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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Listening for the Muse’s Whisper

I recently finished the novel that has taken me two years to write (two years, two houses, two states, endless revisions). It’s done. Or as done as I can make it right now. I sent it out to a few interested agents and am waiting. Ugh. The waiting. Waiting for the feedback. Waiting for the rejections. Waiting to send it out to the next group. Waiting for the one yes.

The finishing was entirely anti-climatic. There was no celebration. There was no champagne. There was simply real life crowding out the fictional one and fast. And the real life mess I found (and continue to find) myself surrounded by has completely thrown me out of my creative routine.

In the weeks since real life’s descent, my fictional lives took a back seat. More accurately, they took a separate car and their GPS and mine apparently did not match up – I haven’t seen their car for days. I have spun out in several different directions about what to do next, how to accomplish my creative writing goals, how to get my freelance writing off the ground. All roads feel like dead ends, my brain unable to take any single route to its destination.

For a little while, I couldn’t write anything. The whiplash of switching from full-on, months-long revision mode in my fictional world to real life problems with no easy solutions for me to conjure up out of the ether left me dazed, confused, empty. I admit, I was scared. I have never had my mind feel so empty, so quiet. It was disconcerting and disorienting.

But I kept reading: books, articles, interviews with authors. I went to lunch with fellow WFWA writers. I added books and blogs to my growing to read piles. I wrote a new blog post. I kept putting in an effort, even when it felt wasted.

I walked. I listened to music and to podcasts. I watched a movie or two. I gave up some days and ran errands.

I kept showing up – butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard. Determined. Aware. Ready or not.

This week, while perusing a spreadsheet of upcoming deadlines for possible contests to enter, a line of dialogue popped into my head.

“Open the door.”

Boom.

I quickly opened a doc and typed it. A response followed like a gift. Lines poured out. Not many, but enough. A short scene appeared on the page. What was happening? Who were these people? Who were they to each other? Why was she so scared? Why was he so angry? Is that actually fear? Is that really anger? It’s not a novel. It’s not the next big story. But it’s a story. A short piece that may be strong enough to stand on its own two feet or, at the very least, get me back on my own.

It was a whisper. A drip. A start.

Real life, writer’s block, busyness, it’s all going to happen, to me, to you, to Stephen King and Ann Patchett and probably happened to Shakespeare, too. There is so much noise in our lives ready to drown out the muse. But if we keep showing up, keep putting in the effort, keep feeling, exploring, seeing, trying, we may be able to still ourselves long enough that a single whisper will make it’s way through the cacophony and the emptiness won’t be empty anymore. The whisper will grow into a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter… The words will start to fill the page again.

I am learning to live in the quiet, to seek out the peace, to listen to the whispers.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
 -Emily Dickinson
The muse doesn’t leave. It’s waiting. Are you listening?

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.

 

 

The End 2.0

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. – Michelangelo

Today. For the second time in my life, I reached “The End” on a book I’ve written.

This time, however, I didn’t actually type the words. It felt different this time. I know it’s not the end. Not really. It’s just the beginning. Right now I’m skimming the surface of a story that’s hidden in the dark and weedy depths.

For the last year, I have been chiseling and hammering at this giant rock of a story. But, after a year, I find that instead of seeing my angel in the marble like Michelangelo, I realize I’ve only managed to get the rock free of the mountain. Now, I need to haul this giant piece of rock home and dig in to start the real carving.

Like last time, I am being public about my process, my accomplishments, my struggles. Unlike last time, self-doubt is winning. I posted to Facebook in an effort to fake it till I make it. If I post I’m excited, maybe I will be? But instead of bringing the excitement and giddiness I felt last time, I cried.

I cried because I know enough to know it’s nothing right yet. It’s lacking flow, possibly plot and maybe even some fundamental main character development. It’s based in historical events and I need to make sure it’s RIGHT. Like really, really right. Like accurate, truthiness right. The more I cried the more it also became borderline boring, trite and simply bad.

Then I stopped. I stopped because my husband hugged me. I stopped because my sister-in-law happened to text around the same time and when I sad I was wallowing in self-pity she told me to stop. I stopped because the story doesn’t get better if I simply wish it to.

So I’m picking up the rock. It’s heavy. Heavy with responsibility. Heavy with doubt. I am secretly wondering if I haven’t picked up Sisyphus’ rock by mistake.

But it is heavy with something else. It is heavy with hope. Hope that this is the story, this is the one that works, that resonates, that says something. Hope that I am learning, slowly, but surely, how to do this better. Hope that I can use the tools at hand to set my angel free.

It’s time to find out.

 

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.

Forcing Creativity

Writing a book is not a unique pursuit. There are many of us writers out there going about day jobs, pounding away on keyboards at night, at dawn or at the kid’s baseball practice. The difference between those that succeed in actually becoming a published writer and those that do not – I have been told and cling to as if these words might keep me afloat in a flood – is simply writing. It’s that easy. One verb: write.

I have an E.L. Doctrow quote pinned over my desk that says:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you are doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.

E.L. Doctrow

Or, as the old Yoda adage goes:

Do or do not. There is no try.

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And yet, for some reason, writers still find this hard. I, for one, now picture myself doing nothing but this job of writing and yet each morning I sit down at my computer and think “Oh, God. Not this again. I suck at this. I should go scrub the shower instead. Or get a “real job.” Or maybe take a nap.”

