Lastest Obsessions

Hi friends!

You’ll probably all laugh at me when I say I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging regularly, because when has that ever happened? But I do kind of miss when I used to blog more than once a month, and I’m working on all kinds of things in all kinds of places, so maybe I’ll get better at sharing them with you too.
Stranger things have happened.

I don’t really know if stranger things have actually happened, but it seems appropriate.

I’ve been coming across/using/experiencing all kinds of fabulous things lately so I thought it would be a good time to share some with you. Here’s the top five things I’ve been obsessed with this week, and if y’all find this helpful or useful, maybe I’ll try to do it more regularly.

1) My Fitbit! My work is doing this health promotion something or other so we could sing up for a free fitbit and do a six week challenge. Not only have I realized just how much I underestimate the caloric value of half a bag of Skittles or takeout Chinese, but I’ve been weirdly motivated to get my 10k steps and 10 flights of stairs which is hopefully going to help with the whole preferring my couch to anything else problem. The feature I love best is the sleep tracker. According to it, even when I think I gave myself a good 5-5.5 hours of sleep, I’m only getting decent sleep for about 3.5 hours a night. I guess that’s why I yawn all the time? Hard to say. Anyways, it’s a fun way to get more tuned in to my health, and has a bonus of giving me all kinds of sci-fi ideas!

2) “My Shot” from the Hamilton soundtrack and “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” by Fallout Boy. I looooooove the first one for walking to (as I walk in actual circles in my living room to get my 10k steps until I’m too dizzy to go on) and in general when you need a pick me up. The second one I’ve been writing to for a couple days now – there’s almost always at least a few Fallout Boy songs on my various writing playlists, but this one is giving life to a challenging scene where I have to explain the fundamental underpinnings of the kind of magic kind of not in a non-boring way. Plus it’s just catchy and makes me chair dance. Good thing I write at 5 am so no one sees me.

3) Along the writing refrain, I am LOVING the Writer Igniter tool from DIY MFA. I recently wrote a draft of a short story to submit to an anthology, and I’m eying a couple other short story opportunities, but I have trouble coming up with ideas that don’t require 80k of explanation. This generator pulls together the elements of a story in a way that gives me something intriguing to work with but helps me stay just a little detatched from it so I can play with words without getting so invested and deep into the work. It’s a really relaxing way to play with words, which is something I haven’t historically been very good at.

4) My Kindle! I just got this in December, and I’m still not big on reading fiction on screen. I got terrible headaches from reading on screens before and I think I just have a phobia now, plus my eyes get tired after a while. But what I LOVE my Kindle for is reading nonfiction! I am a huge fan of productivity, creativity, and business/marketing/organization books, but nonfiction can be really expensive. With my Kindle, I can use Overdrive to find almost all the nonfiction books I could want and read them for free. This has really helped accelerate my nonfiction reading, and the bonus is that it’s small and light – my movement disorder has affected my hand strength, and sometimes books make my hands cramp up. No such problem with my Kindle!

5) Making “art”. I put this in quotes because there has never been nor will there ever be someone who can call the kind of drawing I do art. I call my style MidAmerican Kindergartner, but that’s probably overselling it. However, I’m finding a LOT of relaxation and fun in getting out my sketchbook and a pack of papermate bright color felt tipped markers and just doodling until it makes something. I did this while listening to an audiobook last night, and found it the most relaxing, easy night ever. I am not good at sitting still or relaxing or any of those things, and audiobooks have never worked for me before because I can’t hold my attention on them. However, drawing gave me just enough of something else to focus on without getting totally swept into it and I managed to listen for over an hour. It’s kind of nice to do something so terribly I know there’s no hope of improvement. It gives me permission to just play.

A theme of this week’s obsessions is finding ways to defeat my own…drive? I don’t even know what word to use, but I am generally someone who either doesn’t do something or does it with every single ounce of energy and pursuit of quality I can. I think this works out in my career, but as a general life strategy it can be a little exhausting sometimes, and I catch myself diving into projects even when I know I’m tired or don’t have the right mindset yet. I’m hoping that with things like making “art” and playing with short stories from outside ideas I’m not so invested in, I can teach myself to have fun in a way that still feeds the productive side of myself.
As I type that I realize that still probably doesn’t sound right as a method for enjoying things but alas. Such is my superpower.

