Sunday, April 25, 2010

Defeating the Writing Ogres

During the months of March and April I struggled to find time and the words to write. On my writing days I’d sit and stare at my screen, begin to peck out sentences, but then end up erasing them. I took a week of vacation to make up for the time I had lost, but self doubt and conflicting research sent my creativity into a nosedive. I accomplished only two pages during that time which I wasn’t sure I even liked. The sad fact about my efforts was this: nothing I tried pleased me.

Added to the mix were my time bandits—overtime at work, family needs, bush removal, car maintenance, and church assignments all vying for my writing slots. I went crying to my writers group, lamenting that I teetered on the verge of abandoning my project for good. My frustration had brought me to the brink of writing disaster, and the sage words my friends handed me failed to convince me otherwise.

Then the unfathomable happened. I wrote over my manuscript with a lesser version and realized the two pages, and then some, I had written out with my blood no longer existed. During that same week my employer took away the block of space I had set as my official writing day. My self-fulfilling prophesy had come true, and I was lost on the road climbing toward novel completion and publication.

Sound at all familiar?

I think their must live a writing ogre in the world, ready to jump out at us from behind the trees, whose purpose it is to pounce on our good intentions and well-laid plans for writing. At times he is the victor, far stronger and equipped with more tools than we, mere writers, possess. But whoever said writing was easy?

Sometimes determination and cunning are the only weapons we have to outwit our foe. Pushing ourselves to write, even when the victory seems futile can surprise us. Courage in the face of defeat can send the rocks of our retaliation hurling toward the enemy’s head, buying us time until reinforcements arrive.

Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones suggests to “take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write.” That’s exactly what I did. I never gave up, although I allowed myself to concentrate on other writing while my subconscious mind worked around the roadblocks of my novel. I took time to restructure my outline, put the research away and began to trust my instincts for survival. To my surprise, as I tried to recapture the segments of my manuscript I had lost, stronger and much more pleasing passages flowed from my depths. I wrote beyond the loss and my characters came up with new ways to direct the story, sending discouragement and self doubt behind enemy lines with their tails between their legs.

I’ve stunned the ogre for now. I’m sure he’s found another tree and is waiting for the right moment to leap out at me. But I’ve learned some strengthening strategies along the road that will aid me in future battles. I’m grateful for my characters too. They’ve taken up the fight and are carving the way to my next victory.

Such is the fairy tale of this feat called writing. But as in all fairy tales, there is a happy ending.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Writing Through the Eyes of a Child

Have you ever watched a toddler explore the world? Whatever circumstance we place before them, they move about touching, seeing, tasting, smelling, and hearing their way through their environment. They sample everything and turn their experiences upside down and sideways, often wedging themselves in the least expected nook to see life in a way their eyes have yet to behold. I’m convinced if that toddler were capable of writing their encounters in words, we’d have some of the best poetry and prose the world has ever seen.

Somewhere along the way to adulthood that desire to thoroughly investigate our surroundings springs a leak. Maybe we become lazy or get bogged in the mire of disappointment and forget how to enjoy the adventure. Or maybe we form prejudices and borrow the narrow opinions of others instead of reaching for the ideas dangling from our own study and observation.

Life is tough, no question about it. But should we allow our weariness or indifference or slothfulness keep us knee-deep in the mud? As writers, taking time to explore our world in new ways is vital to our success. We must feel the textures of our thoughts, smell the meaning of the moment, taste the laughter and tears that living life rains down upon our literary tongues. As we seek new angles of our existence, somehow we have to clutch the vision and translate the data into words that others can hear in their hearts.

How do we lick life and explain the flavor on the page? Some of my favorite techniques are analogy or metaphor. Imagery can draw pictures in the mind and help the reader see what we’re trying to say. But maybe this post tastes too sweet or smells too flowery for your liking. That’s okay. We can choose from a variety of methods to decipher and explain our corner of the world. Please share how you delve into your part of the whole and how you translate your inner thoughts into the written word? I bet we can learn incredible things from each other.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Leave a Mess, Glean a Draft

Each time I sit down to write I show up at my computer like an excited pup, tail wagging, anxious to play, ready to retrieve the words my unconscious mind tosses out in my line of sight. But just like the dog, there comes a point in the game when the fun runs out. It’s then the thought of retrieving one more word makes my head sag, tongue droop, and my body long to plop down and take a nap for the rest of the day. After I run my little synapses off the romance is over, and I’d rather be anywhere than loping around inside the wordless void between my ears.

