It was a busy day in the middle of a busy week, but I had a quiet moment to sit on the couch and think of nothing in particular. My eyes wandered over the stacks of things in my front room. It has once again gathered the detritus of projects in process and projects not-quite-cleaned-up. One of the stacks was right next to me on the couch. It was half a dozen copies of Massively Parallel all waiting to be transported to the warehouse. I absently ran my hand over the cover of the book and let my thumb rifle the edges of the pages. Bright colors flipped past as I saw familiar characters having adventures. This is really pretty. The thought floated through my mind in response to the colors. I helped make this. It wouldn’t exist without me, but here it is. It is real. And beautiful. And funny.
As creators we always hope for the moments of triumph. So often we feel despair or lost in futility. But every once in a while we can see what we’ve created and know that it is good. I see it when friends open their boxes of Advance Reader Copies. I see it when they finish their drafts or go on their book tours. Those are the moments we expect to be attached to triumph, they are the punctuation points in what mostly feels like a really long, run on sentence. Yet every once in a while a moment of creator joy comes unexpected, when I’m sitting on the couch thinking of nothing in particular.
I needed to reach Monday at full efficiency. I was scared that I would not because I was the opposite on Friday and Saturday. But Monday came and I worked at top speed. This is necessary because the next few weeks are filled with project launches. I was handling art contracts for the Planet Mercenary RPG. Planet Mercenary is going to require a Kickstarter and there is much work to do preparatory to that. I need to make spreadsheets and do math. I was wrestling with the script for the next bonus story. I’ve been exchanging email with the designer for the new Cobble Stones covers. I’ve been helping manage administrative tasks for the Out of Excuses workshop and retreat. My partially-homeschooled son needs me to keep his schooling on track and to require him to work even when he doesn’t feel like it. There are are couple of birthdays coming right up. Today was the opening of exhibitor housing for GenCon, which is always a stressful free-for-all trying to get the rooms we need. And to help fund all of the things, we needed to run a sale in the Schlock store. (Coupon code BIRFDAY15 for 20% off your order.) The sale has done well, for which I am extremely grateful. The funds that are coming in will enable all of the other things. Turning inventory into funds with which to buy new inventory is a necessary business process. I’ve spent large portions of yesterday and today over at the warehouse sending packages.
This is a busy time. It is the sort of busy that I love. Yet every single moment I’m aware of the half dozen things which I ought to be doing and am not. So, I’m stressed. And I’m very worried that I will disappoint people. In fact a part of my brain is constantly convinced that I already have. I try to ignore the feeling as much as I can because it doesn’t help, and I’m pretty sure it is lying to me.
In the meantime it is Tuesday. I’m grateful that I have so much of the week left. Yet I feel like it can’t possibly still be Tuesday because I’ve done so many things since Sunday night. Tomorrow I get to retrieve Howard from the airport. He’s been off in Chicago recording episodes for Writing Excuses. I’ll be glad to have him home. Even better, none of us have any travel scheduled until June. We’re going to have several months in a row where we can stay home and do all the projects. We’re going to need it.
This post is a summary of a presentation I gave at LTUE 2015. I find that posting it right now is particularly apropos because I’ve got two writing projects in process and I’ve made little progress on either one lately.
I am a writer of picture books, blog entries, essays, and children’s fiction. As my day job I run the publishing house for my husband’s comic strip, Schlock Mercenary. This means I do graphic design, marketing, shipping, inventory management, store management, and customer support. I have a house that needs maintenance and I have four children, three of whom are teenagers. My life is busy. In fact when someone who knows me in one of my non-writing capacities finds out that I also write, the question that they ask is “where do you find the time?”
The truth is that I spend a lot of time not writing. Even with my busy life, time is not the problem. I have the hours, I just find myself reaching the end of the week and realizing that I’ve spent them all on non-writing things. This post/presentation lays out some of the reasons writers get blocked, or otherwise don’t write. It also offers some solutions for the problems.
How to counter it: Recognize that the critical thoughts are there. I often personify them a little bit, calling them the voices of self doubt. This small separation is useful, because once I see them as separate from me, it is easier for me to choose to ignore them. Sometimes I even mentally address them. “Yes, I know you think this isn’t worthwhile, I’m going to write anyway.”
Important reminder: These voices of self doubt are lying to you. The act of creation has value, even if the only person who is ever changed by it is the creator.