Anyways, there you have it – my obsessions of the week. Are any of these new to you? What obsessions of your should I look into?

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The One Where I Wake Up

I have always loved the start of a new year- new goals, renewed commitments, a thoughtful review of the past and a hopeful eye for the future. This year is no different, and as we wrap up the first full week, I am feeling pretty excited about my new, improved but not perfected, routine.
I share because I think I’m not alone in constantly trying to find the right balance of work and rest, creative expression and creative restoration, output and input. It’s a challenge to figure out not just how you write best but also how to make that work with the realities of your life. My new method won’t be for everyone, certainly. Right now I’m able to enjoy the advantages of not having wee babes placing buckets of demands on my time and attention, and I only work one full time job. YMMV of course, but perhaps this will still prove useful in some way and help you think about where you could change something to better satisfy you and fit your creativity and life together.

The new schedule: I wake up at 4:45 am. As a lifelong night owl and hater of mornings, this is the most radical change. I write for the first 1/2 hour-45 minutes, however long it takes to journal a page and then add 1k to my MS. Then I spend roughly half an hour doing my quiet time, which fits my resolution to return to some practices of my faith that I’ve neglected the past couple years. Then I make some kind of breakfast, usually slow-cooked eggs and either toast or a bagel with peanut butter, get dressed, find a lunch, and generally prepare for the day, with an aim of leaving between 7:00 and 7:20 am. This allows me to get to work 15-20 minutes early to do some work-related reading and prep for the day beforehand instead of flying along haphazardly as I used to.

What went well:
At the same time as I started this new schedule, I decided to make the switch to fair trade coffee after a number of articles and books and blogs about the atrocities of modern slavery in most major coffee supply chains crossed my path. It usually takes me a few times of hearing something for it to catch my attention, but over six months this issue came up several times and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I decided to switch, but fair trade is, obviously and rightly, more expensive, and I can’t afford dependence on it. Shockingly, I was still able to function. I was tired several times and almost drifted off at work once, but on the whole I’m impressed with how much less caffeine I’ve taken in while waking so early.

I also managed to get up all five days! Six, because I got up this morning also just to keep the momentum going. Usually in all my morning initiatives I’ve petered out by day three, four at the max.
I’ve stayed off social media until after the first two hours of being awake, which was important to me and I’m proud of.

I ate three meals per day all five days. Most of this year I’ve had the very unhealthy habit of skipping all but supper, and suffering the consequences in my metabolism and energy.

I’ve slept EXTREMELY soundly 4/6 nights which for me is a huge deal. Normally I have a terrible time falling asleep and am plagued by extreme nightmares, night sweats, frequent waking, sometimes racing thoughts or restlessness, and generally unsatisfying sleep. Now that I’ve cut down to 5 or 5.5 hours per night, it’s not a perfect fix but I’ve had much more success and haven’t even needed melatonin.

The writing itself has been fairly smooth. I’ve written 6k and read 1/3 of a craft book so far, plus journaled about my sleepiness and my book every morning, and because it’s so early and because it’s just the expectation that I work, without room for not feeling like it, it’s easier to just sit down and begin.

I have loved feeling less rushed. It’s been very nice to have a slow, satisfying, accomplishing morning and feel like things are under control. I used to dread early meetings because I knew it wold be a mad rush and I’d probably be late, and now I don’t have to. I’m ready and my mind is engaged, which is really nice.

What hasn’t gone as well:
Exercising. And cleaning, for that matter. When I get home around 5 or 6, I’ve been so exhausted that even cooking a real dinner has been a struggle. My house is a mess and I’ve gotten zero exercise, which is something I was hoping to incorporate, so I’ve felt a little like a failure for not being able to find a place for either of these things- or, to be completely honest, not finding enough leftover willpower for accomplishing these things.

Reading. Same problem, too tired to read, but I’m also just going through the slump that often happens to me when I start a new book. I’m trying to keep reading some every day, and to let myself start as many books as I want while trusting I’ll eventually get through them all. I did finish one today and I’m in the middle of 3 or 4 others.

