Archive for the ‘creative process’ Category

Creative Everyday

I love Leah’s blog, her artwork and her challenge to be creative everyday. I signed up two years ago and didn’t follow through (according to my own harsh standards) though I still followed her. I skipped last year, watching wistfully from the sidelines. This year I signed up again but without the pressure of literally creating a piece of artwork every single day. Instead I thought I’d look back on the week and see what I created.

This week I created:

• a beautiful day for my daughter’s 13th birthday

• a card for her

• flexibility and inner peace through yoga every morning

• cardio health through working out

• progress on a story by showing up everyday even if just for 5 minutes

• a new budget

• yummy healthy meals using what we already had in the freezer and pantry

• a chocolate cake and frosting from scratch


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Here’s the thing about diet and writing books: they worked for the person who wrote the book. That doesn’t mean it will work for you, or rather, me. Don’t eat carbs. Don’t eat meat. No sugar. Raw foods only. Or. Write everyday. Write an  hour a day. Two hours Three. Ten. Write all you can. Stop writing in the middle of a sentence. Write at home. Write in coffee shops. Make an outline. Under no circumstances should you ever use an outline. Write first thing in the morning. Write at night. It’s crazy-making.

Here’s what I’ve learned: you have to discover what works for you. Sure, go ahead and read the books. Get some ideas but then you need to listen to your body, to your mind and adjust it to work for you. That’s what I am doing now, but in a gentle and kind way. I am experimenting with veganism. No huge proclamations that I will never ever eat another animal product again. I am not only taking it day by day but meal by meal. Leaning into it. I have read many articles lately that lead me to believe this kind of eating is better for my body, health and the planet so I am playing with it. Not black and white, all or nothing. Just eating in a clean and conscious way and then seeing how I feel. So far, after over three weeks without meat, minimal dairy and minimal sugar, I feel great. Lighter, physically and emotionally. More balanced.

Same with writing. I am experimenting with what works for me. Right now I am writing first thing in the morning after a ten minute meditation. I write morning pages then do a warm -up from “Naming the World” edited by Bret Anthony Johnston before revising existing stories. I spend about two hours then take a break to eat breakfast, workout. I’d like to write more in the afternoon and use a writing textbook as a structure. But again, I am treading lightly. Being kind to myself which those who know me know is a new and different path for me.

The point is, it’s all a process. A process of listening and trusting myself instead of looking out there for all the answers.

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• Check out this site for some inspiration and company on this often solitary writing path.

Five questions to keep in mind as you write a story from a master storyteller.

• A new challenge awaits you here if you are up for it.

This looks like fun.

• An intriguing article on the push and release of the creative process.

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“Why I’m Like This” true stories by Cynthia Kaplan
There was always one girl at camp whom everyone hated.

Kaplan has been described as a cross between David Sedaris and Anna Quindlen. Her true stories delve into a therapist from hell, bizarre grandmothers and the rest of her family and friends. The book is both hilarious and heart-breaking.

“If I Stay” a YA novel by Gayle Forman
Everything thinks it was because of the snow.

This is Mia’s story, recounted after a devastating accident. She is not dead, yet. She is able to observe what is going on around her, see her family and friends gathering at her bedside, at the hospital. Woven in are bits of her life, before the accident and the realization that she has the ultimate decision to make. A fast, engrossing read.

“Matrimony” a novel by Joshua Henkin
Out! Out! Out!” The first words Julian Wainwright ever spoke, according to his father, Richard Wainwright III, graduate of Yale and grand lubricator of the economic machinery, and Julian’s mother, Constance Wainwright, Wellesley graduate and descendant of a long family of Pennsylvania Republicans.

I’ve always loved learning what goes on behind the scenes. This novel gives us access to a marriage as well as the writing life. We follow Julian from his days at Graymont College, where students could receive comments instead of grades from the professors, to a post-college life that involves his college love, Mia, and Carter with whom he has a strong but strained friendship. One of the things I really admired about this book is Henkin’s skill at creating scenes that move seamlessly in and out of the past and present. An absorbing portrait of a marriage and a creative life, both of which I found rich and textured.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dear Sidney, Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food.

Shaffer spent twenty years writing this book. Once it was accepted for publication she was too ill to finish the revisions so she asked her niece, Barrows to do it for her.  The novel is told in letters from various characters and reveals the story of the German Occupation of the island of Guernsey. It’s a charming tale the shines a light on an obscure (to me anyway) piece of WWII history.

“Florida” a novel by Christine Schutt
She was on her knees and rubbing her back against parts of the house and backing into corners and sliding our from under curtains, rump polishing the floor, and she was saying, “Sit with me, Alice.”

A powerful novel of a mother and daughter told in sparse but precise and intense vignettes. It almost reads like a prose poem.

“The Next Thing on My List” a novel by Jill Smolinski
Next on the list: kiss a stranger.

So starts June Parker’s mission to complete the to-do list of Marissa, a passenger who is killed in a car accident while June was giving her a ride home. The tasks range from the mundane (eat ice cream in public) to the profound (change someone’s life). It’s a quick, delightful read that got me thinking about my own list of things I want to do in my life.