Some writers have a bigger challenge than others. I question my abilities when someone tells me they write 10,000 words a day; on my productive days I might pinch out 2,000 words and feel like a train wreck when I finally drag myself from my chair eight hours later. Maybe I’ve yet to catch the vision of free-flow writing. I labor over each word and try to make my phrases sing the first time around.

Call me a perfectionist. I am. And I'll take my punishment now, thank you very much.

Writer Anne Lamott reminds us that perfectionism makes us try too hard to avoid the big messes we'll have to clean up later. However, her point is this: clutter and mess show us “we are living life”. As we allow the unedited words to flow onto the screen, we find more opportunities to glean a treasure or two among the muddle. More importantly, this uninhibited process helps us avoid writer’s block and teaches us to write with more flare while having fun in the process.

Somehow we’ve all got to learn to let the dam in our minds go. Natalie Goldberg suggests participating in writing practice. Fill up notebook after notebook. She tells about the piles of notebooks she’s accumulated over the years. She admits that some of what she writes is trash, but other parts of the writing are some of her best work. The important thing about writing practice is to keep our fingers moving and to lose control.

After struggling with the void today, I’m anxious to try something new, something that might improve my productivity tomorrow. It sure can’t hurt. Who knows, I just might finish a scene or two and feel like I’ve accomplished something. Care to join me?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Power of Encouragement

A couple of Sundays ago, as I sat in church, an old friend walked by and squeezed my shoulder. He said nothing, but proceeded up to the front of the chapel to join the choir who presented a lovely Easter program to our congregation. I hadn’t talked to him in weeks and had missed our conversations of gospel topics and life musings. His was a simple gesture of encouragement that told me I was in his thoughts and prayers and that I was not alone.

How often in the business of writing, or in life for that matter, do we give and receive gestures or kind words of encouragement? How often do we take interest in anybody else’s work but our own? Brief well wishes or donations of our time to get someone over the slump are life preservers that lift our colleagues and friends back on life's ship. Someone once said, “A word of encouragement during failure is worth more than an hour of praise after success.”

I believe that. For the last month I’ve struggled: finding time, direction, and balance in many aspects of my existence, including my writing. I've wished for someone to throw me a lifeline a time or two. I know I will eventually work through the lack of productivity and discouragement. I always do. But a pep talk could have buoyed me up as I dangled over the water’s edge.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter how we toss these circles of hope to those who are drowning. It only matters that we take notice and exercise life-saving, mind-hefting service to lift a sinking soul from the murky waters of defeat. Sometimes it might appear the service is just one more thing to add to our lists. But I know that in the process of lifting another, the soul we help is often our own.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Applying Time Well

Life is too short to impatiently wish for more quality time—time that life may or may not afford us. Have you found yourself wishing for the next stage of your life: for more time to write, for the weekend, for a worry free existence, for a better house, for a better financial position? The constant longing for better circumstances does nothing more than take the joy out of the journey.

If you drag yourself home with unfulfilled-dream days, taking to your bed early in hopes that tomorrow you might have better ideas and more time with which to write them, you just might miss the lessons of the moment because you’re living in and for another time zone.

Think of all the precious and life-expanding moments we let go by when we worry about the next tick of the clock and how much more and better things we can cram into the moment. In my case, the image staring back in the mirror is an impatient writer who wishes work, heck, life for that matter, was a little easier.

Easier is relative. Our efforts over the passage of time become more difficult if we fail to practice living for now.

Goethe reminds us, “One always has enough time if one will apply it well.” So I guess the lesson I want to remind us about today is this: the only time we have is now. Make the best of it. And if the day turns out less than you had hoped for, switch gears and think about how wonderful it is that you are a writer. Don’t waste another moment. Prove that you are.