Stamina. Monday Tuesday and Wednesday I was exhausted but did a great job staying off of social media more all throughout the day, staying away from caffeine more, getting up after just one or two alarms so I was actually ahead of schedule, and feeling positive about the project. By Thursday and Friday it was really work to prep my mind for the idea of getting up, though I did it, and I drank more caffeine. Friday I slept through nine minutes of a song blasting through my bedroom as the first alarm, and while I build in time for these problems in my routine, it was a little concerning as this is precisely what I’m trying to avoid by getting up outside the window of time that has been so groggy for me historically. I also poked around more Friday morning and only got to work 15 mins early which wasn’t enough to do anything worthwhile.
This morning I got up and did some things but then said since it as Saturday I could take a nap- and slept from 6:30 to 10:45. Oops.

Things to improve: I would like to try and routinize my evening a bit more. If it’s a plan and commitment, as my morning is, perhaps I’d be better at following through. The problem is my work schedule is long and somewhat unpredictable- this week I work until 7 pm two nights, 5 pm one night, 6 pm one night, and anywhere between 4 and 5 pm the last night. It’s not ideal, as it’s both harder to develop a routine and, by virtue of being 10 and 11 hours workdays, leaves me completely exhausted. But I might try making a routine from say 8:30 to 10:30 pm, which are the hours that are for sure within my control. I definitely want to find a way to do less tv and less social media, and more reading plus making sure I cook at least 3/5 nights and fit some kind of exercise in somewhere.

So that is a massively long recap of week one of the Hunger Games. I mean, week one of my new routine. If you’ve hung in there with me, what kinds of routines and rituals have you built into your day to allow you time to work on writing? What elements of your day mean the most to you? Do you have suggestions and ideas for how to fit more in or how to structure am evening routine?

Eying the coffee with hungry eyes,

J

Editor’s note: I wrote this on Saturday, and WordPress was The Worst and wouldn’t post it. Today, Sunday, I take a sabbath from the time I wake up until 6 or so, so I didn’t follow the new schedule. I’ll judge tomorrow if that will work or if I need to get up every morning to keep from losing momentum.

Seeing Shadows

I’m a nomad by circumstance, if not by nature. Throughout my life, for whatever reason, circumstances have conspired so I haven’t spent longer than two years in any one setting, academic or professional, since seventh grade. It has never been my intention, but whether because of a career change, graduate school, or pursuit of the bigger and better, I have been in a perpetual state of change that has come with a consistent timeline. And now, my brain and heart, well-tuned to the seasons and the routines of my life, are noticing it’s almost time to pick up stakes again.

Only, I’m not sure it is. See, I am both nomad and settler. I long to feel I belong, and live in terror of sameness. I search out the unique, the unusual, and the fresh, and yet some place inside hungers for a true sense of home. These parts of me seem to be at war with each other. I haven’t found the right balance, the right place and time and circumstance where I feel safe and at rest, and yet not bored. It’s a boundary cloaked in confusion, even for me.

What I’ve noticed, in my years of nomading, is that the shadows become easier to see with time. I’m a social worker by trade, and most of my professional career has been spent in small towns. Here’s the thing about social work, which is also a Thing about writing: it deals with the deepest and darkest. The work I have chosen for myself, both with the person and on the page, is about diving into the secret places, the hidden things, the private and personal and often ugly. And what I’ve realized is that the longer I stay in a place, or with a project, the easier it becomes to see that darkness, and to have that darkness slowly cover everything else.

You’re probably a writer, if you’re here. Maybe you’re a social worker. STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED. But I’m wondering if it’s possible that you, too, have begun to see the shadows more clearly than the light. That’s thing about any profession that confronts truth. Truth is often cloaked in shadows, and reluctant to give up it’s cover. Spend enough time in the shadows, and you begin to forget what it is you’re pursuing there. The shadows become heavy. They crowd out other images – other experiences, the balance of the good, the joy you usually use as armor – and they wrap themselves around you with conviction.