“The Wednesday Sisters” a novel by Meg Waite Clayton
The Wednesday Sisters look like the kind of women who might meet at those fancy coffee shops on University– we do look that way– but we’re not one bit  fancy, and we’re not sisters, either.

The open notebook filled with writing on the cover is what drew me in. I’m a sucker for any book that features writing or writers. This particular book features five women who meet as young mothers in the late sixties and form a writing group. We follow them through their personal creative struggles, relationships, medical issues as well as the changing world around them.

“Real Life & Liars” a novel by Kristina Riggle
My tea tastes so fresh and this joint is so fine, I might melt right into the red velvet cushion and run down the walls into a silvery pool on the floor.

Once I was able to get past the fact that this was written by somebody I actually know, I slipped right into the Zielinski’s family life. One thing I appreciated as a writer is how the novel is focused on one particular weekend, a 35th anniversary party. It made me consider the structure of some of my longer projects. Also, the chapters are told in alternating points of view: the mother is in first person while the three adult children are in third. I also enjoyed reading a story that takes place in a setting I am familiar with- northern Michigan. An engaging story of family and how we continue to bump up against each other throughout our lives.

“Do Not Deny Me” short stories by Jean Thompson
The heat in Penrose’s office had not worked properly all fall.

Jean Thompson is one of my favorite short story writers. Her collection “ Who Do You Love” is on my permanent writer’s bookshelf. This latest one will also occupy a space there. Some of the perfectly drawn characters we encounter are a young woman whose boyfriend unexpectedly dies, a couple in dire financial straits and a man trapped by his stroke. This is a book I will read again and again, this time with a pen in hand.

“The Angel’s Game” a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story.

Yes, it is another story featuring a writer but so much more happens in this intricate world he has created in these 532 pages. We are drawn into the world of publishing, art versus commercial, mysterious benefactors whose motives are questionable to say the least, love triangles, murders, arson, theft, police corruption, magic. This book has it all. The plot is as ornate and intricate as the intriguing city of Barcelona where the novel is set. If you’re looking for a lush story to sink into and lose yourself, then this is it.

Plus you get little gems of writing advice: “Routine is the housekeeper of inspiration. Only forty-eight hours after the establishment of the new regime, I discovered that I was beginning to recover the discipline of my most productive years. The hours of being locked up in the study crystallized into pages and more pages in which, not without some anxiety, I began to see the work taking shape, reaching the point at which it stopped being an idea and became a reality.”

“Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” stories by Maile Meloy
Chet Morgan grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.

I strive to write stories as vast and precise as these.  Each one feels staggeringly unique even as they explore familiar themes of grief, yearning, fraternal rivalry. I could not put this book down. It was like eating potato chips– just one more. Okay, one more.  And I was so disappointed when I read the last one. I would love to take a writing workshop with her but in the meantime her stories have so much to teach me.

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Slumps and Slugs

So I’m not sure how or if to continue this blog. Obviously I am not compelled enough on any kind of regular basis to even show up. I mean, it’s been over a month since my last post. Granted, I was on vacation for almost two weeks but still… my entries are sporadic at best. So what is the issue? Is it the subject of the blog? Is it writing in general? I am feeling stuck. In some kind of creative slump. I came home from vacation bursting with all these grand intentions. It was June 1. I love the idea of the first of anything. It’s a clean slate. And June 1 is exactly halfway through the year, a perfect time to reflect of my goals and see how they are coming. Did I even do goals this year?  I honestly don’t remember. Not a good sign.

Here are some random thoughts on the state of my creativity lately (in no particular order):

• I submit stories to my writing group on a monthly basis but they are all older stories that I am rewriting. It feels stale.

• The obvious solution is to write new stuff.

• The problem is that all these older pieces that are so close are just hanging over me. I want them done so I can send them out into the world and move on.

• Why is it so much easier to write morning pages and writing practice prompts instead of diving into my stories?

• I am inspired and envious of several friends and acquaintances who are a) having books published this summer or b) have finished drafts of novels or c) are starting MFA programs

• The difference between them and me? They write on a regular basis. They did/do the work.

• And you can add a heaping dose of guilt to that because all of the above also have fulltime jobs. Unlike me. I know, I know. I’m a mom. I run a house. I do (very) occasional freelance work. But the girls are older. Need me less. And it doesn’t change the fact that I waste several prime daytime alone hours not writing most days. And I’m sure those who work fulltime are just rolling their eyes at my whining. I don’t blame you, really. I roll my eyes at myself. Just suck it up, I tell myself. Just go write. Just freakin’ do it already

• I can no longer tell if I struggle with this because I am exhausted or the struggle between writing versus not writing has exhausted me.

• Instead of writing today I watched reruns of “West Wing” on the DVR. Felt like a slug.

• I have energy now. It is 8:28 at night. It could just be that I hit slug bottom. Nowhere to go but up and off the couch.

