Write On Wednesday: Expanding Time

In a productive, well-ordered life two elements must be managed: time and work. Poor time managers fail to recognize the difference between the two elements: Work is infinite; time is finite. Therefore, you must manage your time, not your work. Work expands to fill whatever time is allotted to it. …The concept of “finishing your work” is a contradiction in terms so dangerous that it can lead to a nervous breakdown – because it puts the pressure on the wrong places in your mind and habits. Time, on the other hand, is finite, though there’s much more of it available than people who manage it poorly think. The real problem is we don’t have enough disciplined energy to use all the time that’s given us. A Writer’s Time, by Kenneth Atchity

wow_button1-9-1It’s probably the most common complaint heard today, and one I’ve made myself many times on these very pages. There  isn’t enough time to write, play music, quilt, bike ride – whatever your consuming passion happens to be, there’s never enough time to satisfy your appetite for it. Time is definitely finite, and while it can expand in horrific ways when you’re in pain or worried or bored, it can also expand positively to allow you the opportunity to feed your dreams.

Within the past couple of months, I suddenly find myself with more finite time available than I’ve had in years.  I’m working part time from home, I’m not currently involved in an active music group, the moving saga is over and our old house tidily cleaned out and sold. Suddenly, my time has expanded before my eyes.

That’s a good thing, but it’s also a scary thing. Because I know how easy it is to fritter the time away with shopping or social media or dithering over what to have for dinner. Now I’m faced with the task of learning to manage time in a different way – rather than successfully juggling dozens of tasks and responsibilities in a day, I have entire days with nothing on my schedule. (I know, don’t hate me.) And I want to make the most of that.

Writing will be a major component of the way I spend my new expanded time. I am poised to make the step from writer to Writer. I have a serious project underway, I’ve joined a writing group for inspiration, support, and feedback.  Soon I will leave this blogging space behind for a self-hosted page that supports this next step in my writing life.

My “success” in any of this depends on two things – willpower and attitude. Willpower to develop writing habits that work for me at this time in my life and stick to them as much as possible, while retaining enough flexibility to participate in life’s other pleasurable and mandatory activities.

Just as important is adjusting my attitude from one of laser focus on the finished product to one of full participation in the process. I’ve always been a product oriented type of person, trying to get things done as quickly as possible. And I sometimes burn myself out early, lose interest if things take too long.  I’ve realized that this constant pressure  to finish things is adversely affecting my work habits. Kenneth Atchity also writes, “Instead of trying to finish your work, you need merely find time to do your work; then simply concentrate on doing it the best you can. The satisfaction will come from knowing that each day you’ve allotted time for the work you love, the work you want to do.”

Do I want to finish this novel I’ve started to write? Of course. But I also want to savor the process. A novel is so much more than the sum of its words. I want to take the time to think about these characters I’m creating, to immerse myself in the work of other novelists who have written books I admire in similar genres, to research and study the psychological aspects of my subject matter, to surround myself with the soundtrack of music that will be a major component in this story. I want to live in this world I’m making so it becomes reality to me, and, as a result, will be a reality to the people who read the book.

The emphasis must be on the process rather than the product.

One of the perks of being menopausal is the tendency to wake very early in the morning. Instead of lying in bed, tossing and turning, I’m looking at this time of wakefulness as a gift, a sign that there’s something I’m meant to be doing, so I’m getting up and doing it.  I’ve set a manageable goal – 30 minutes of actual writing on the novel each morning, first thing with my coffee when I’m at my most creative, and before the distractions of news or Facebook or dogs can deter me.  Any time during the remainder of the day, usually in the latter part of the mornings and afternoons, is for researching,  reading pertaining to the novel, or other writing (blogging or articles for ATG).

Will every day be easy? Will the words always flow in a direct line from my brain through my pen and onto the page? Certainly not.

But there is time. There really is.

It’s expanding all around me.

How about you? Do you feel as if you have a handle on managing your writing time? Are there places you’ve not explored in your daily life where you could find time to write?

