Filling the Creative Well

After finishing the final round of edits on my manuscript a few months ago, I embarked on a measured approach to querying which resulted in an initial positive flurry of full manuscript requests (YAY!). The only downside is the subsequent and necessary waiting  (BOO!). No problem, I thought. I know this is the approach I want to take. I would simply move ahead with other projects.

That plan worked for a little while. Then I met those deadlines and found myself staring at the blank page. Even worse, I found myself facing that page with what felt like an even blanker mind.

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Photo on Visualhunt.com

Uh oh.

I fell back on old habits, habits that had worked in the past. I showed up. Every day. Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboard. But all I seemed to accomplish were a slew of open tabs on my browser and an overly detailed plan for a PTA role I’m stepping into (my creative loss will be our school newsletter’s gain, I suppose?). When the kids’ most recent school break started and I realized I wasn’t yearning for the page like I usually do, I knew I had a problem. A big one.

The last round of edits had taken a toll. The struggle to write a query letter (my writing nemesis) seemed to drain whatever was left. My creative flow had slowed to a paltry trickle. It was a relief to finally realize during a moment of quiet that my problem wasn’t in my head. My creative well was empty. I had expended all my banked creative juices on the manuscript without remembering to refill as I went along. I let myself run out of creative gas. No amount of sitting and staring at the page would refill that tank.

And so I am taking action.

Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way offers the concept of a weekly Artist’s Date (see her explain it here). I loved this idea when I read The Artist’s Way and have vaguely incorporated it into my regular writing routine over the years, but certainly not consistently, and definitely not in the last six months of head down, obsessive finishing work on my manuscript. So while once a week is a great target, and one I hope to incorporate into my routine moving forward, I feel I need a more extraordinary jump start out of this arid creative wasteland I currently find myself in.

Next week, when the kids go back to school to finish the last three weeks of the current school year (year round school is such a blessing to work from home parents), I am planning a series of daily field trips, or Artist Dates. Art museums, cemeteries, gardens, and people watching, are all on my list of things to do. I may take in a movie by myself or sit at a bar or coffee shop alone. I will get out of my chair. I will take my hands off the keyboard. I will watch, taste, smell, and listen to the world instead.

I will not pressure myself to write. I will not set goals for productivity. I will not judge myself by my creative output, or lack thereof.

I will simply go, notebook and pen in hand, eyes wide open, and mouth shut tight, and be a witness to the world around me. Perhaps a portrait in a gallery will inspire a character, a walk through a new-to-me landscape offer a question, a snippet of conversation spark a conflict.

Or perhaps it won’t.

I am admittedly nervous and excited. There is a safety in my office. It offers comfort and protection and routine. But I think that safety might be part of the problem. It is a room of my own, but I need to throw open the door and invite the world back in.

After giving and giving to my manuscript and giving and giving to my children on this school break, I am open and ready to receive again and see what surprises the muse, the wind, the world have to offer. I am confident they are there for the taking. And my writer’s soul will take them and ruminate on them and save them for the next blank page.

Feel free to join me on my journey. I will be posting photos from my excursions on Instagram at @monicacoxwrites.

What are your favorite ways to refill your creative well?

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My Writing Journey: Taking my Kids Along for the Ride

For the past couple of years, my husband, the kids, and I answer a few specific questions to formulate our goals going into the new year. For example:

  • In 2018, I want to learn…
  • In 2018, with my family, I want to…
  • In 2018, I want to help others by…

While we sat around in a sugar cookie coma, pine needles still littering the floor, 2017 barely behind us, we each contemplated our own goals. At some point, my eleven-year-old piped up:

“Hey, mom. Are you ever gonna finish that book?”

Ah, out of the mouths of babes. Thanks for being the outside voice to my internal self-doubt there, kid.

The fact of the matter is it felt like that. That I might never finish. Granted, there was a false start, tons of necessary research, a major move for our family, and the fact that I was/am still learning. I have to work really hard at this thing. I was coming up on two years on this project. It felt like forever to all of us.

“I will, honey,” I told him. “When it’s right. And this is the story I need to get right.”