There may be people in your life who feed the self doubt. They may be deliberately undercutting you for reasons of their own, or they may be doing it unintentionally. It is important to recognize which people make you doubt yourself. If they are unimportant in your life, perhaps remove them from it. If it is a loved one, then spend some time figuring out how they are adding to your self doubt and try to re-structure your relationship so that they have less power to make you doubt yourself. Be aware that this is not simple and the other person may react poorly to the process.
Perfectionism / The editor within
How to counter it: When you’re drafting you have to give yourself permission to write something terrible. You will fix it later. Some people need to have some sort of timer or incentive in order to force themselves to draft quickly without worrying that it is bad. Examples of incentives are Write or Die programs, Written Kitten, or participating in NaNoWriMo. If you are editing you need to distinguish between the useful editor and the mean editor. The useful one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. We need to write it better” The mean one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. You are a terrible writer. Why do you do this anyway?”
How to counter it: There is no wrong way to create. Anything that allows you to get writing done is better than a system that does not. Feel free to learn how other writers approach their writing. Experiment with their methods, but if their methods don’t work for you, discard them. Keep what works for you and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong. (If they do, then they fall in the category of people who feed your self doubt.)
Fear of Failure
How to counter it: First remember the act of creation has intrinsic value no matter what happens to the creation once it is done. Second, focus on the work that is in front of you instead of on your fears about what will come in the future. If you’re drafting, then fully enjoy the process of drafting. No matter what comes afterward no one will ever be able to take away the experience you had with writing your book. Then you can focus on the experience of editing. Then on publishing or submitting. Each step is its own process. Do one at a time. All the other steps will be there later. Worry about them when you get to them.
How to counter it: Learn to work in small chunks. Sometimes it feels like you can’t accomplish anything unless you can free up an hour or two. But I know writers who create whole books by snatching fifteen minutes here and there. You just have to train your brain to hold the story ideas and percolate them while you’re doing other things so that when you sit down to write you can pour words onto the page. A notebook is a very useful tool for training your brain to do this. Carry one with you. Scribble notes as thoughts come to you. This teaches your brain to hold story thoughts until you need them. Also learn your biorhythms. Some people are most creatively energized first thing in the morning others late at night. I know that my body wants to take a nap around 3pm. I should not attempt to schedule my writing time for when my body wants to nap. My brain is all fuzzy and not good at writing during that time.
The Story is Stuck
How to counter it: If you don’t know what comes next, then it is time to step back and take a broader look at your story. You may need to brainstorm or re-outline. This is also a solution to the subconscious blocking you problem. You need to recognize where your story deviated from what it needs to be. If the story needs skills you don’t have, then you may need to step away from it an practice that skill. With practice you’ll begin to develop a sense for which sort of problem you’re having. Sometimes the right solution is to plow forward, just keep putting words on the page even if they’re the wrong ones. Other times you have to step backward, get outside your box and look at the whole thing differently.
How to counter it: Turn off or remove your typical distractions. At the very least, make them harder to access so that you have time to realize “Oh I’m getting distracted.” The moment you realize you’re distracted, bring yourself back to the writing. Also control your environment. If you sit in a particular place with a particular drink, these things can signal to your brain that you’ve entered writing time. You can train your brain that writing time is for writing and not for Twitter. Some days will still be easier than others, but physical signals and practicing coming back to writing focus will help.
How to counter it: First determine what you are spending your creative energy doing. If that thing is more important to you than writing is, then you don’t actually have a problem. The writing will wait until your life shifts in a way that you have energy for it again. If the other thing is LESS important to you than writing, it is time to take steps to rearrange your life. Most of us can’t afford to quit our jobs and be full-time creative. But we can be budgeting, paying down debts, and saving money so that someday that dream becomes possible. Parents can hire babysitters once per week so that there is a day with some available creative energy. The solutions are as varied as the problems. The key is to analyze why you’re too creatively tapped out to write and make a small change toward fixing that problem.
I know these are not the only things that can cause a writer not to write, but it is a useful jumping off place for writers to figure out what is going on inside their heads that prevents them from reaching their writing goals.
Today my son has a money problem that I could easily solve for him. I am not solving it, because learning to solve your money problems by being willing to work is a vitally important life skill. And it is one that can only be learned if other people don’t always solve your problems for you.