Write On Wednesday: For the Longest Time

wow_button1-9-1Last night I realized I hadn’t written anything on my blog in the longest time, and I stared feeling nostalgic for the olden days of blogging.

Many years ago (seven!) when I began writing in this online space, I wrote nearly every day – partly because of the excitement that comes with a new venture, but also because of the connections forming between myself and other writers. We visited each other’s writing spaces daily, like children checking their secret hidey-hole in a hollow tree to see if any new messages had arrived. We joined and created groups that provided prompts for our writing, that gave us a little spark to incite ideas to flow.

We wrote and wrote, telling our stories, honing our skills, learning from each other about writing and life. We emboldened one another to try new things – poetry, haiku, flash fiction, even novels. We encouraged and cheered from whatever part of the world we lived.

Over time most of those connections have faded into the ether. People who bared their souls in words on the screen suddenly disappear from orbit. Having no other way to contact them, one is forced to ponder – were they real? did they exist? have they been abducted by aliens?

I miss them. Miss their unique voices, miss their life stories, miss the inspiration and impetus to write they often provided me. Like the cafe society that Fitzgerald and Hemingway enjoyed so much, the online society of writers we formed in those days was a way to connect with others, to share ideas, to support each others efforts, to discuss books and art and life in general. In this decade, it seems  that personal blogging has been usurped by the faster, quicker connections of Facebook and Twitter.

Writing is a solitary occupation. And writers tend to savor the solitary, so much so that we forget how much there is to be gained by sharing ourselves with others.

I’d like to enjoy that again.

How about you?

 

 

Write On Wednesday: Too Little Too Late

NPR featured my book on the air today.

The one I was supposed to write. The one that I’ve had ideas about for years. The one that was tailor made for me.

It was the book I was supposed to write – but didn’t. Because I was too busy writing medical reports, or doing press releases for volunteer groups, or going grocery shopping and doing the laundry. Because I was more interested in playing around on Facebook or following links on Twitter than sitting in my writing chair. Because I chose to go out to lunch with friends rather than do research at the library.

It was the book I wanted to write – but didn’t. Because I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough. Because I was scared people might laugh at me. Because I feared the topic wasn’t important enough.

It was the book I should have written – but didn’t.

So someone else wrote it.

NPR gave me more than another book to add to my to-be-read list (and read it I will, this book I should have written but didn’t). NPR also gave me a serious wake up call. All these writing ideas that keep pestering me are doing so for a reason. They’re trying to prod me out of my complacency, stir me from my slovenly slumber, and imploring me to take this writing thing seriously.

It’s now or never.

 

How about you? Have you ever gotten a writing wake up call? 

 

 

Write On Wednesday: Take it Easy On Yourself

I love lists.

List Making TimeI have an elaborate system of list-making that involves pretty file folders, colored paper, and 4×6 index cards. Each file folder contains a weekly list of action items for different areas of my life: Daily Living, Office Work, Volunteer Work, and (of course) Writing. Every Sunday night I sit down at my dining room table, turn on some quiet mood music, pour myself a glass of wine,  fan out my lists and folders, and plan my week.

When I told one of my friends about this system, her reaction was modified horror. “It makes me crazy to think about being that organized,” she said.

Truth is, sometimes it makes me a little crazy too. I have a tendency to panic when I look at my lists on Thursday or Friday and not enough items have been crossed off. Then I move into frantic mode, and everybody better step back.

For the past several months, my Writing List has contained six items: Book reviews, Author Interview questions, blog posts, ideas to propose to my editor at All Things Girl, and The Novel Project. I’ve  assigned myself a posting schedule for this blog and for contributions to All Things Girl and Medium, thinking I needed the structure of deadlines, even if they are self-imposed and arbitrary.

Having a schedule comforts me, because it gives me the illusion of being In Control.

Americans pride ourselves on productivity, and that very word has been at the top of my Goal List for several months. Be more productive, I admonish myself when I’m making that weekly writing list, chiding myself for essays left unwritten, research left undone. I’ve been equating getting things done with being happy. Yes, it makes me happy to cross things off the list, but I’m learning that sometimes it’s alright –  desirable, even – to ease up on the need to structure and organize and control. It’s alright to let soft summer breezes seduce me into the garden, alright to take a morning off and visit the Farmer’s Market in town, alright to sprawl out in my lawn chair and read a magazine. The resulting sense of warmth and well-being brings me peace, and that’s more liable to make me happy and more creative  than a mad dash through my to-do list.