I have been super honest about my writing journey with my kids. For one thing, it’s important to me, so of course I would share it with the people who are the most important to me. Despite my own insecurities of having a “job” that doesn’t pay, my husband has always made a point of asking how the writing is going in front of the kids, putting my work on the same level as his. They have helped me brainstorm titles and have come along on research trips. They love to read and write stories of their own, so sharing what I’m learning helps them, too. We are learning together.

But perhaps most importantly, I want to show them their mother following her dreams. I want them to see me trying, failing, succeeding. All of it.

I had that example growing up. My mom went back to school to forge a new path. My dad started his own business. Things were tough for both of them during those times. But they forged ahead. They didn’t give up.

Yet, somewhere along the way, the practical part of me showed up and talked the dreamer part of me into picking a college major and career that would pay the bills. And it did. And I liked it. Even loved it. But I wasn’t in love with it. Not like I am with writing. Even when the writing is bad or a struggle or the rejections drop into my inbox with a (friendly or was that an ominous?) ding, I can’t imagine doing anything else. (This might come as news to my husband since there have been many days I’ve threatened to pack up shop and go bag groceries at the local supermarket. Although, seriously, this seems like a satisfying job to me – like Tetris, but with a dozen eggs, a box of cereal, a half gallon of orange juice, a loaf of bread, a bag of grapes, and four cans of beans. Oh, the possibilities!).

I have learned, however, that practicality is just fear in disguise. Recognizing where I need to be – writing – has changed my outlook. I am no longer defensive about what I don’t know but curious. I am seeking ways to improve my craft, searching for new inspirations, challenging myself with new genres (essays, flash fiction, poetry), looking for opportunities to get paid for my work (beyond (hopefully, one day) selling the novel). And I’m continuing to be honest with my kids about that day’s struggles, victories, or detours. Because it’s my turn to be the example.

When I have a particularly hard time figuring something out or realize I need to study something a bit more before trying again or have to write twelve drafts of the same query letter, it shows them that effort gets results. When I get rejected and they see me keep going, it shows them perseverance. When I receive good feedback, they see me celebrating accomplishments. When I meet new writers or go to author events, it teaches them how to support others, network, and take risks.

Fast forward from January resolution making to this past weekend. While driving home from a family outing, I clicked on an email notification (don’t worry, the hubby was driving). It was a rejection on my full manuscript from an agent. A nice rejection. An ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ rejection. A keep querying rejection. But a rejection nonetheless. And no matter what, it still stings in the moment.

As I read the agent’s comments out loud to my husband, the same eleven-year-old reached his hand from the back seat and patted my shoulder.

“It’s okay mom. Maybe the next one.”

It can be a long journey as a writer. I’m glad I picked the perfect travel mates.

The Story of the Shells

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On the left hand corner of my desk in a small, glossy, eggshell-colored bowl, rest a pile of shells. These shells are remnants, pieces of larger shells, worn down fragments that tumbled and swirled along the ocean floor for months, years, decades maybe. They are flattened like Play-Doh, smooth like stones. They are striped in layers, like sedimentary rocks. I picked them up where other shell seekers had left them in the sand while they searched for the pretty, the unique, the whole.

But I love these pieces. The smooth remains of something beautiful and broken.

I hold them, rub their grooves, warm them in my palm while I puzzle over a problem in my writing. They jingle in the bowl as I search for the right one. The one that might unlock the solution. The cat sometimes paws them, enjoying the sound they make against the bowl. Occasionally he succeeds in sneaking one out and over the side of the desk skittering it down the hall with Pelé like precision until I rescue it once again.

I work my stories, scenes, characters over like these shells. I smooth them, reduce them, expose their layers, until the stories, the scenes, the characters are beautiful and broken for the reader. Or at least I hope I do. That is the goal. To take what was once a whole and living thing and whittle away until I find the one truth of it that can fit in your hands and rattle in your pocket.

The whole shells are beautiful. They are treasures and worth our admiration, awe, display. The whole shells are our whole lives. Complete, perfect in their living.

But the truth of our lives lives in the details. In the nicks, the chips, the strange colors, and occasional barnacle attached.

I’m in search of those fragments, those bits of shells we shed or hide or try to forget that hold the lessons the oceans teach: rest and let go. Let the ocean carry it to a safe place, polish its edges, expose its layers, deliver it to the shore. Then wait for someone to pick it up, admire the flaw, and tell the story.