The longer I spend in a town who’s secrets have become familiar to me, the more I see the cracked foundations, the sidewalk that lists to the left, the burned out streetlight near the park. I see the sagging front porches, the darkened windows, the plastic bags tossing in the breeze across yards of browned grass and abandoned toys.

The longer I spend in a writing project, the more I see it’s flaws. I see the listless plot points, the characters who either lack fullness or perhaps are full and yet are despicable somehow, because aren’t we all in some way? I get mired in a draft, loss in the restlessness of the middle or an unresolved end; I find myself stagnating in revisions, when I’ve torn a book apart and start to wonder if there’s any life left in it. It’s nothing but ugly truths and shifting shadows.

Here’s a truth I’ve learned in all my nomading, through books and lives and towns, through relationships and places and versions of myself, too: The ability to see beyond the shadows is a skill to be developed and maintained. How difficult it is to obtain in the first place depends on a myriad of factors, not least of which is your unique brain chemistry, your genetics, your temperament, your personal history, and your general inclination to see either darkness or light. How difficult it is to maintain depends on all those things, and one more – your awareness of the shadows themselves.

You can’t fight something you’re not aware of. You can’t push shadows back if you believe they’re fact. Immoveable. You can’t chase the shadows away if you believe the world to be comprised of nothing else.

The shadows are real. Small towns harbor plenty of sorrows, stories are broken, the world can be a dark and sad place. But shadows are neither reality nor truth. Somewhere beneath them, under a slithering mass of slippery darkness, hidden in the depths of the smooth midnight mists and all the broken things, is a truth far bigger than the shadows hiding it. Even a cracked and barren earth can bring forth flowers in the unlikeliest of places. Even a town with rough edges holds a hundred beautiful souls. Even a slashed up, shredded apart story will become something lovely and true.

Don’t forget about the shadows, my friends. If you, like me, have been feeling a little lost, a little broken, a little lonely, a little confused, lift up your hands and press the night away. Enlist help. Take your time. Truth will be there on the other side, no matter how long it takes you to find it.

 

 

 

About the Losing of Ways and the Possibility of Finding Them Again

Here is a list of reasons I didn’t want to write this post:

1) I thought I might look like a failure – until I realized I am the one who defines failure for myself, and regardless, I am more interested in being of some help to somebody than anyone’s concerns about my failure or lack thereof.
2) I thought an agent might read it and think I wasn’t up to the task of building a career – until I realized, if I may be blunt, that I only want to work with agents who are, themselves, human, and susceptible to struggles and faults, as well as understanding of those things in their probably mostly human authors.
3) I wanted to be able to end it with a bang – I struggled but TADA THEN I GOT AN AGENT AND A SEVENTEEN BOOK DEAL AND ALSO I WAS ELECTED QUEEN OF THE MOON HOORAY!. Until I realized that bang of excitement at the end is really what this post is all about.

Here’s the thing – I don’t feel very much like a writer today. I haven’t felt like a writer for quite some time, at least two months, but maybe more. I haven’t felt like a writer because I got lost in other people’s voices, through that beautiful demon social media, and couldn’t remember what I liked or didn’t like in a story anymore. I haven’t felt like a writer because I celebrated so many people’s successes with real joy but also with a continually stronger feeling of being left behind and inadequate. I haven’t felt like a writer because story became stilted, words were hard to access, and I began to feel I was spending far, far too long in this Almost But Not Quite world (where people love my stories but just need a little something more, a bit more polish, a slightly more likable character, less words, more words, just a spark, something to overcome the like but not love) and I was starting to feel like I was fundamentally flawed somewhere in the deepest down part of me so that my writing would never climb above where it was.

So I stopped writing. And since, for the better part of two years, I have largely defined myself as a writer, and since the term “writer” has been the single solid element of an identity that has shifted numerous times over the past several years, I felt entirely lost.

But to my surprise, the world didn’t end. I thought it might, since words weren’t my thing anymore and I really didn’t have a different thing. I thought it might, since writing wasn’t my morning and evening and I really hadn’t considered doing anything different with my time. I thought it might, since I wanted it so badly it colored my dreams and my walks and my conversations, and without it I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything left.