This experience is not being fun for either of us.
The day after a convention is always a strange place. My head is still full of conversations and I am processing them. I’m usually trying not to listen to voices of self doubt that always want to convince me that I made an idiot of myself. I need to re-engage my brain with the things of regular life. And I’m tired, so very tired.
I had a lovely time at LTUE. As always, I am very grateful to the committee and volunteers who organize the event each year. LTUE keeps getting bigger and when I think about the complexity of the undertaking, I hold the organizers in awe. I’m very grateful to be able to come each year. LTUE feels like a family reunion and I couldn’t have that without the people who put in so much work.
My co-panelists were a pleasure. This is not always the case and so I was very pleased. I love it when a panel feels like a really good conversation and when I walk away having learned something. The audiences were also very good. It may sound silly to say that, but the attendees at LTUE are focused. They’re at the event to learn. This means they ask well-informed and interesting questions. Some of those attendees came to talk to me at the booth and I was grateful for that as well.
Next week is going to be busy. I wanted to make sure I expressed my thanks first. LTUE was good. If you were there, thank you for being part of it. If you were not there, you might want to put it on your calendar for next February. It is well worth the trip.
This Thursday is the beginning of the Life the Universe and Everything symposium in Provo, Utah. LTUE is one of my favorite convention events of the year. It is a perfect event for people who want to create to learn the craft. Particularly since attendance is free to students. Team Tayler will be out in force. Howard, Kiki, and I all have programming. In between the programming we’ll be at our tables in the dealer’s room.
I’m very excited by this year’s panels. They really mixed things up and I’ll get to talk about new things. Here is my schedule:
I hope that if you’re at LTUE you’ll stop by and say hello.
Art museums take my breath away. I am always awed by human creativity, the ways that people choose to express themselves, and how often they make simple objects needlessly beautiful. Then I stand in front of Greek marble sculptures and know that people have been doing this for a very long time. I wander to the next gallery that has ancient stone statues and I realize we have been creating art for even longer than we’ve had recorded history. That long ago sculptor was driven to create by a very similar creative impulse that leads me to write. Standing in a museum I can see all of this and I feel connected to all of the best of our history. Humans are amazing. It is nice to be reminded of that, because wading around the internet and watching the news so often shows me how humans are terrible.
I sat at the table and listened to my friend Mary plan her birthday dinner. It was to be a multi-course formal event. She picked anchor items then she planned complimentary courses. I listened to her discuss with her husband the merits and detriments of various pairings. Once the dishes were selected, they talked at length about the order of presentation. I squelched my impulse to reassure them that their guests would be happy with any order. This wasn’t about appeasing guests, they were discussing the artistic presentation of food as part of a formal dinner. I was watching art in the planning stages. Later this evening I will get to participate in the culmination of the planning, shopping, chopping, and cooking. This is not an art that will ever end up in a museum because it’s very nature is ephemeral. It is my friend raising a necessity (food) to an art form and I’m honored to be able to participate.
We began our tour of the Chicago Art Institute in the miniatures gallery. In the 1930’s Mrs. Thorne took dollhouse decoration to an art form. She commissioned teams of artists to create accurate miniature replicas of period rooms. Every single one was stunning. I was most charmed when there was a doorway or window that I could peer through into a back bedroom or a garden. I very much wanted to shrink myself and go explore those gardens. I suspect that Mrs. Thorne was ridiculed on more than one occasion for wasting her time and resources on so frivolous a pursuit as miniature rooms. I think that every artist or creator has their work belittled at least once. Yet her creation is marveled at today. Her rooms are carefully preserved by museum staff so that they will be available for my great grandchildren to admire. I am grateful to the museum conservators for this and for the Greek marbles that they tend, and the impressionist paintings, and all the other things that fill my soul when I look at them.
The last gallery we wandered through at the art museum was the Folk Art gallery. I looked at weather vanes and homey little chairs. I pondered why Folk Art is different than Art. The sign on the wall implied that the difference was in training and skill. I don’t quite buy that. Some of the folk art pieces were every bit as lovely as pieces found elsewhere in the museum. Then I thought of Mary’s planned birthday dinner and of the thanksgiving dinner I created for my family last November. Mary’s dinner is an art, mine was a folk art. Mine sought first to be comfortable and pleasing. Mary’s seeks to be beautiful and esthetically pleasing both to eyes and educated palettes. There is intrinsic value in both sorts of creation. It is true that Mary and I laughed at some of the items in the Folk Art Gallery. There was one clock case made of layer upon layer of wooden strips cut into zig zag shapes. It was busy and while not exactly ugly, definitely not something I’d want to look at often. Yet I could see how much loving work had gone into the creation. Some artist loved making that clock case.