A Little Rain Must Fall

The sky was overcast this morning as I headed out for my morning walk. It’s summer and I admit, I don’t tend to check the weather that often this time of year. What’s the point? I live in the south. It’s going to be hot. It is going to be humid. There will be a chance of thunderstorms whether there is a cloud in the sky or not. So while it was overcast, it didn’t look like rain and so off I went without double checking one of the several apps on my phone.

About a quarter of the way into my walk, it began to rain. Not just mist or drizzle, but a quiet shower that whispers through the trees and comes down all at once. The kind of rain best listened to as you hit the snooze button and roll back over for a few stolen minutes of cocooned peace. But I had already silenced that alarm clock. I had already dragged myself from the cocoon. I was soaked in a matter of seconds.

The Dixie Chicks Long Way Around came up in my shuffle and so I tucked the phone away and kept going. I was already wet. Water dripped off my lashes and nose. No reason to end my walk early. Like the song, I’m not one for short cuts.

It was beautiful. I laughed. I splashed through a puddle. It was me and the quiet and the scent of fresh cut grass and damp earth. The rain was cool and tickled my skin. I felt ridiculous and invigorated all at once. The rain was brief and the last half of the walk was dry save my shirt, shorts, shoes, and the drops slipping from the drooping and heavy crepe myrtle trees overhanging the sidewalk.  I kept going.

I recently entered my manuscript into #PitchWars, an online contest where aspiring writers submit their work to an amazing group of selfless authors who will serve as mentors. These mentors will select one lucky manuscript each to guide through an in-depth and intense two month editing process to revise and polish the work with an opportunity to pitch the final book to a similarly amazing group of agents.

There are several weeks between now and the selection announcements. There are thousands of entries. There are 149 mentors. There are fewer mentors suitable for my book. There are four that I submitted to. There are odds that are small and then there are these odds. And I admit, I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed with how inept my book is. How wrong it must be. How trite and amateur and many more adjectives with less friendly sides to them. Because I am a writer. And what is a writer if not filled with self doubt?

Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. – Stephen King

But I’m not one for short cuts. The wait, the work, the doubt, it’s all just a little rain and while I may get wet, I will also get to see bright yellow leaves skid across puddles and the shift of the clouds across the sky. I will be uncomfortable, but I will be making progress. If I let it, the rain – the setbacks that seem annoying, painful, discouraging – might simply be watering the work so that when the sun shines again it will grow and blossom into the beautiful thing I know it to be.

I am back at my desk. Back at work. Letting the rain fall where it must and putting in the steps to get where I am going. See you there.

 

 

Adjustment Period

It’s been awhile since I posted. Part of that was calculated. The election season was fraught. The aftermath even more so.

And a lot of why I wasn’t here wasn’t on purpose. Not consciously. But the fact was, I was struggling with what to say. Struggling with a lot of things.

Struggling since the move.

A few weeks ago, some ladies on my street got together for breakfast and invited me. I had a wonderful time getting to know these different and wonderful women I can see as part of my new village. They are good people. Fun people. People that get it – most of them have also moved here from somewhere else at some point. But I got in my car afterwards and felt a strange compulsion to cry.

And I didn’t know why.

The next day, I was meeting up with some ladies that also live in my neighborhood that I had only met through an online exchange about helping to coordinate an upcoming event for the neighborhood kids. I was a little nervous about this meeting. I didn’t know these people.

My husband told me to try to have fun as I walked out the door.

Try.

That’s what it was. I was just so tired of trying.

We are settling into our new lives, but there is a constant amount of trying. At our old school, I had already gone through the random volunteering to finally land the position I wanted as newsletter writer for the PTA. A position I sadly had to abandon after a year of shadowing when we moved. Now I’m starting over. I’m back to randomly picking up shifts at the book fair and spirit night events. It’s all great – these are all events I love – but I’m taste testing, meeting folks, working out where I best fit here.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s all great. I love our neighborhood. I’m in love with our school. Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) has been nothing but welcoming and supportive.

But it’s still all new. All the time.

Even yesterday, I wanted to take the boys Christmas shopping to pick out gifts for the cousins. I had to Google where the independent toy shops were. Then map them so I wouldn’t get lost.