Here’s what was left: pancake breakfasts. Second hand books. The crunch of ruby and gold leaves under my feet, the first slash of October wind against my cheeks, the comfort of falling into bed exhausted from the emotional and mental toll of a day job I love but also give everything to some days. Movies with my sister. Long drives through countrysides ripe with wheat and corn, bathed in long sunbeams and watched over by long stretches of brilliant blue skies. Small children saying red is a “cemetary” color, or beaming as they inform me they might have been “thinking” for the first time, or inchworming across a classroom to get out of nap time. Long chats with my coworkers. Flashes of ideas, drops of inspiration, the constant sense that the world remained, as it has always been, just slightly larger than everything I’m able to capture with my senses; infused with magic and possibilities and deep veins of mysteries that remain unsolved.

Here are some more things that were left: children in crisis, with hurting hearts that need my help to stay unlocked and unbroken. Family tragedies. My own health fluctuations. The sense of being completely overwhelmed by the vast range of terrible, hurtful moments and the impossibly joyful ones – by the distance between them, by how close it could be sometimes, by the heavy aching weight in my chest when both these things were too much for me and the emotions were too many and since I wasn’t fleeing into words I had to stay and confront, accept, come to terms with, everything the world was offering me.

Here is what I know: I stopped writing, and it hasn’t broken me. I stopped writing, and I didn’t become blind. I stopped writing, but I didn’t stop creating, because creating is a thing that’s in your blood, in your bones, in your spirit. When your heart is creation you simply can’t see the world any other way. Your burden is to be exquisitely awake, in tune with your feelings, with the painful hope beating in your chest, with the breathlessness of a beautiful moment gone before you can be quite filled up by the sensation, with the misery of things that are so, so close and yet can’t quite be completely absorbed. This will not vanish on you. You will not suddenly become unaware of the world. You will not be closed off.
You might wish for it sometimes.
Maybe you will be equal parts afraid of it and desperate for it.
But your heart will not grow quiet, except in a peaceful, observant sort of way.

I haven’t been writing in the same way. I don’t necessarily feel like the same person I was a few months ago. I’m still waiting to see how it’s all going to shake out.

For a long time writing meant late nights at an old, borrowed laptop in my bedroom after homework was done. Then it meant snatches over summers, without any real aim. Then it was an act of quiet desperation because everything in my world kept changing from month to month, and for a while I didn’t know if I had another month or not, and words helped me through it. Now, it seems, writing means being alive. In tune. It looks like a few mornings a week, without too much worry over total wordcount or anything much except how those words feel and if they are true. It looks like an evening, here and there, at the kitchen table with a list of revisions to make and ear for the heart of the story I always meant to tell, underneath all the noise around it. It looks like taking the time required to really notice and appreciate the exact angle sun through October leaves makes, and the time involved in deciphering what that feeling that clenches my lungs and aches in my chest is in it’s purest form, and the necessary time to be not just a writer, but a daughter, and a sister, and a friend, and a person. Without agendas or schedules or career expectations. Without fear, and with plenty of questions.

Am I a writer? I don’t know. It probably depends on your definition, and your reason for asking, and the baggage you assign to the term. What I know is that I am, in my bones and my blood, a lover of stories. I am the kind of person who can say to the world, I see the story in you, and it matters to me. I will give it it’s due. I will listen, and I will see, and I will experience with every bit of me I can offer. Fully awake. Fully aware.

And maybe, as it has in small pieces for now, this being alive will translate to words on a page.

I wish I had more to offer you, but this is the thing – your hope is not found in an agent, a book deal, a career path, even a finished manuscript. Your hope is found in your unwavering determination to live not in a day to day sort of way but in the moment to moment, through open eyes and hands, through a willing heart. Your hope is the belief that stories shape us, and give meaning to our experiences in the world, and that perhaps at any moment you may be called upon to give voice to one such story. Writer. Not writer. We are fluid, nebulous, difficult to define beings as people, and this is our birthright – the only thing that matters is story.

An Assemblage of Memories

I’ve been cleaning my house all summer, which isn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that I really don’t clean if I can help it. But my housekeeping habits are not, thankfully, the subject of this post.