Instead, I try to start typing. Sometimes it works (yesterday I knocked out 1,300 words in two hours – hooray!). Sometimes it doesn’t (the day I wrote one sentence in two hours- ouch). But even when it isn’t working, I’m working. I’m there, committed, waiting for the muse, the inspiration, the tiny train of thought that will show me where we’re going.

Can you force creativity? Can you demand that inspiration join you on the page? How much of a creative pursuit is in our own control versus the elusive muse? And what happens if she doesn’t show up?

Creating, whether it’s writing or painting or photography or building, takes practice, time and a whole helluva lot of behind the scenes work that you probably don’t want to know about. It takes commitment and stamina. It is not for the feint of heart. It is a soul-wrenching, doubt-whispering, self-flagellating process that leaves the creator empty and beaten until they take a step away. It’s in the step back, when we take a look at that painting or re-read that essay or reconsider a photograph’s lighting, that we realize somewhere in all that work there was magic, muse, inspiration. We then become Michaelangelo and must work to free the sculpture from the morass.

This month, I am working on creating the morass. I have committed to writing 20,000 in the current work in progress for the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association Write-A-Thin. I am no stranger to gimmicks to get me working. Back in 2010, I did NaNoWriMo. I am not the only one. More than 325,000 writers and growing participate in NaNoWriMo each year. Because sometimes you need someone to hold you accountable. Because sometimes you need a kick in the pants. Because most of us don’t have a Yoda whispering in our ears. But mostly because inspiration, magic, muses, whatever you call them, they don’t show up unless you invite them.

I sit at the keyboard again today and wonder will today be the day the words run out (no)? Will I cry (possibly)? Will it work today (maybe)? Will it be worth it (damn straight)? Thankfully, every morning when I drag my feet to the desk and grunt as I open the work in progress, I have a husband who reminds me “it’s not supposed to be easy.” And he’s right. Through all of the struggle, I still love it. I still love seeing that perfect phrase emerge in a string of keystrokes on my screen. I still love when my characters surprise me. I still love when I finally find the answer to what my protagonist does for a living and it fits so absolutely perfectly no matter how small a role it may play in the book. I still love realizing that two hours passed and I had no idea. I still love the potential, the promise, the process. Even when I hate it. Maybe especially when I hate it.

The point? We can’t all wait for inspiration to strike. It’s simply unfeasible. Yes. It happens. And when it does, it’s wonderful and fantastic and pure magic. But more often than not, we have to remember to invite inspiration. And the only way to do that is to start the work and see what happens.

This month, I’m inviting my muse to join me daily as I work towards my 20,000 word goal.

To all of you out there who are struggling with your own creative pursuits, perhaps you need a gimmick, a challenge, a Yoda to keep you accountable. Whatever it is, find it. Promise it. Pin it to your wall. Do it.

Writing is writing.

Do or do not.

I am right here with you.

 

Growing Pains

As a tween (although I don’t think we called it that back in the 80s) and teen, I would often suffer from a painful ache in my legs that my parents would chalk up to growing pains. The discomfort was real. The pain acute. I’d lay in my bed at night or the couch during the day and imagine my bones stretching, straining against the ligaments, muscles and skin holding them in, trying to make me taller while the rest of my body reluctantly made room.

I’m in a similar period of discomfort. This time it’s not in my limbs or my hormones or imagined slights in the lunch room like it was in those days. Now it’s related to my writing.

A second project has creeped up on me. An idea that when I first started following it down the rabbit hole was new, invigorating and burst with excitement like champagne bubbles fizzing to the surface. Now, it feels dark and cramped and stinks of damp earth.

Writing has always been easy for me. Essays and term papers, feature articles, press releases. It all came quickly from my fingers. There wasn’t a lot of discomfort once I understood the rules. Scribbling in journals and filling pages with words has always been a source of comfort for me, not discomfort. Writing the first novel was hard. It wasn’t easy. It felt challenging, but not uncomfortable. Putting it out into the world and allowing others eyes on it made me feel vulnerable and displayed, but not inherently uncomfortable.

But the more distance I have to it, the more my discomfort grows. There is the rejection and, even worse, radio silence, from agent queries. There is the distance to the story that makes me wonder if I rushed it and need to rewrite whole sections. There are the second thoughts about process and talent and choices I’ve made to create this writing life.

All distinctly uncomfortable feelings. All making the act of sitting down to focus on this new idea inherently uncomfortable, too. And so I have hesitated. I have buried myself in research and other tasks. I have avoided pen to paper because it suddenly doesn’t feel right, natural, easy, comfortable.

Just when I was beginning to feel the dark walls of serious doubt close in, I finished reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. She talked about how feeling uncomfortable is what leads to growth. It’s where the discomfort is that the growth happens, like my stretching adolescent legs.

Here, where I sit, at my desk, at this keyboard, this is where the growth happens. The discomfort is simply the recognition that I could be doing better. That I need to do better. That better is possible. That better is not only possible, but possible through me. That doing and learning and continuing will lead to growth. It won’t always feel good, and probably shouldn’t, but it will lead to newness and innovation and better writing on the other side.

So I am letting the discomfort stay. I am getting used to the lump it causes in my throat when I sit at the keyboard. I am taking the research more seriously again instead of simply as an excuse. I am looking back at the notes I took during this new idea’s germination and letting that excitement settle back in.

But the discomfort will need to stay. It is pushing me in new and different directions. It is forcing me to grow as a person and as a writer.

And recognizing that discomfort, acknowledging its purpose, I have to say, is actually pretty comforting.