And Facebook reminds me daily of all the Christmas traditions we had in Atlanta. The santa we visited every year. The lights at the Botanical Garden we visited each Friday after Thanksgiving with the rest of the city and their out of town guests. The neighborhood Christmas party. The streets with the best lights. We knew how early to get to church on Christmas Eve and to head straight for the cathedral’s gym since the cathedral itself and overflow room were filled hours in advance.

Now, I feel like I’m starting from scratch again. And while the boys are just happy that their Elf on the Shelf is back and our advent calendar of activities is as comforting and fun as usual, I’m left trying to make sure that I find a Santa with a real beard since my kids have never been to one with a fake one (something that probably means nothing to them and I have latched onto as being of the utmost importance).

Trying. Again.

Then there’s today. Today the boys went back to school. They’ve been out since Veteran’s Day. Adjusting to year round school means adjusting to their three week breaks every nine weeks. The bonus was we took a nice trip to Washington, DC – partly because we love our old stomping grounds, partly so I could do some research for the current book and partly because most everything to do in DC is free (yay Smithsonian!), we hosted Thanksgiving in our new home, we hung out with my sister-in-law in town from Louisiana, we went for walks, the boys learned how to ride their bikes (no more training wheels here), we shopped small business Saturday with my sister in our new, adorable downtown. But through it all, I didn’t do a lick of writing except for scrawling down on a post it note the physical descriptions and mannerisms of a guitar player at a concert the hubby and I went to who will most definitely be showing up in the work in progress.

But when I sat down in the chair today. Ugh. I had lost it. Three weeks was too long to be away. I reread the last two sections I wrote, determined not to edit as I went but to find the thread. I went back to some research materials I collected on our trip. And hopefully the words will start to come back tomorrow.

So I sit here blogging instead. Trying.

And that’s all I can do. I keep trying. Trying to meet people. Trying to find new experiences. Trying to balance being near family during a time of year when we were used to being alone. Trying to write this impossibly daunting work in progress.

The trying isn’t bad. It’s everything really. It’s just that sometimes the trying can be, well, trying.

So if I’ve been missing or I’ve been distant, it’s not you. It’s me. Trying.

 

Creative Re-Entry

Back in March, my second novel took a turn. Or, more accurately, I set it free to make room for what was a better story. I was digging in on research and finding my way through this new, much more daunting idea, getting to know my new protagonist and trying to fill in her life a little. Then, we were suddenly discussing moving. Upending our lives and starting over. My mind was filled with debate. Once we made our decision to indeed follow this course of action, my hands were filled with tasks to complete it. Staging, repairs, finding movers, it all became my job. Research on new neighborhoods, the end of the school year and trips to see possible new homes of our own took up my time. Packing and moving and living in limbo at my parents for three weeks while parenting our boys through this transition demanded every iota of my attention. The idea languished. The research stalled. The words stopped. My computer has seen many a map search as we learn our new town and plenty of online shopping as we fill our new home, but very few full sentences were typed from left to right across a blank page.

But the boys are in school now. The house is mostly put together. And for the first time in months, I felt the lack of writing in my bones. Kind of like when I get sick. When I’m really sick – laying in bed with the door shut and the covers pulled up and the medicine nearby and the hubby taking on all one hundred percent of the life tasks – I don’t notice the mess. The toys on the floor. The clutter accumulating on the counters. The laundry exploding from the hampers, the pantry’s empty shelves. But one morning, after moving from bed to couch and cruising HGTV, I will suddenly look around from my sick bed haze and finally notice the mess. That’s how I know I’m feeling better. When I start to see all that has fallen by the wayside in my absence and it starts to bug me.

Now, with the book (or at least the idea for the book), I’m starting to see all that hasn’t been done, all that needs to be tidied and filled in. Similar to being sick, however, when I start to see the mess, it doesn’t always mean I’m well enough to do something about it yet.

I don’t know if it’s simply being out of the routine, out of practice or out of excuses, but I’m a little scared to start writing again. Okay, a lot scared. I recognized this week that I need a plan. A plan to squash the doubt and ease myself back into a creative life.  Julia Cameron outlines the importance of the artist date in The Artist’s Way. Doing things for your creative soul can inspire, offer new perspectives and open up new pathways of thinking. This seemed like an easy place to start. So I spent an afternoon this week brainstorming locations – museums, coffee shops, historical spots – in our new town for me to explore. And for now, I will commit to visiting one a week. These field trips may have nothing to do with the topic of the new book or writing, but they will force me to dedicate time to nurturing the part of me that needs strengthening. The part that has been left forgotten and dusty for the last few months. The creative part.

