Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sometimes I need a vacation

Obviously, I have not adhered to the first rule of blogging—keeping it current, always posting. But I have to say, writing all the time, producing all the time whether for a blog or personal creative work, is tiring sometimes. Sometimes I need a vacation.

Lately this has been true not only in my blogging, but also in my creative work. I’ve hit a slump of sorts. I don’t believe in writer’s block. If you’re blocked and you can’t write on your story anymore, it’s because there’s something wrong with your story and not with you. Most likely the problem for your hero isn’t big enough, and therefore it can’t carry the story for as long as you’d like. It’s just a matter of finding the flaw in your work and fixing it. Easier said than done, for sure, but it has nothing to do with the mysterious and elusive writer’s block.

But I have been in a slump. Writing has felt like more of a chore than a pleasure. Although I do recall the words of an author friend of mine, William Tapply (check out his mystery books!) who said that writing is always work for him; it’s never fun. Writing is work. I’ve always likened it to carpentry—a carpenter may work up quite a sweat building something, but in the end he likes the work anyway.

I still like writing—I love it—but I haven’t felt the same drive to produce the way I once did. After some thought, I came up with a few reasons for this.

First, I’ve produced a lot over the past six years. I wrote and published one book and dove right into writing my second and then my third. That’s a lot of discipline and a lot of writing without a break.

Second, I’ve been promoting my first book while writing the next this whole time. It’s like having two additional part-time jobs. A pleasure for sure, but still a drain on one’s energy.

Third, I was deeply disappointed when my second book failed to snag me an agent and was even rejected by my current publisher. When I do something, I want a result. Set the goal, achieve it, and move on to the next goal. When that didn’t happen for my second book, I felt lost. My complete frustration with the publishing industry forced me to ask of myself, just as my characters must ask of themselves, “What am I doing this for anyway?”

It has been a struggle to find my way back to my initial understanding of writing as a process, and that I must enjoy the process and not worry about the final product. I am still struggling to get back to that place where I didn’t care that much about publishing, where I wanted to write for my own enjoyment and if all that came of it was a chance to share my manuscript with my family and some friends, then so be it.

It’s hard to swallow, though, when the whole time you thought publishing one book would only help in publishing a second.

In the meantime, I took a vacation. November and December, I concentrated on preparing for and celebrating the holidays with family and friends. I decided not to stress myself out by adding a strict writing schedule on top of all the cooking and knitting. And now I am beginning to claw my way back to a better fame of mind from which to write. Part of that is a writing exchange with a friend. Every other week, we choose a writing exercise from a book we both have, The 3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kitely; we complete the exercise and then share our work over lunch. It’s a way to transform writing back into play, a chance to experiment, a way to challenge and feed my imagination.

So, my apologies for the neglect of this blog. But I really needed a vacation.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Seeking a Little Zing—Gotham Writer's Workshop Fiction Guide

I need a little zing in my writing routine. I seem to collect all these books of enticing writing exercises and then fail to make time to try them out. However, I've always found that reading books about writing energizes my work and introduces me to new techniques and theories. It's important to stay fresh. So, I'm now officially carving out time in my writing schedule for exploring these books. Zing!

I'm starting with a book that's been on my shelf for a while, The Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School. Reading this book is like taking mini-workshops on character, plot, point of view, description, dialogue, setting and pacing, voice, theme, revision, and the business of writing. The chapters are written by Gotham instructors and are interspersed with writing exercises. You can read a couple or sections of a chapter and do a couple of exercises in about 20 minutes and learn something useful in the bargain.

Imagine that—learn something useful for your writing in about 20 minutes. You can't beat it.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sharing Your Work Won’t Kill You

This article

made me think of the importance of sharing your work with others to get that all important feedback. When I teach classes and work with writers individually, I get a lot of questions about sharing work—when to do it, how to do it, why do it. Here are some tips to help you along. A lot of this relates to writers, but it can apply to other forms of expression as well.

1. Give your work to someone you know is going to treat it with respect (meaning not trample on your confidence) and who is not going to give you frivolous comments. If you've written something about a family incident that really happened, you don't want to hear from your mother that "that's not how it happened."

2. Be clear about what you want to hear back. If you do give the family story to your mother, tell her you're not interested in whether you captured it the way it really happened, but in the emotion it evokes, or whether it’s confusing, or if you spelled everything right, or whatever. Be specific. I've given my work to people with the following instructions: My confidence is shaken; even if you this stinks, just tell me you love it.

3. What do you ask for? When I teach, I don't allow people to use phrases like: it was good; it was bad; I liked it; I didn't like it. As the writer, how can you possibly use such feedback to develop your work. And that’s what we're talking about here—developing your work, pulling out the themes and emotions that you want to strengthen, dampening down the ones you don't want to highlight, choosing a direction for a character or story. Feedback is a valuable tool in helping you make these decisions.

I have one or two readers with whom I share my work. I ask them to tell me what the story makes them think about, what memories and emotions it evokes for them. If I am stuck on something in the story, I ask them—where could I go with this?—and see what they have to say. I used to dread sharing my work—I used to come close to having a heart attack at the thought of someone reading my stuff. How stupid, right? I mean, isn't that the point of writing, to have someone read it?

4. Listen to the feedback. The most common thing I see—and it kind of irks me a bit—is writers ask for feedback, beg for it sometimes, and then when you give it, they start arguing with you right off the bat. And I'm pretty nice about how I give feedback. It's not easy, but take your ego off and just listen to what people have to say. You'll learn something about your work if you can just make yourself listen. And especially if you asked someone to read your stuff, don't get defensive with them. If you start arguing with them as soon as they open their mouth, chances are they won't read your stuff next time.