In the Thorne Miniature gallery the European rooms ran along one wall while the American rooms were on the other. Stepping from one side of the hall to the other provided a distinct contrast. The European rooms were all large and highly decorated. The American rooms were smaller and practical. Yet both were beautiful. Just as Mary’s elegant dinner and my homey dinner are both beautiful. Just as folk art and fine art are both beautiful, even when they are kind of ugly. I love that humans make things needlessly beautiful. I love that we are all artists, creating in different mediums. Some create books, others well-run classrooms. Some make buildings, others sandcastles. Some embroider tapestries, others knit scarfs. Some create with expertise and skill, others with skill-less fingers but a strong desire to make something anyway. That is how we all begin, with pure desire to create. The skill comes later.
Art museums remind me that we are all artists, we all create in our own way. I think if we spent more time remembering that, the world would have more of what is lovely about humanity and less of what is not.
I resisted getting a Skype account for many years. I just didn’t feel a need for it. Then my daughter went to college and suddenly Skype offered a valuable way to keep in touch with her. I installed it and learned how to use it. That was lovely.
What was less lovely was that I kept getting pinged by strangers who wanted to add me to their contact list. The profiles all had male pictures and the messages were usually along the lines of “I saw your profile and thought you were beautiful. Want to chat?” So I removed the webcam shot of myself as the profile image. It wasn’t a great picture anyway, but it did make me visibly female. That slowed the contact requests for a while. But it did not stop them.
This past week the rate of contact requests increased a lot. I’ve no idea why. It was getting annoying. I wanted Skype to be a private place for me and my kid to communicate. I didn’t want it to be social. Blocking the requests was fairly easy, but they kept coming. So I went to my profile and set my gender to blank. The contacts still kept coming. I finally resorted to renaming myself on Skype to something that sounded neutral-to-male. The combination of all these things appears to have worked. I’m glad I found a solution to my problem. I’m sad that being on Skype while female = available for romantic solicitation.
I’ve had a lot of meetings with teachers and school administrators in the past few months. I’ve had even more in the past two years. Many of these meetings take place because I call for them. My kid is in crisis, life has become untenable, things must change. I’m always aware that urgent meetings are a disruption of the school personnel’s regular schedule. The meetings certainly disrupt my life and I know that teachers/administrators are every bit as busy as I am. This means that I enter these meetings with a strong urge to apologize for inflicting my kids on the school. I am always aware that there is more I could be doing to resolve the issue. I could support my kid more, be more regular at declaring homework time, establish a more firm bedtime. It is only recently that I recognized my deep emotional belief that it was my job to help my kids function normally in a classroom, and if they didn’t, that was a failure on my part. Pulled out into rational light, I can see how ridiculous this expectation is. Yet it was there in my head and it caused me a lot of grief.
I hit a turning point last November when I sat in a meeting with my son, his counselor, a student advocate, the vice principal, the principal, and a special ed teacher. All of these busy people sat with me and my son for more than an hour while I talked about what we were experiencing, what we’d done to try to resolve it, and expressed a need for help. As I talked, I really could see that we had done every possible thing that was in our power to do, yet my son needed more. Which the school staff identified and moved to provide. The help was wonderful. Even better was walking out of the meeting and realizing that they didn’t blame me. No one was standing in judgment to evaluate why we’d ended up in the emotional pit. They just asked if we’d prefer a rope, ladder, shovel, or backhoe as the means to get out.
After that meeting I began to stop blaming me. It was hard. I had to break long time habits of thought. As we were digging out to a better place, arranging therapy, adjusting medications, changing the school schedule, I learned that I was most helpful to everyone else if I simply said “This is where we are at today” without burying myself under an emotional load of guilt. In problem solving, how you arrived matters less than where you’re headed.
