilling out and fills you with gratitude and you whisper, “Thank you.”

The creative process is what it is—a process. And if you’re like me, sometimes you spin your wheels questioning yourself, thinking your work is awful. This book reminds me that my process isn’t stupid or wrong; it’s simply my process, inefficient as it is, and I’m not the only writer with such a messy way of doing things. Thank you, Valley, for giving me permission to belly flop off the high dive and play with tense and point of view and most of all, to stop being so hard on myself.

My children haven’t become writers, but they’re über-creative and this year I’m stuffing their stockings with this book. (Jane—sshhh, I know you’re the only one of the kids who reads my blog; don’t tell the others.)

You can find the book at lifein10minutes.com.

Self-Doubt

I’m scared right now. Scared that I won’t be able to write another novel, or at least, not one worth reading. Sure, I know that I can finish one—that I can sit for hours and days and weeks and months at a time with a handful of characters and a setting—I’m not scared about the discipline of the process. I love the process. (Ten years ago, the necessary discipline would have scared me, so at least I’ve made progress with the process…)

I’m scared about the content. The voice. The authenticity of the characters. Can I write a novel that keeps readers turning pages? One that matters? This past weekend I watched a movie that entertained me, but at times I could feel the writer trying too hard to make a scene work. He wanted to establish a character’s motivation, create tension, get a laugh… and his presence took me out of the story. I fear that I make the same mistakes with my own writing, and the fear is blocking me from writing anything worthwhile.

Philip PullmanWill people read my books? Will they re-read them? I need to get past the self-doubt! I turned to interviews with prolific author Philip Pullman for advice, and found some here. About one of his own works-in-progress, he says, “I read it all again and think it’s horrible, and get very depressed. That’s one of the things you have to put up with.”

In this pep talk to National Novel Writing participants, he says,

… page 70 is where the misery strikes. All the initial excitement has drained away; you’ve begun to see all the hideous problems you’ve set yourself; you are horribly aware of the minute size of your own talent compared to the colossal proportions of the task you’ve undertaken; that’s when you really want to give up.

Then there are these words from an interview with Pullman at PsychCentral:

… don’t listen to people (such as publishers) who think that you need to write what readers say they want. Readers don’t always know what they want… So the only thing you need to do is forget about pleasing other people, and aim to please yourself alone. That way, you’ll have a chance of writing something that other people WILL want to read, because it’ll take them by surprise. It’s also much more fun writing to please yourself.

Thank you, Philip Pullman! I needed to step away from my fiction to wrestle with my doubts and draft this post… needed to accept the depression and fear as part of the process. This part isn’t fun, but I’ve said my piece and gotten it off my chest. Now I’m ready to dive back in. Come to think of it… I’m working on a scene in a chapter that’s pretty close to page 70…

Storytelling à la Pixar

Here is yesterday’s fabulous post from io9.com: The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar, written by storyboard artist Emma Coats, with an intro from io9 editor Cyriaque Lamar. This hits so many elements of the craft, I’m posting it on the bulletin board over my writing desk. Thank you, Emma, and thank you to io9.com, a daily publication that covers science, science fiction, and the future. You can see the original article here, but in case it disappears from the cloud, I’ve pasted it below. And how fun—in the moment when I took this screen shot, it captured the fact that two of my Facebook friends also gave this article a thumb’s up. Go Clay and Clete!

Storytelling accoring to PixarStorytelling according to Pixarstorytelling according to Pixar

On Joy

A while back, fellow VCFA alum Lindsey Lane asked if I had a favorite quote about writing—and I did—and in January she posted mine in the “Quotable Tuesday” column in her blog, The Meandering Lane. After doubting myself and my writing last week, what a joy it was this week to re-read what I’d sent to Lindsey. My favorite quote comes from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard:

Annie Dillard

One of the few things I know about writing is this:  spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.  Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.  These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.

 

This idea that something more will arise for later… that creativity begets creativity in the same way that love leads to more love, that it’s a growing thing, not something to hoard but something to give away because in the giving, somehow it grows into something even greater than it originally was… this is what excites me about writing. It’s what gets me up in the morning—this sense that I don’t yet know what might come of today’s writing. When I approach my writing with a sense of anticipation, of joy, of vulnerability because I’m opening myself up without knowing what I’ll find… I fall in love with the process. Again and again, I fall in love. It’s not about the finished product (well, yes, it is in the end, but it’s not along the way), but about the process of getting there.

For me, something about writing is therapeutic. It is spiritual. The process gives me a great sense of fulfillment. Now, I’m not talking about the business of writing. I’m talking about the process of creating something from nothing, a story from a blank white sheet of paper. I’m talking about wonder. About awe. About possibility, itself. About grace. About allowing my body to become a vessel through which a story tells itself. No, I’m not smoking anything funny while I’m writing this! I’m talking about joy. When I read Annie Dillard’s essays, I feel joy. That is what I love about writing.