Especially in summer (when, according to George Gershwin, the living is easy and the cotton is high) it’s alright to take it easy on myself.

How about you? Are you taking it easy on yourself this summer or going full steam ahead? Do you think that slowing down and savoring life boosts creativity or is counter-productive?

 

 

Write on Wednesday: Watching and Listening

wow_button1-9-1“I was an only child who was often alone with adults, and, because I was in some ways a timid sort, I became practiced in the art of watching and listening.” Lee Martin

 

We’re kindred spirits, Lee Martin and I. An only child who loved quiet pursuits like reading and imaginary games, whose mother was always home with her, whose grandparents also lived in the house, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by loving, caring adults.

They fascinated me. When I first read Martin’s elegant little self-description, an image of myself as an eight year old popped into my head. I spent most of my time at home either in my room, or in the basement of our little ranch house, which had been “finished” complete with a full kitchen. Because the basement kitchen was larger than the one on the tiny first floor, my grandmother –the chief cook and bottle washer in our family in those days – quickly took it over, thus making the basement our family’s main living area. I had my own play area in a far corner, with my Barbie Dream House, a large stand-alone chalkboard for playing school with a menagerie of stuffed animal pupils, and fully loaded bookshelves. Tucked away in this corner, I could engage in my own solitary pursuits but still keep one ear trained to the adult conversation and activity.

This was how I learned that my uncle was struggling with alcoholism, that our neighbor was pregnant with baby number six. This was how I finally pieced together from whispered conversation that one of my cousins had been brutally attacked by a home intruder.  This was where I first gleaned the tensions between my mother and father, how she resented the time he spent with his Masonic Lodge group and was resisting his efforts to join the Eastern Star (the corresponding women’s organization).

Some of this information was troubling, some of it was exciting, but all of it was interesting. Much of it appeared later on in the stories I wrote, first in my childish round handwriting, and later on my brand new electric Smith Corona typewriter.

Those early days of listening and watching heightened not only my interest in, but also my awareness and understanding of people. For a while I considered becoming a psychologist, because I’m fascinated by what makes people tick emotionally, why and how they react as they do.

My mother says I read people like a book, and that seems appropriate. Certainly reading has given me insight into human behavior and emotions. I gravitate toward character –driven books, because they feed that interest in people. My own writing explores my feelings about life in general and my own experiences in particular, because I believe that sharing our life stories helps us understand our own lives while it brings us closer together as human beings.

The art (as Lee Martin refers to it) of watching and listening is vital for a writer. It’s probably why writers historically spend time in café’s and coffee shops. Like me in my basement play area, they scribble away in their quiet corners, one ear attuned to the conversation of those around them. That time becomes a crucial part of their working process and is definitely an art worth practicing for any writer.

How about you? Where do you practice the art of listening and watching?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write On Wednesday: Leaf Gathering

fall-leaves-on-the-groundIn my sophomore biology class we were assigned the task of collecting 40 different varieties of leaves, identifying them as to to type and genus, organizing them, preserving them, and arranging them in a collection suitable for display. It was the perfect way for this slightly science-phobic student to embark on the study of biology, because leaf-collecting was always one of my favorite past-times. It was tradition for me to wander the neighborhood each fall, paper grocery bag in hand, looking for the reds, the sharpest golds, the warmest orange. I would come home with my bounty and lay it out on my bedroom floor in a kaleidocscopr of color. I could spend a long time shifting the leaves around into various patterns, looking at  them from different angles, sometimes trying to draw them in a sketch book and color them in with crayon or colored pencil.

I admit that the specifics of our class assignment stole some of the enjoyment from the task. It was difficult to find 40 different varieties of leaves, even in Michigan where there are a lot of trees. I enlisted out of state family members who sent me leaves from palm trees, smoky ash. When I finally met my quota, I had to figure out how to arrange the in some sort of logical order, and then how to display and preserve them so they would remain viable for display during our school’s open house two weeks later.