The frequency of meetings has begun to trail off. I’m looking at a March that might be completely free of teacher meetings. I would be fine with that, because it would mean that the arrangements for next year are made and no one is in crisis. In the interim, I’m glad that the only meetings I have coming up are routine meetings about school schedules for next year.
Lately I’m spending a lot of time looking at my calendar. In theory I’m doing this to plan for the days ahead and to keep myself on track. That part is necessary, because I’m prone to distraction lately and I need my external reminders for what I hope to accomplish each day. But there is also something else that is driving this staring-at-the-calendar behavior. I’ve had trouble putting my finger on it, but it feels a little bit like waiting. It’s almost as if there is a coming deadline after which my life will clear of the minutia and leave me space for long and slow thoughts. I miss my long slow thoughts, the unrolling of words in my head. Everything feels jumbled up there and I’m not sure how to unjumble it.
This is one of the things I hope for from my trip to Chicago. I hope to get far enough outside my usual context that I can see clearly all the things I’ve been in the midst of doing.
I am fortunate to live in a network of friendships. I attend a church where the members are my neighbors. Most of us have lived here for many years. Many of the women here are kindred spirits, yet I often forget to talk to them. I forget to look outside the walls of my own house. When I do, my head is so full of unspoken thoughts that I’m a little afraid to start talking for fear that my avalanche of words will overwhelm my listener. So, I parcel things out. I talk of parenting to one friend. I talk of business to another. I talk writing with a third. There is some mixture in what I say, because it is hard for me to talk about any of these things without mentioning the others. Then when I’ve been talking for a while, my friend will say something like “Wow, you’ve got a lot going on.” These are affirming words. I need to hear them, because sometimes I wonder if I’m just being weak or silly when I’m being buried in the stress of my life. Surely I could have planned it better and not needed to dump on my friend. Then there is the other quiet thought in my head, the one that knows it is time for me to change the subject. Because I’ve only told part of my stories and my friend already thinks I have too much going on.
Used to know a family who always lived in emotional crisis. They were always fighting or recovering from fighting. They feuded with neighbors. They created drama everywhere they went. I would sit and talk with the mother of this family, trying to help her find peace and calmness for her household. Yet, without fail, any time peace began to be established, they would do something to create a new crisis. The family didn’t know how to exist without it. Crisis was familiar. Peace was uncomfortable and strange to them. I lost touch with this family long ago, but I expect they are still careening along, colliding with the world and being angry about it.
When I view my life and the endless stream of things I am managing, grieving, afraid of, or depressed about, I sometimes wonder if I am doing the same thing. Do I live in stress like a fish in water, so that if I’m ever at risk of emerging, I do something to plunge back in? I hope not. I want to believe that I’m helping my loved ones traverse a difficult but necessary passage. I want to believe that I am experiencing a period of stress and recalibration.
“Don’t worry Mom. It’s all going to be fine.” Link says these words to me often. Usually when I’m pushing at him to accomplish something because I am afraid of the future that I have pictured. I try to believe him and I try to stop pushing. My conversations with Link have changed in the past year. They work best when I manage to listen to Link instead of the clock ticking in my head. It is the ticking which tells me I’m running out of time to teach him the things he needs to know. As if I will have used up all my chances to teach on the dawn of his eighteenth birthday. Link says he feels like a seed, small and protected now, but ready to grow into something big and amazing. I believe that too (when the clock isn’t in my way.) I see the potential that is in him. Yet I am a gardener and I know that not all seeds reach their potential. Link is amazing, more amazing than he believes, and I want him to fulfill his desire to go out and make the world a better place.
My thoughts of seeds and gardening send me wandering out to my front flower beds, where I have pansies in bloom. We’ve had a strange, warm winter here in Utah. Most days are forty or fifty degrees. My pansies are little troopers, putting out bloom after bloom, even when the nights drop below freezing sometimes. I’m grateful for the bright color as I walk up to the house. It fools me into feeling like we’re in March, not February. March is when winter recedes and spring begins to make its presence known.
Perhaps that’s why I keep looking at the calendar. I’m waiting for spring to come, not just outside, but inside my heart. I’m waiting to see signs that the Link seed will sprout and grow. Or for green growth inside me. I am not so foolish as to think that my son is the only one with learning to do. On the calendar I look back to see how long ago we arranged for good growing conditions. I look ahead wondering when I can hope to see green. And I hope for hospitable growing weather. I have to believe it will come.