In the process of cleaning, I gave away a shirt my sister gave me. It was peach, light and cottony, drawstringed at the bottom. It had a hole, and it didn’t fit me anymore. I’m only now realizing how much I regret having given it away- and not just because my sister happened to see it and even though she has said a hundred times she doesn’t mind, I still feel bad about it.

I regret letting go of the visual memory in that shirt. I was living in a rented basement full of spiders that was never ever warmer than fifty degrees, I had a job and an internship, both of which I hated, and I was finishing graduate school on the weekends. Looking back, I’m relatively certain I was depressed because the three things I remember most are angry tears, trying to drag myself out of bed in the morning, and a sense of grief and isolation. My sister overnighted a package to me in the midst of all this darkness. It had a bottle of lavendar nail polish, a package of gummi worms, and the shirt. I cried for hours over how much hope those three things gave me when I thought I couldn’t find any.

It was a horrendous time in my life and to this day I cope with it by alternately joking and pretending it never happened. The shirt served it’s purpose- it gave me hope, uplifted me, reminded me that people loved me and would no matter how bad things got for me. It didn’t fit. It had a hole. It was right to give it away, and yet I regret it because in just a glance from the shadows of my closet or a touch of the soft fabric, I could remember all of these things.

There are other things in my life heavy with memories. The t-shirt I wore on the worst date of my life. The song I listened to on my drives home from overnight CNA shifts on a dementia unit. The orangey cinnamon perfume I wore my first year of college. The smell of spaghetti cooking on a cold winter evening. Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, which transports me home to the living room of age ten while my sister played piano and my dad sang as he did the dishes and I didn’t worry about anything of consequence. The strong sharp chai I drank doing homework at my childhood friend’s kitchen table. The lumpy stuffed lamb I’ve had all my life, part puppet and part stuffed animal. The coarse flannel of the blanket I was given after finishing my final performance in high school theatre. The feel of cold winter wind in my hair and thumping bass as I drove home from community theatre rehearsals my first year in a small town after college. The taste of a banana shake the day the neurologist confirmed I wasn’t dying. The smell of fresh hay and cut grass through the windows as I drove home ahead of a moving trailer when I finally left that terrible basement and horrible year behind.

The things that hold our memories aren’t always obvious until something happens. You turn on the radio and suddenly you’re fifteen and falling in love again. You sit down to dinner and suddenly you’re caught in a moment of pride and joy and celebration from ten years ago even though in this time it’s just another Tuesday night. You send a shirt out the door and realize it was holding a tiny piece of your heart. It’s like meeting yourself coming and going- encountering the ghosts of all the selves you’ve been, and maybe a few you aren’t just yet. Seeing yourself as a stranger, just for a moment.

This is good. The only way to know who you are is to see who you’ve been- all the good and all the bad, all the broken and all the whole- and acknowledge that pieces of all those past selves are still in you. But they’re also not you anymore. You are more than the sum of your experiences and moments. You are more than your triumphs, mistakes, broken hearts, angry words, shed tears, greatest achievements. You are a future in which all of those pieces have impact but not power. You are the accumulation of every one of those things plus something more. The person you’re becoming. Give your moments and memories their due. Look around you, touch, smell, listen. Then make it all mean something.

A World In The Palm of My Hand

I was talking about writing with a lovely friend tonight, and we were discussing how to build the world of a story. We agreed that one of the most terrifying things is the sensation that you’re writing yourself into a corner and you’ll never be able to get yourself or your characters out. We talked about taking risks, making false starts, and all those other fun adventures books tend to take us on.

Then we started talking about how to move forward in a story when we’re not sure what happens next. There’s a lot of buzz about character-driven stories and letting the characters lead, and I completely agree with that. But something I realized through this last round of revisions I did was that usually, in order to write a character-driven story, we must explore the unknown through the eyes of the character. That can be frustrating and confusing, though, when you don’t KNOW how a character might see something, not to mention why. So I thought I’d share a little trick with you that I’ve only just started using in my writing, and you can tell me how it goes!