The Liebster Award

A little love came my way recently. Richmonder Marci Rich, who writes The Midlife Second Wife, nominated my blog for the “Liebster Award,” a recognition of bloggers by bloggers. A condition of Award-receipt is that I, in turn, recognize five blogs that I love—five blogs that each have fewer than 200 followers. It’s a lovely little way to encourage blog traffic while identifying blogs that shine and speak to us. Thank you, Marci!

My first thought was to award The Liebster to fellow craft-of-writing bloggers, but there’s a blog I follow that isn’t about writing, per se, and I just have to start with that one:

1. Written by Pam Watts, whom I met in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Strong in the Broken Places shakes me up and makes me think. Abused as a child, Pam decided to write her blog “to help the lives of children living through adversity. It’s about abuse and neglect and homelessness and any other number of really tough issues children face in our society today. And it’s about what we as children’s book people can do to help them.” Her posts remind me of the many ways literature can make a difference in a kid’s life—how the books we write really do matter. Thank you, Pam!

2. Almost every time I read Valley Haggard’s posts, I’m struck by the honesty of the writing. By her willingness to dig deep and speak truths I’d feel embarrassed to admit. I’m still working hard to overcome my mother’s mantra: don’t-air-your-dirty-laundry. When I read Valley’s writing, I feel exhilarated. It’s daring. Exciting. Freeing. Her writing invites me to loosen mine, to get real, to dig deep, to experiment on the page. Thank you, Valley!

3.  Another blogger whose writing helps me loosen up is Shann Palmer, author of the chapbook, Change. Her blog, Shann Palmer says, is all about poetry. Some of her stuff is fun, some serious, some playful, some hateful. Always honest. “If I can do it, you can do it,” she tells everyone. “Try a poem a day. Just try it!” Shann’s encouragement is contagious, and gets me to take off my critical-lit student hat and relax. Play with words. See where they take me. Have fun. Again—such a freeing blog to read. Is there a theme here? I love blogs that invite me to loosen up and experiment with my writing.

4. Then there is Lindsey Lane who writes The Meandering Lane “because a writer doesn’t always go in a straight line.” A playwright, author of Snuggle Mountain (Clarion 2003, and available as an iPhone/iPad app), and fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts alum, Lindsey is another writer who strokes my creative side. From Austin, Texas, she blogs about the writer’s life and how we have to face our fears and step out on thin, bendy branches to find a whole new point of equilibrium in our stories.

5. My fifth Liebster Award goes to Kristi Tuck Austin’s River City Fiction, a blog in a bit of a hiatus now, but soon to be back with book reviews and more. Kristi writes about her experiences connecting with readers, authors, librarians, and booksellers in Richmond, Virginia. Currently drafting her own novel, Kristi will be coordinating James River Writers’ 2012 professional development series, The Writing Show, a monthly panel of speakers waxing eloquent about the craft and business of writing. Stay tuned…

Thank you, all, for making the blogging world more fun, dynamic, and creative.

On Creativity

Last month a young woman told me she was pursuing a PhD in children’s literature instead of an MFA because she “wasn’t creative enough” to write fiction. She reminded me of a time when I thought I wasn’t creative enough. A time when I preferred orderliness to messiness. A time when I was good at regurgitating facts and taking tests. A time when I didn’t understand or appreciate the nonlinear nature of the creative process—a process that isn’t easy to judge with an alphabetical grade: A minus, B plus.

Creativity is messy. It involves trial-and-error. Play. Experimentation. En route to the finished piece, a lot of work product gets thrown out. A whole lot—volumes more than what appears in the final manuscript, the final painting, the final musical score. The creative process is time-consuming and all-encompassing and often a singular activity, and I now pour hours of myself into it every week. It’s the most rewarding process I know. To create something from nothing is life-affirming and life-changing.

Although the goal might be the finished product—the book, the painting, the musical score, the play—the joy is in the process, itself. There are lots of books out there about embracing the process. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is one I’d recommend. When I read it, I thought some of her suggested activities sounded lame, but I did them, anyway, and the results surprised me. The activities loosened me up. My writing started to flow. It wasn’t polished writing, but at least it was flowing. Later I would figure out how to polish it.

When a person tells me she is not creative enough, I don’t buy it. We’re born to create. People who think they’re not creative enough probably have too strong of an internal editor or critic wagging a finger at them. Too much of a need to please some sort of parental figure or teacher. When we let go of that need to please and create for the sake of creativity, we discover infinite possibilities within. As Annie Dillard reminds us, such things “fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”