• I could use my facebook status updates to announce my writing intention for the day and then be accountable. I kind of like that idea. Nobody really cares but me anyway.

• I get mired thinking about the state of publishing and the economy and wonder if my scribblings are really worth all those trees I use up. (Good God, no wonder I’m not writing.)

• I’ve lost my connection to writing or why I am writing. For so long I wrote just for myself. Teaching myself. No English degree. No MFA in creative writing. Was there joy back then? Did I enjoy the process? I think so. At the very least I was dedicated to the process.

So that’s where I am. And where I’m not. Kind of in this creative limbo. I’ve lost my way a bit and that is uncomfortable. When I first got my driver’s license, getting lost was a huge fear of mine. Not so much anymore. I know that all roads lead home eventually.

All I truly know is this: Not writing is not an option. I’ve considered it. Even hoped that it could be possible.  But even though I am in the dark right now, as I often am, writing always lights the way. Always. Every. Single. Time. Like now, for instance.

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Creative Lulls

Moods, creativity, energy, the tides. What do all of these have in common? Cycles. Up cycles. Down cycles. Ebbing and flowing. Becca wrote last week about resurrecting her writing. I’ve had that same feeling of panic as I grab my book mentors off the shelf hoping to infuse me with some inspiration. They usually include: Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Heather Sellers, Ron Carlson. I’ll also take books filled with prompts to the bookstore and write, write, write. Along with this panic there is also a dose of guilt. A thin layer of shame at wasting my time, my talent. These days I try to take a more holistic view. Every part of my life is part of a cycle. I couldn’t possibly write eight hours a day every single day. First of all, my cut-off is usually five hours and that’s if I’m on a deadline. My usual attention span is two to three hours.

When I let my writing go it is usually under the guise of housework, errands, etc.. But that is a choice I am making. Those dishes could wait. Everything can wait. When I realize I am avoiding my work I try to figure out why. It is almost always because I am lost. I don’t know what comes next whether it’s the next sentence, scene, chapter, or project. Having that downtime lets things mull in the back in of my mind. The thing is, there is a fine line between percolating and procrastination.

When I hear resurrection I think that the thing has died and I have to bring it back to life. I never let my writing die. Even if I’m not actively writing, I am thinking about it. There is always some tenuous thread keeping me connected to my work. For me it’s more like resuscitation. My project or chapter or page or sentence needs some CPR. But bringing some thing back is always harder than just maintaining it in the first place. I read somewhere how it’s easier to keep a rocket orbiting in space rather than launching it out there over and over again. Same with writing. Writing a little bit on a regular basis is much easier than starting from square one again and again.

So creative lulls are a natural part of the process. But the trick is not to let the lulls lull you into thinking that thinking about writing is as effective as actually writing. I love this quote from Heather Seller’s blog:

“You must always keep changing your process!” Maria Irene Fornes says. “Because there are two of you, one who wants to write and one who doesn’t. The one who wants to write has to keep fooling the one who doesn’t!”

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If I update my blog I can then officially cross the last item off of my to-do list for today. I don’t believe I have ever crossed every single thing off in one day. What gives?

Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve been laying low lately. Usually that means I’ve slipped off the creative/motivation radar. Not this time. This time I’ve been conducting a little experiment. It’s the TV-has-been-sucking-my-soul-dry-so-I-must-do-something experiment.

TV and I have a love/hate thing. There’ve been shows that I love. “West Wing” tops the list. But I hate that I can let myself get so easily sucked into the mindless TV stupor that comes from too many channels and nothing really on. With these long gray Michigan winters I am easy prey to the idea of just vegging out. Relaxing in front of the TV. The winter inertia is then fed by the TV inertia and as you can see it can become a vicious cycle. And the thing is, I never, ever leave the TV feeling relaxed or less stressed. In fact it is just the opposite. I end up tense and jittery.

After doing some research I learned that TV puts your brain in the fight-or-flight response. And that it can take five hours to come down from that. Your body may just be a slug on the couch but your brain is totally wired and amped up. My oldest daughter has trouble falling asleep and so I wondered if it could be the whole too much TV thing.

So. We’re conducting a little TV rationing experiment around here. Not getting rid of it but really being selective about what and how much we watch. I think I’ve watched two hours total in the last five days. I’m embarrassed to admit how much less that is from a normal day. Let’s just say it’s way way less. The girls can watch a half hour after school and if they get their homework, showers,  and lunches made another show at night. Emily came downstairs last night at 7:30 listing all the things she had accomplished and asked now what? She picked up a book. Just now she informed as she turned the TV off that she watched seventeen minutes of TV.

Limiting TV has allowed me to:

• give myself a pedicure

• shave my legs

• complete a page in my art journal

• write alot

• start research on a new novel

• play games after dinner with the family

• read

• visit blogs I love

• write on my own blog

• sleep longer and better

My insomniac daughter has been sleeping better too but she maintains that the TV thing doesn’t prove anything. Hmmm.. .I’m not so sure about that.

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