My education is in social work, and one of the myriad theoretical foundations for the practice of social work is something called systems theory. Systems Theory is a way of viewing the world with the idea that people exist in a series of systems, both internal and external. These systems act on people who in turn act upon the systems, and the more people and systems involved, the more complicated both the problems and the solutions. This theory is summed up by the phrase, “Person in Environment,” which is a solutions-focused concept that suggests problem solving begins by recognizing that a person is influenced by everything from their country down to whether or not they have a stomachache, and that solving the problem requires recognition and analysis of systems first. It’s a way of understanding not just what has happened but the nuances of why and how, and a way of recognizing that certain solutions to problems may only create more problems in other systems.

This gets much more complicated, and I’d actually encourage you to research it if the idea is interesting to you, because I rely heavily on it both in my day job and in my writing. But hearing about theoretical concepts can get confusing, so let’s give it some legs.

Parks and Rec is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and the episode where Leslie is trying to keep the Parks budget from being cut is an excellent example of systems going awry. Leslie convinces a councilman not to cut the Parks budget, but because the money must come from somewhere, she learns the animal shelter will be closed to obtain the funds. She doesn’t want that to happen, so she does some research and finds some unnecessary jobs to get rid of which will make room in the budget. However, when she does that, her best friend’s job gets cut.

I won’t tell you more because some of you guys might be crazy and not have watched every single episode eighteen times, but you can already see the issues. Leslie wants to solve the problem right in front of her, and she sees that problem only from her perspective as a Parks employee. She makes her decision from a position where the systems exterior to her are the state, the city, the local government, the parks department, her immediate friends, her neighborhood, etc. Interior systems are her passion for the parks, her loyalty to city/government, her drive to solve problems, etc. Because of her unique perspective and relationship to the systems around her, Leslie doesn’t see the problem or her first (or even second) solution clearly which causes a whole string of new problems.

This is where it benefits you as a writer – your character exists within some kind of array of systems, and every one of them exercises some level of impact on your character. When you get stuck and don’t know what happens next, or you’re having trouble figuring out motivations or who your character is, think about systems. How is your character impacted by her geographic location? The times in which she lives? The political, religious, cultural surroundings? How do these things shape her reaction to your plot events, and how does it shape the choices she makes in response to those events?

I recently used these ideas in my own revisions. I realized that most of the book as it used to be was just my character being acted upon by the other characters and floating along, always reacting to other choices and not making her own. I knew I didn’t want that and I read everything I could get my hands on about making characters more active, but I still struggled because I felt like I didn’t know enough about her to know what she might do when NOT just reacting. It wasn’t until I thought more about her background of poverty, and how that might cause her not to trust the systems around her, to distrust sources of help someone else might naturally turn to, and to view the world as being against her, that I could begin to understand how she might think and act. Revisions were still difficult – are they ever not? – but I finally understood my character, and that moved the story forward. I understand how my character saw the world until I figured out how that world has shaped her view.

Maybe this’ll open up a flood of new ideas for you and maybe it’s just confusing, but if you decide to give it a shot, let me know how it goes!

How my sister reminded me that creativity is a good thing

First of all, thanks so much for your support regarding my last post! I was super nervous about putting it out there, but y’all were so kind, and I received so many notes from people going through similar things and needing the encouragement, that it was absolutely worth it.

Anyways, on to today’s post – I used to live really far from my family, but now that I live closer, my baby sister has spent a week or two at a time with me over this summer so far. Sometimes it shrinks the amount of time I can work, but it’s totally worth it: a) because I love my sister, and b) because she wants to write books, and has started working on one already. And the thing is, watching her both at work and at play reminded me about some things I forgot, things that I used to know when I first started writing and that seem to have escaped me more recently. Maybe you’ve forgotten too.