Although I was tired and cranky and really didn’t feel like it, I took myself out on an artist date anyway. My first date was to the NC Museum of Art. Art has always been an easy way for me to unblock. What better exercise than to sit in front of a painting and then write about it? Write about the scene, the people, the emotion. The visual is already there, you just need to capture your imagination’s interpretation. Today, I didn’t write. I let my self simply look. I let my mind settle and my eyes wander. I found myself entranced by a Burk Uzzle photograph, The Black Barn. It was just a barn filling up the frame. But I felt my writer’s eye start to wake. I noticed the beer bottles discarded in the grass by a corner. Did teens find this abandoned barn? Did they sludge through the fallow field burdened down with coolers or six packs to spend an evening drinking and bellowing the laughter of youth? I noticed the impossibility of the paint job on the barn. Did someone try to spray paint it? Why? How was it both cloudy and dripping streaks of black at the same time, as if clouds of paint were raining on its rough hewn wooden canvas?

I wandered through Egyptian artifacts and European still lifes. There were the Monets that always manage to settle my soul a moment with their hazy light and thick layers of paint. There was the Andrew Wyeth that felt so real I nearly expected the curtains to move in the breeze if I stared at it long enough. And there was the Rodin sculpture garden with his impossible ability to capture weightless movement in the heaviest of mediums.

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And I wasn’t breathlessly inspired. I didn’t rush home to write. In fact, I stopped by the grocery store, the most mundane of all tasks, on the way home.

But I did feel something open. A small crack that let the air rush back in to my writer’s soul. And I found myself here. At the keyboard. Wanting to share, to tell you about it, to write about it.

For me, frustration was the first indication that I was neglecting myself. I stewed on that frustration for awhile. Probably too long. But this week, today, I was ready. Ready to turn that frustration into some kind of action. And although it was a small step, it was a step. A step towards re-entry into writing. Re-entry to the novel to be. Re-entry to the creative life. My creative life.

What places inspire you? Will you honor yourself to take an artist’s date this week?

Stretching

I have been diligently working away on my second novel for the last two months. I was feeling good about it until the characters in my real life started demanding some emotional and mental time effectively drowning out the fictional voices. It happens. I wasn’t too worried at first. It was more important to focus on the real people issues first.

I began to feel a little panic as the quiet continued, though. These people I’d been building didn’t seem to have much to say anymore. I thought perhaps once the “real” things died down they would open up again. Or maybe I was simply stuck in the dreaded middle where all rough drafts languish and I needed to just listen harder, push through, keep going. Whatever it was, I was feeling nervous. Something wasn’t right. And I knew it.

I went back to some craft books. I brainstormed. I did some exercises. Still no breakthrough. Then I considered that maybe it was really a story about characters B and C, not A and B like I started out with. Perhaps that’s why everyone was so quiet. I spent some time thinking about B and C and plotting out a story that still encompassed most of the existing material, just mixed up a bit. It was better. Truly. But I still felt it was a bit forced. I thought I just needed some time to sit with it. So I sat.

Something still wasn’t right.

Then, in a bolt of lightning moment, I saw Character D. She was waiting patiently with her hands in her lap. She was only supposed to be a tangential character to Character C  when I started with A and B, but when I looked at her, I realized there was something in her eyes. She needed me to ask her a question. She, apparently, had lots to say. Lots to say about her own story before A and B were even alive. Before she had ever met C.  This was turning the book on its head. If I went with D, well, this is something completely different than the existing 30,000 words I have been working on since January 1. This would mean starting over.

After I banged my head against my desk in frustration…

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…I took a deep breath and went back to some earlier research I had done for what was supposed to be this little bit of backstory. As I did so, I felt character D’s voice coming through. She is an extremely strong woman who has so much more to say and share than the poor woman I was forcing onto center stage in those original 30,000 words.