With painstaking effort, I carefully encased each leaf in wax paper, created a typewritten label with all the identifying information, mounted each leaf onto (coordinating) colored paper, and fitted each page into a three-ring binder. I don’t recall the grade I received, but I do recall a heady sense of pride at having successfully completed a project like this one – something that was very different from the language arts and musical projects I usually attacked with confidence and creativity

For a few weeks now, I’ve had a new writing project wandering around inside my brain. As I think about it and ponder the characters and situations involved in it, I feel a bit like that leaf-gathering girl – the one who wandered the neighborhood with a paper sack and picked up whichever brightly colored leaf struck her fancy, giving little thought to type or size or classification. I’m having fun looking at all the pieces of my kaleidoscope, twisting them and turning them into endless striking combinations.

Writers do that, don’t we? We wander through life picking up bits and pieces of ideas and imagery. All of  life is like a huge forest in the midst of autumn, filled with a banquet of brightly colored ideas splayed out for the taking like a vibrant carpet beneath our feet. That’s certainly the fun part for me, the way I can pass endless hours of time – re-reading my favorite authors, writing down sentences that move me, inspire me.

At some point, though, we have to become the scientist, and put it all together in a way that makes sense.

Scary.

But worth it.

Write On Wednesday: Connectivity

Most writers would probably agree that the internet is both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing is that it puts a world of information, resources, and opportunities to connect with like minded people at our fingertips.

The curse is that it puts a world of information, resources, and opportunities to connect with like minded people at our fingertips.

It requires a lot of discipline for a writer  to refrain from constantly taking a refreshing dip into the waters of the world wide web. And once you’ve taken that first small step, it’s hard to pull back before the tide pulls you right in and you’re floating happily down the current of blogs, chats, tweets, and status posts. I’m as guilty as anyone, and it’s an ongoing battle to keep my mind on my work and not click on the Internet Explorer icon at the first sign of brain blockage.

Two_Women_Having_Coffee_Together_Royalty_Free_Clipart_Picture_090819-142847-602009But I’m wondering if the internet doesn’t deprive us of more than just time. I think we’re often substituting our online connections with people for the real thing, thinking that because we share our status on FB or post our opinions in pithy 140 character offerings on Twitter we’ve “connected” with our friends and colleagues in a meaningful way.

I’m beginning to believe that those connections aren’t as meaningful as we’ve led ourselves to believe, and that writers especially need the kind of give and take that only can occur in real conversations with real live people. Although I’m an introvert through and through and do my best work when I’m alone in a quiet room with no distractions – human or otherwise – I’ve found myself recently craving the company of another writer, someone I could sit down with over a cup of coffee and “talk shop” –  brainstorm ideas about our writing projects, bemoan those days when the muse fails to call and wonder why she always does when we have nine million other things on the calendar. We could discuss the future of publishing, and dish about the way our favorite writers do what they do.

A lot of the writers I follow on Twitter carry on these kinds of conversations in their Twitter-feeds. Maybe it’s my age – after all, I grew up when the only way to communicate electronically was via a rotary landline telephone – but that’s just not as satisfying in any way as hearing the person’s voice or catching the expression on their face.

I’ve never been part of a writers group, or even had one real-life writing friend, at least not since middle school when my friend Raine Beaser and I spent one summer working side by side on our respective “novels.” But I’ve belonged to enough musical groups to know that artists working in tandem produce a lot of creative energy. There’s something about the shared experience that boosts everyone’s enthusiasm and inspires them to move forward.

I’m craving that experience in my writing world. I’m craving that old-school kind of connection where people sit in the same room together and talk out loud to one another. I think my writing would benefit from it, and so would my soul.

How about you? Do you find your online connections a little lacking at times? Are you able to connect on a personal level with other writers, or other artists who work in your field? If so, is this beneficial?