First: Creativity is a good thing! I remember in middle and high school, staying up as late as I possibly could tapping away on an ancient Gateway laptop that creaked noisily at all times and occasionally went white screened for a few minutes for no particular reason. It had no Internet capabilities, and the Internet was slow back then. I didn’t have a cell phone, and then even when I did it was just a prepaid one with limited minutes and zero other functions. So when I wrote, I wrote. For hours, alone in the lamplight, lost in the story. I lived for those chunks of writing time, and at a time when so much of my identity was still under development and tangled up in the messy confusion of those years, I knew for a fact that I was a writer. I was a creative person, and my creativity exhilarated me with it’s potential.
I forget that now. Writing is a part of my life I generally take for granted. Sometimes it’s more burden than anything else. I still love the words, but fitting it into an extremely busy schedule does feel like work more than not, and as I dive deeper into the bloodletting of revision, the science and study and art of carving up a story from my fingers and turning it into a Book, there are times when it’s really not all that fun. I get distracted by Twitter and texting and staring into space. I carve out huge chunks of time but really only focus for maybe 40 or 50%. When I watched my baby sister write, it was sheer joy. Her face would light up and her pen would go so fast it seemed like she could hardly keep up with herself. When she did get stuck or lose track of her way, she tucked her notebook back in it’s spot and went on with her life, content and able to wait until she found her way again. No stress. And more importantly, no fear.
Creativity is joy and passion. It is often work, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be because I firmly believe that if you abandon everything that doesn’t bring you immediate joy or requires effort from you, you’ll never really complete anything. But it doesn’t have to be drudgery or based in fear.

Second: My sister made writing part of her life, but not in this dreary, proscribed, dutiful fashion. Her heart was in it, intensely, for brief periods of time, and then when she wasn’t writing she flung herself into other activities. She still plays with Barbies, and she’d have the floor of my living room covered in various families and clothing and shoes and whatever little paper-based structures and things she made for them. She engaged in play unselfconsciously, sometimes related to her book but usually not, and she was entirely focused on that. She colored, she helped me cook, she did lots of things that had nothing at all to do with her book, and she had no guilt for that.
I’m an achiever. I can’t help it, I’ve always thrown my whole self into everything, but it can become problematic at times. I have workaholic tendencies, and sometimes I get tunnel vision so I can’t see beyond the immediacy of what I’m doing in the moment. I have to remind myself that other hobbies, things that have nothing whatsoever to do with words, are okay. Healthy, even. I could take up playing the piano again, or do more with my growing cooking hobby, or play a videogame or even color a picture myself, and I don’t have to feel guilty that that time’s not going to writing. Writing will always be there, words aren’t going to leave, but time is going to pass and my life will be what I construct it to be. I want it to be a whole, healthy, flourishing thing – and that, in turn, will feed my writing much more than some kind of forced and dutiful routine. That’s not to say routine isn’t important. My sister wrote every single day she was here. But routine and obligation don’t have to be synonyms.

Third: My sister’s heart is in her story. It is uniquely hers in every possible way, and she’s proud of it. She loves it. She’s very aware of it’s faults (both real and imagined, like any good writer) and she’s the first to spot mistakes, but she loves it. She talks about it with everyone. It comes up in casual conversation. She doesn’t criticize it as compared to other writers, and she’s not so focused on how it’ll fit in the market, whether it’s conventional or edgy or YA or adult, she doesn’t have the first clue about pacing. But she loves the story, and it shows in her work.
This last lesson is a tricky one to transmit. As a more developed writer, it’s natural for me to have a strong awareness of the market, people’s expectations, expected reader reactions, categories and style, and all the other structural pieces of writing a good book. But sometimes, because of our intimacy with the nuts and bolts, we can’t stand back and see the creation as a whole. We notice the slight tilt of the flooring, that corner where the paint already chipped, how the front door window is just barely not quite in the center, but we miss the comfortable grace of the story home we’ve built. This kind of intense focus on our story faults can make us shyer and quieter, hesitant to discuss our stories for fear someone will ask how it’s going and we’ll have to answer honestly. It can make us afraid, which in turn can crush the very creativity we so need to foster. If we can find that illusive balance between knowing our markets and our publishing business, and still loving the little seeds of stories we carry in our hearts, and more importantly find a way to transplant that seed from our hearts to the page without judging the sapling for not being so sturdy, I think we’d all be more joyful, and more creative, writers. Don’t let fear, or your own judgement, crush your heart and your individual voice.

Grow and learn. Read, research, develop, make yourself the best you can be and always push yourself to do bigger things. But don’t forget to enjoy the work you do and the life you live.