As I dug deeper, I allowed character A to exit stage left. I felt her relief. She smiled and nearly ran out – I think she’s halfway to a margarita and beach towel by now. As I waved goodbye, I ushered in this new person, invited her to sit and now she’s smiling at me, waiting to answer my questions and tell me her story.

I’m irritated that there is all this work that seems wasted, though I know it’s not. There are at least two short stories in those 30,000 words I could tease out.

Mostly, though, I’m scared. I’m scared that this story will be a much harder one to tell. It’s more real and requires a knowledge of a period of time and events I’m not as familiar with. It represents big ideas and complicated cultural and political issues. It’s not at all like the previous book.

I’m still not sure what happens in this book exactly – she hasn’t told me everything. I just know that she holds the story. One I haven’t heard before. One that speaks more honestly to my core. One I’d rather be writing about. And if I’d rather be writing it, I can guarantee you’d rather be reading it.

No one said it would be easy, right?

I may stretch my skills to the limit to tell this story. And I may fail. But I think if I don’t try, I’ll always regret it. And character D? She may never forgive me.

So yet again on this writer’s journey, I find myself taking a leap of faith. Only this time, I feel like I have a partner in crime. She’s just as invested as I am. Together, we have a story to tell. I hope I can do it justice.

Gifts that Keep Giving

I manage a small creativity circle – a group on Facebook where other creatives get together and share thoughts, ideas, work, questions, whatever. Each month we have a theme to provide some loose guidance and then we see where we end up. For me, it’s provided an opportunity for new thought. When I’m out running errands or cooking or contemplating what’s next with my writing, it gives me a jumping off point, a new perspective, a sense of presence when my thoughts scatter.

This month, the theme is gifts. I posted a question yesterday about what gift would you give your creative self this holiday season. I was surprised, although I probably shouldn’t have been, that many of the answers were chore related. Folks wanted someone to do their laundry, cook and clean so that they would have time to focus on their creativity.

I am so very guilty of this, too. I allow the mundane chores to impede on my creative time. Often. It’s tempting to straighten the kitchen or fold the laundry or run the errands because at the end these are tasks that are completed, that you can see, that are crossed off a list. There is an immense sense of satisfaction and ease when they are completed. They feel socially acceptable.

When I had a work outside the home job, however, if the dishes weren’t done after breakfast and waited in the sink until I got home from my commute in the evening, nobody suffered. I didn’t think about them while I was away at work. I didn’t worry what those dishes in the sink said about me – other than I was a busy working woman who didn’t have time to finish the dishes before hopping the train to the city.

So why are creative tasks less worthy to wait than for the “day job?” Why do we put off our creative tasks? Is the clean house or the folded laundry worth so much more to us? Can’t they wait a bit longer? Won’t they still be there after?

I think we devalue our creative time. As much as we crave it and need it, we feel selfish about it. Or at least I do. I feel selfish that what feeds my soul and brings me the most joy is this solitary pursuit in front of a keyboard or a notebook. I have to remind myself that being selfish isn’t always a negative. I should be selfish about finding time to nurture myself and my creativity. For one thing, it’s the “job” I’ve given myself right now and for another, it makes me happy. It makes me productive. It makes me better at the rest of it. It is what makes me me.

Doing the dishes, while satisfying to complete, will simply need to be done again after the next meal. Taking a few minutes to sketch, journal, paint, photograph or read will nurture me in a way that no chore list can.

What is holding us back? Chances are its an individual answer, but I don’t think it’s really the dishes. The dishes are the distraction or, more likely, an excuse. (More on that in the next few days).

 

 

So I want to challenge my circle friends, and the rest of us, to think outside the to-do list and really contemplate what you would give to your creative self to nurture that piece of you. Would it be a trip to an exotic location to paint strange flowers? A day in the city to photograph architecture? A morning in the art museum to stand in front of your favorite work and find something new in it? A walk through a garden to awaken your senses of touch and smell? A beautiful journal for scribbling out those random bits of epiphany that come in between your daily moments? Season tickets to the local symphony? Signing up for dance classes or singing lessons? A few hours spent in the airport pick-up area people watching?