5. Thank the person who took the time to read your work and give you feedback.

Definitely find ways to share your work. You'll get new ideas, and you'll probably get inspired. If you're scared, make this the one thing you do today that scares you.

Come on. Do it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Resistance Equals Persistence

Resistance equals persistence. I came across this phrase in "The Secret"—that giant blockbuster book about the Law of Attraction. There’s some good advice in there about practical ways to change your attitude. This is one of the pearls I took away from that book.

When faced with something I don't want to do, whether at work, at home or in my creative life, I've learned that the worst thing I can do is resist it, ignore it, avoid it. First of all, whatever that thing is, no matter how long I resist doing it, it's still there waiting for me. Secondly, the longer I avoid it, the larger it looms in my imagination, growing bigger and meaner and worse than it really is. It's like anticipating a doctor's appointment or a dentist visit. You spend all that time building it up in your mind, getting all anxious about it, and it turns out to be a five minute non-event. All that energy, wasted.

So, the more you resist the thing you don't want to do, the longer it persists.

The remedy: Jump in with both feet and do it. I'm coming out of a situation where I had to do a lot of things that were challenging for me and not necessarily "my thing," not how I would prefer to spend my time and not always very rewarding in the end. But each time a new challenge came up, I would say to myself "resistance equals persistence" and take some action toward resolving the problem or accomplishing the task at hand. And it worked. I may not have enjoyed the actual task any more, but I felt better about it—it wasn't weighing on my mind and shredding my nerves. I didn't waste as much energy worrying about everything as I would have if I had avoided every problem I didn’t want to deal with. It's best to just rip the Band-Aid off in one shot and get it over with.

Since leaving this particular situation, someone said to me that what she appreciated about me was that no matter what I was handed, I jumped in with both feet and just did it.

Whatever it is you're avoiding, just do it. Come on. Do it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Interview on Great Blog for Books and Writing

Check out this interview with me by writer and book blogger Jennifer Prado. Jennifer includes terrific material on her blog, such as book reviews, interviews with new and established authors, and her own writing. Definitely check it out.

Thank you, Jennifer, for being a friend to authors.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Motivation Anyone?

I'm a pretty disciplined person. I like notebooks and to-do lists and filing systems—although you will still find my office (home and work) repeatedly falling into a state of chaos. Still, I strive for order and focus.

In my writing life, I stick to a routine. I write almost every day, at the same time and in the same place. I know that for me, waiting for inspiration is a mistake—the book will never get written if I wait to be inspired. Rather, I need to sit and do the work, every day, whether I want to or not.

I advise beginning writers to do the same, at least until they can figure out their own writing process and working style. My kind of routine isn't the best way to work for everyone. But I do believe that beginning writers need to get past the initial fear of writing and need to understand that writing is work—not magic—and it takes practice to become good at writing and revising your work.

But I have to admit that even I lose my motivation. I get it back with a very simple trick: I pay myself. I bought myself a nice pottery jar at a seconds sale and placed it on my desk. And when I'm truly struggling to get my butt in the chair to write, I put a dollar in the jar every day that I do it. When I've gathered enough money, I buy myself something. Right now, I have 6 bucks in the jar, which means I've been doing all right. But I'll be paying myself, as the book I'm working on becomes more challenging. Plus, I'm a big fan of Levenger notebooks and I've been mooning over a bunch of stuff in their latest catalog. Writers and their notebooks, right?

If you're having trouble finding motivation for your writing or whatever creative work you do, you might try paying yourself to do it. You'd be amazed at how just one dollar can make a difference in how you feel about sitting down to work.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

You're Never Too Old to Play Pretend

Here's a trick I learned a while ago. When I'm nervous about anything—a presentation, a public-speaking engagement, a job interview, any situation that makes me nervous—I pretend I'm not nervous.

The same goes for confidence. Whenever I'm going into a situation in which I'm lacking self confidence, I pretend I have all the self confidence in the world. It can be tough when you're doing creative work to keep up your self esteem, especially in the face of near constant rejection. That rejection can lead to poor self image, which starts a downward spiral to some deep dark places. No spelunking, please!

The urge to dive can be very hard to resist, though, and we easily give in to those feelings, that we have nothing to offer, that we'll never make it, that all our hard work has been a waste of time, that we are, in fact, worthless.

And this is not limited to the creative process, by the way. I'm sure you know people who are going through a job search process who feel this way, or a college search process, or who may be starting their own business. Pretty much any endeavor that requires putting yourself on the line will cause you to question your very existence.

If you've plunged into one of those places, pretending can be the lifeline to pull you out.

Yes, pretending. You remember what it was like to play pretend, right?

First of all, though, I'd like to point out that it’s important to recognize that the way you see yourself sometimes—quite often, actually—is wrong. We don't see ourselves for who we really are. We are our own worst critics. We all tend to minimize our faults and our excellent qualities as well. Both of these tendencies are detrimental to our self esteem and to our ability to realize our full potential. If we don't fully recognize our faults, we will never understand the full extent of how they get in our way and thus they will always hold us back. If we don't fully recognize our excellent qualities, we can never use them to their full benefit.

Now to the pretending. When you're lacking self confidence, when you're self esteem is at its worst, pretend that you are the most confident person in the world. Pretend that you have great self esteem. Pretend that what you do is not worthless, but worth a lot to a lot of people. And with that, your self esteem will start to lift out of that deep, dark cave.

Whenever I'm in a situation where I am overwhelmed with nerves, I pretend I'm not nervous. Whenever I'm in a situation where I lack confidence, I pretend I'm confident. And it works every time.

Try it. What have you go to lose?