Write on Wednesday: Relishing the Research

wow_button1-9-1During my schooldays, my most favorite assignment was to write a report. The subject matter was of  no consequence, and the longer the page requirement the better.

But the best part about report writing was the research.

In those days, research meant going to the library – the internet wasn’t even a glimmer in Al Gore’s eye (unless he was a very precocious teenager and I sincerely doubt that.) Yes, although I loved the writing part of the assignment, the going-to-the-library, looking-stuff-up in books and magazines was the penultimate treat.

Nowadays I read a lot of historical fiction, and I’ve become a fan of biographical fiction – fictional treatments of historical figures. The best of these books bring real people to life in a fascinating way, and as I read them, I marvel at the way the authors take what must be months of research and bring it to life through imagined situations and dialogue.

That is some research, I think, after finishing books like  Hemingway’s Girl, The Aviator’s Wife, and A Good Hard Look. It’s clear that the authors must relish research as much as I once did, but the enormous amount required to complete a novel project of that nature is daunting to say the least.

I started wondering how they went about it. So I did some research.

Ericka Robuck (Hemingway’s Girl) was inspired to write her novel by a visit to Hemingway’s home in Key West, Florida.  “I spend about 4 months researching my subject without writing a word,” Robuck wrote, “and then ideally I start writing without allowing myself to get side-tracked. I visited the house and Key West several times for setting research, and read numerous biographies and all of Hemingway’s work, and spent time at the JFK Museum in Boston at the Hemingway Archive. Ninety percent of his photographs, journals, letters, and manuscripts are there, and provide an excellent resource for getting to know and understand Hemingway.”  (Robuck’s new bio-fic novel, Call Me Zelda, about Zelda Fitzgerald, releases in May.)

Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife) confesses that she does her  research in a very “unscientific” way. “I look at a life, I read enough about it to give me a good solid foundation. Then I pick and choose the details that will make a compelling novel – knowing that I will be leaving out, or not fully exploring, many of the stories that make up a remarkable life. I allow myself to ask the what ifs. I look at a life, even one that’s as documented as Anne’s (Morrow Lindbergh) and I see the hidden corners, the locked closets; I wonder what she didn’t tell us. I never take anything on face value; I’m always seeing things that others don’t, even in the most mundane, every day objects.  I have learned that too much research can stifle my creativity, so it’s always a balance for me; I need to learn the basic facts, get a sense of the time and place, but if I lose myself too much in the research I find I can’t imagine the things I need to, in order to write a compelling novel with fascinating characters. My imagination is my greatest strength as a novelist – not my ability to research! For me, I don’t spend too much time worrying about physical details; it’s the emotional journey that fascinates me.”

Ann Napolitano’s novel, A Good Hard Look, features writer Flannery O’Connor as a main character among a cast of other strong characters. Napolitano admits she was “fearful that I would portray her (O’Connor) inaccurately. To conquer that fear, I read everything I could get my hands on. I re-read Flannery’s stories, her essays and two novels; I read the one existing biography on her, and several critical essays about her work; I flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Milledgeville. I visited Andalusia, her farm (which is now a museum) and walked all over town. I was only there for about thirty hours, but that visit was crucial. Milledgeville had to be real to me, so I could make it real for the reader. Sitting on Flannery’s front porch, and smelling the air there – I don’t think I could have re-created her world without spending that time in her space.”

I don’t know whether I have what it takes to complete the kind of research necessary to write an entire book of historical fiction, but it was fun reading about how the professionals do it.

How about you? Do you enjoy research? Do you employ much research in your writing?

Write On Wednesday: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Andi Cumbo first crossed my path in cyberspace about five years ago when I began writing Bookstack, and she then participated regularly in my Write On Wednesday blog meme. So it’s fitting today’s Write On Wednesday post should honor a major step in the achievement of Andi’s long-held writing dream. Last fall, Andi purchased a farm in the hills of Virginia. She named it “God’s Whisper,” and then wrote a book describing her vision of the community she hoped to grow. Today (thanks to Mindy Koenig!) Andi’s friends have come together online to help launch this book into the wider world.