Use your imagination. You might not be able to spend the money or take the time for some of these gifts. That’s okay. It’s important to know what those big dreams are so we can recognize the smaller opportunities to feed our creativity on a more daily basis. Can’t get to the Galapagos Islands? No worries – maybe see what your local botanical garden or zoo have to offer. Can’t afford season tickets to the symphony? Check your nearby college’s concert and recital schedules. No time to commit to dance lessons? You probably have five minutes for a living room dance party.

And don’t worry. The dishes will wait.

Learning to Write From my Kindergartner

 

Somehow I lost October and November. Sixty-one days evaporated from my calendar. Erased like dust in an etch-a-sketch. There one minute. Gone the next.

Between the great kitchen renovation project of 2015 followed closely on its heels by Thanksgiving, two months are a blur of construction dust, paint fumes, shopping and chopping.

December eased its way in this week and I welcomed it with open arms. I felt wide eyed and eager. Ready to return to the page and suss out the next work.

Yet, somehow, I’ve been as bad as the boys when I tell them to go brush their teeth and I find them in their room half undressed reading books or picking at the peeling skin on the bottoms of their feet claiming they were too distracted to do what I’d asked.

I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by holiday planning, grocery runs, Facebook, that episode of reality television on my DVR. It’s like I’ve lost all the discipline and work I’ve built up over the last year and am starting all over again.

Which I’m not. I have ideas. Too many ideas. Ideas seemingly so disparate I can’t figure out how they match up yet. And so I ignore them instead of sitting with them. Which is what I should be doing. Sitting with them. Listening to their whispers. Allowing them to marinate until they culminate into something.

But I’ve lost my trust. Part of it is the first work. As more distance is between me and it, I wonder if it’s “THE” work. The right work. The best work. It might be. But this idea of another. A new. A next. Maybe that’s where the magic is? Or not. Or maybe the magic is years from now and all of this is just training.

My six year old has been periodically writing a series of books (I think he’s up to six now) about a character he created called “Horsey Borsey.” Now Horsey Borsey tends to have adventures very similar to trips we take or events happening in our lives. He doesn’t let the fact that he just learned to read or that he can’t spell very many words stop him. He sits down and writes these stories as best he can. It might be a book of 20 pages where Horsey Borsey eats a lot of breakfast, then lunch, then dinner, then goes to bed before waking up to repeat it all again and again (and maybe even again) before the end. But he keeps writing. He writes and draws and staples them and then reads them over and over again.

I need to write like my six year old. Like I don’t know what I’m doing and that it doesn’t matter. That the mistakes and the repetition and the simplicity are part and parcel of the work.

For B, it’s all good. He knows that there will always be another Horsey Borsey book waiting to be written. And so he keeps writing them. Because that’s what he does.

I need to trust the momentum and keep moving forward. I need to trust my own fingers to deliver these new ideas and characters to a new page.

I need to keep writing. Because that’s what I do.

Distractions be damned.

(Right after lunch… )

 

Permission, Persistence and Partners

I just finished Big Magic over the weekend. Big Magic is Elizabeth Gilbert’s love letter to creativity. Or rather, her soul whispering (and sometimes shouting because the world can get noisy scaring our souls into hiding) to ours that the thing inside us – the thing that burns and tugs and bubbles just under the surface – is an okay thing, perhaps the best of things, and should be let out to play. Whether you want to write a book or weave a basket or collage or paint or invent or photograph the supermoon, we all have a creative being inside us that deserves our acknowledgement and attention. It doesn’t need to pay the bills or fold the laundry or earn its keep. It simply deserves the opportunity to exist. And through its existence, it will more than likely refresh you or change you or simply open up your perspective and empathy to the surrounding world.

The book arrived in my mailbox at the perfect time. I’m currently querying literary agents – a soul sucking process where you boil your creative work into a three paragraph letter that needs to encapsulate the story, its tone and demonstrate your abilities as a writer so hopefully this agent (or, more likely, their overworked assistant) will continue past your signature line in the email to read the first ten sample pages and will then request a partial or full manuscript and then (maybe, perhaps, fingers crossed) love it so much they offer representation so they can begin their own soul sucking cycle of trying to sell the same pages to a publisher. Fun, right? Needless to say, her section titled Persistence particularly resonated.

But as I go through this process of trying to secure third party credibility for my work, the Permission section also spoke to me.

I am currently being bothered by the next idea. Three unique souls, very different from the group in my existing manuscript, are pestering me, talking to me, pointing out things that are bothering them and asking me to help them out a bit. It’s reassuring that the well isn’t dry, but frustrating in that I’m not sure when to start allowing them completely in when my head is still so crowded with my current cast of characters (heaven forbid they start talking to each other). To top it off, we are starting a kitchen renovation in the next few weeks that only further sends that damsel doubt into a whirlwind of activity that typically starts with “Works in progress don’t buy subway tiles, honey. You spent how long writing that first book and not working a real job? What if it never sells? What makes you think it’s okay to just start another book that may only live on your laptop?”

Because it is.

Because it’s what I’m doing.

Because I don’t need anyone’s permission but my own.

What I’ve learned from the last year and a few months of writing this book is that I am a writer. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever hold down another day job. But it does mean that I won’t be able to stuff that part of myself back into Pandora’s box. The lid has been opened and the spirit it released in me is entirely too much fun to lock back up. Even if my words never see more print than what comes out of my very own printer. It won’t matter if it fails to publish, it doesn’t mean that I failed. Because I wrote it. I already did the thing I set out to do. Does that mean I won’t fight like hell to get it published? No. It just means that if my persistent efforts come up short, it isn’t a rejection of my permission slip to continue doing the thing.

Permission and Persistence. In this creative life they are the two things I can control.

As I read the book and sent out my queries and pondered my next steps, there was another theme that resonated with me this weekend that is not a part of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, at least not in an outright way.

Partners. (Might as well keep it alliterative, right?)

I recently swallowed my nerves and asked a local writer I very much admire and had met several times before if she’d be willing to get together and share any advice on the business side of writing. It was terrifying to ask and just as terrifying when she said yes! We had a lovely dinner, however, talking about books and publishing and writers and MFA’s and Oprah’s book club and e-books and careers and permission and persistence (although not in those specific terms). I came home invigorated and inspired by our conversation.

The next day, I had lunch with a neighbor friend who, after decades of working with the same company, is now looking for a new job. We both find ourselves in places of reinvention, of soul searching and an attempt to take our life’s work and find the rare matching peg — me the right agent, her the right job.

I felt bolstered by these two women. In their own ways, they both provided support and encouragement of my journey. I hope, in some small way, I was able to do the same for them. These two conversations opened my eyes to the other partners I have on this creative walk. In just the last week, there was the friend who again offered her guest room to me for a visit and a bit of writer’s retreat; another who shared my excitement of the arrival of Big Magic and is my feminist soul sister (as well as birthday twin – coincidence?); another who asked for book recommendations on Facebook that turned into a quick, yet no less fascinating, exchange about books and their impacts; the fellow writer who is also shopping her book and our quick email exchanges sharing our frustrations with the process, rejections and words of support.

I told the universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life not in order to save the world, not as an act of protest, not to become famous, not to gain entrance into the canon, not to challenge the system, not to show the bastards, not to prove to my family that I was worthy, not as a form of deep therapeutic emotional catharsis…but simply because I liked it.Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

I have been very vocal about my creative journey here on the blog, on my Facebook page, and recently in cocktail party conversation (New acquaintance: What do you do? Me: I’m a writer.). I don’t do this for attention or for ego stroking (although, who am I to turn down some ego stroking?). I do this because this is where I am. This is the messy, anxiety-prone, solitary task I am undertaking. I do this because we are all trying to live a creative life somehow. In our jobs, in our hobbies, in our craft projects with the kids, in those new coloring books for adults. We should talk about it more. We should be open to it. We should open ourselves up in a way that allows us to create and to create deeper relationships with each other.

Sure, I like that photo of your cat or your kid or that gastronomic feat you are about to ingest for dinner. But I am also excited by your new studio, your completed art project, your honest and thoughtful response to an event in your life or in the world. When I see these creative moments peek their heads up out of my friends’ and readers’ lives, I find that my soul has found another partner. And when you spend most of your day alone in your home, in front of a blank screen, with only a silent fish making bubble nests in the tank on your desk, it’s incredibly important when your soul recognizes another mate.

With a holy host of others standing around me… — James Taylor, Carolina In My Mind. 

I couldn’t do it without you.

And so it is with Permission, Persistence and Partners that I am on this writing journey. Here’s hoping for more magic.