GodsWhisperFarm-finalcustom-194x300The God’s Whisper Manifesto is a lovely and thoughtful little book. It starts out as Andi’s vision for her home, the God’s Whisper farm, where she dreams of a community of artists who will come together under the ten guiding principles set forward in this volume. Yet as you read, you become aware that the God’s Whisper Manifesto is much more than just one woman’s dream for her ideal community. It’s really a set of principles which could govern the world, each set forth in gently beautiful prose. Andi’s writing style is easy and true, and she makes the reader feel the practicality and necessity of each of these precepts.

Here at God’s Whisper we practice ‘Do unto others’ by figuring out how the ‘other’ is like us. We love people first and hard. Every day. All day.” At God’s Whisper, the work of the artist is valued as much as the work of the lawyer or plumber or teacher. Play is “good,” at God’s Whisper, and rest is “treasured.” Rolling down grassy hills is “wildly encouraged.” You can lay on blankets and do nothing for hours if you want.

But service and work have their place, the earth is honored, food is simple and shared with love. And story – well, story is paramount at God’s Whisper. “We know that our stories are our very lives. That we thrive and grow and fight and love because of the stories we know, the ones we live, and the ones we want to create.”

The God’s Whisper Manifesto will both calm and excite your spirit. Yes, you think with a deep satisfied sigh. This life is the stuff that dreams are made of. And you will want to be part of it, to make it come true in your world as well as on the God’s Whisper farm.

In honor of today’s book re-launch for The God’s Whisper Manifesto, I am giving away a copy of Andi’s book. For an opportunity to win, simply share this blog post via Facebook or Twitter, and leave a comment here telling me you’ve done so. The winner will be chosen at random on Friday, March 22, 2013. 

For Twitter folks, join us tonight, 8:30 p.m.,  at the Twitter party (#godswhisper) where Andi will join us in discussing her  vision for the God’s Whisper community.

Write On Wednesday: Just Desserts

Money and writing don’t need each other. We can do all kinds of things to make our living – shining shoes at the airport, walking dogs in the city, teaching 6th graders how to write really good sentences.  Those are all worthy and wonderful occupations, and they may even be your vocation. But you don’t need to do them in order to have money to write. Writing is free.  And while we hope, love, dance joyously when we get paid for our writing, we don’t need the pay to value our work. That value comes in the way it shapes us as people, in the way a reader writes an email to say, “yes, just that, yes,” in the way someone, someday keeps a copy of something we’ve written tucked into his Bible and reads it with teary eyes on a Sunday morning.  Writing and money are mutually exclusive. ~Andi Cumbo, To You, Writer

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Although I get paid (a little bit) to write, the writing I get paid to do isn’t the writing that feeds my soul. Still, I take pride in making sure that it’s concise, accurate, and that it conveys the pertinent medical information in an accessible way. Sometimes it’s necessary to say things carefully in that writing so that it doesn’t legally implicate people in the wrong way. And sometimes that writing must spell out hard medical facts which clearly denote wrongdoing that must be rectified.

This is my professional writing, and I do it well.

But then there’s my real writing. The writing that takes me down meandering roads of thought, that sends me to the library to research something that’s caught my interest (right now that’s reclusive women writers). The writing that searches my soul, that helps me uncover feelings I never knew existed. It’s the writing I share in my stories on the blog and as a contributing editor at All Things Girl. The writing I get lost in for hours at a time, until I look at the clock and wonder where the day has gone.

There’s no remuneration for that writing. Unless you count the satisfaction I get from doing it, which can’t be quantified with dollar amounts in the bank account.

Do I wish I made money from writing? Sure. Who doesn’t wish they could make a living from doing the very thing which feeds their soul? Writing is my dessert at the end of full day, the sweetness that comes from thinking about ideas and feelings and expressing them on the page.

But as Andi says, I don’t need money to write. The value comes from the way writing makes me feel, the pure pleasure of doing it and sharing it. For the love of it.

And in this consumer driven society, we writers should loudly proclaim our willingness to work for love.

For more thoughts on the relationship between art and money, check out these posts at Andilit.

To You, Writer

Art and Money – Why We Write