You’d think that the cancellation of all out-of-the-house events would leave us creative types with long leisurely hours in which to create. The trouble is that fear tends to clog up the creative flow. We’re now three weeks (maybe four?) into self-isolating and the active fear of infection has waned. Logically we still know it is a risk, but the animal portion of our brains has calmed down. It can only stay alarmed for so long with nothing physically happening before it calms and goes back to sleep. For several weeks reading news reports was sufficient to re-activate that fear, now it appears I’m even acclimated to that somewhat. So now events are gone and terror has faded. Also we’re two weeks (three? time has gone very wibbly wobbly of late) into schooling from home. The routines of that have settled in. Mostly the routine is me reminding my son that schoolwork exists, him acknowledging that it does, then him ignoring it for the rest of the day. The point is we’ve fallen into patterns, I should have hours in which to create. But I’m not. Because also removed from my schedule are all of the activities where I get outside my box (house) and percolate new ideas. Any errands I have to run are done as efficiently and infection-free as possible rather than me wandering and thinking as I go.
I’ve seen all the memes. The ones which joke about thinking how creative they’d be if only they had time, only to now discover that time was never the problem. I’ve also seen the ones granting permission to not be creative or productive during a world wide pandemic. Neither of these memes nor a dozen more is what I need at this time. Instead, now that other things have fallen into rhythms, I need to look at the circumstances of my life and figure out how to adjust those rhythms to fit in fiction writing. The odds of any fiction I write ever seeing print are small, but the writing and the publishing are two separate endeavors. I can tackle publishing later. For now I need to figure out how to defend a space for fiction writing to live. Then I need to have patience if that space doesn’t immediately fill up with beautiful prose writing. This is a “if you build it they will come” moment. Once my creative brain trusts that the space will be there, it will learn to show up.
In one of my presentations I talk about willpower being a limited resource, and trying to build a creative life comes easier if you require as little willpower as possible to keep it running. What I’ve described in the last paragraph sounds like a space made out of force of will. And it is. I think that is where I have to start, but I also need to be seeking ways to build the creative space so that the rhythms of our lives just naturally flow around that space, leaving it open. It is an interesting challenge, and the first step is figuring out how to get my brain to want to engage with an interesting challenge instead of just hibernating watching Netflix and waiting for the pandemic to be over.
I’m on an email chain with a group of writers. Once per week one of us will send out an email with writing tips, inspiration, or encouragement. The email for this week invited all of us to recognize how often we limit ourselves to only imagining what we feel is realistic instead of dreaming big. We were all invited to respond with the writing dreams we have that feel really big, the ones which are unrealistic, the ones which we know aren’t actually in our control, but we want anyway. It took me some time to even find mine, because the email was correct. I do really tend to focus on making sure that my goals are concrete and within my control. And that is as it should be for goals. They should be measurable and attainable. But dreams are different. Dreams are how we know where to aim our goals. The are the lodestone which helps us pick a direction, even when we know that the terrain ahead is going to force us to change that direction dozens of times.
So I sat with myself and waited for the dreams to surface. These are the ones I found:
To be invited to give a keynote at a writer’s conference
To end up in the acknowledgements of other people’s books because I put in the time to help other writers develop their craft and survive this crazy ride of writing/publishing.
To revise my middle grade novel so I can start submitting it to agents by the end of this year.
To pay off my debts so that I have more head space to focus on creating the things which feel important with less concern about the things that make money.
In comparison with some of the other dreams in the thread, (be a best seller, have a book made into a movie, travel the world on book money) my dreams seem small. Perhaps they are. Perhaps I need to find the courage to dream even bigger. Yet for right now, these are the writing dreams that ring true to me. These are the ones that ring like true crystal when it is struck.
Interestingly, every single one of these dreams is served by the same goal: make time to write every day. I was working on a 500 word per day habit in November until holiday brain fry followed by wedding made focusing on anything else quite difficult. This past week I’ve cleared away the brain fog and have begun to make inroads on the physical mess. That means it is time for me to put 500 words per day back onto the calendar. Because, paths to big dreams are made out of small goals and it is time for me to get to work again.
While I was on the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat I had the opportunity to talk to other writers about Writer’s Groups, how they can work brilliantly and how they can fail. I happened to mention the structure of a group I currently belong to, and other writers requested that I write it up in detail as a reference for others who might want to start a group that isn’t solely critique-based. This is that write up.
I am fascinated by the underlying structure of communities, the ways the stated goals and guidelines of a community shape what the community will become. Sometimes I see how a rule intended to bring a community together can unintentionally create divisiveness and competition. This is the reason I feel concerned that so many writer’s groups are formed around the core of exchanging critique. Critique is absolutely critical to writer development so we can learn to see our blind spots and develop good craft, and yet critique is inherently deconstructionist. It pulls apart the work to examine what is working and what is not. This process can be kind and careful, or actively destructive depending on how the tools of critique are wielded. This is why so many critique-based writer’s groups are carefully structured to build trust and to help their members navigate being critiqued. I’ve seen it done remarkably well and I know many writers who depend heavily on their critique-based groups to help them.
The thing that often gets missed when forming writer’s groups is that critique is not the only way that writers can help each other with their craft. I recently joined a group that is structured very differently than any group I’d heard of before. I’ve been fascinated by the ways that this group is specifically structured to nurture and build up the group members.
The group meets once per month for three hours at a time. We meet in person, but the same structures could be adapted to an online group. Portions could be dropped or added according to the needs of your group whether you meet in person or online.
Hour 1: Social Hour
We all bring food to share and we visit. It is a chance for us to catch up on each other’s lives, hear about current crises, or talk about recent experiences. Sometimes we talk about writing, sometimes we don’t. This time allows the group to bond. We learn to be friends and care about each other as people. The more outgoing group members take care to reach out and include the quieter members.
Hour 2: Education
One member of the group comes to the meeting with a presentation/lecture about a topic that they have prepared. Sometimes it is a topic they’re already expert in, other times the person had to research and learn. During the presentation members are encouraged to discuss the ideas being presented. The group has had lectures on pacing, marketing, character development, etc. This portion engages writer minds with new topics and helps us face the current problems we may be having with our work. Also by rotating who teaches, the group ends up with different perspectives. Additionally, putting in the work to present keeps members invested in the group.
Hour 3: Collaboration
The content of this hour is variable. Sometimes it is critique where a person has submitted work in advance so the members come ready to discuss it. Other times it is a brain storming session for a magic system. It could also be an encouragement session for a person who feels hopeless about where they are in their craft. The point of the time is to work collaboratively to meet the needs of the members whatever those needs happen to be. Not every member gets their work focused on each meeting, which is why if a member has an urgent collaboration need between meetings, email chains are encouraged.
Other structures around the group: There are shared google drive folders containing notes from previous lectures/presentations and also work that is submitted for critique. This allows members to catch up on anything they might have missed and smooths the way for members to share work with each other.
The group co-leaders take turns writing up a weekly email with a writing concept or word of encouragement. This keeps the group members engaged and in touch with each other during the weeks that we don’t meet.
Membership in the group is capped to keep things manageable. This is particularly important since we rotate meeting at various member’s houses and not everyone has space for a huge group. By taking turns hosting, we get to see each other’s homes and thus get a better understanding of each other. Some members don’t host because they don’t have enough space or they live too far away. Others don’t host because the thought makes them too anxious.
Membership is filtered because the group wants to make sure that new members understand that the primary goal of the group is to encourage and help each other. Ego and competition have no place in this group. We gain new members by existing members suggesting someone they think would be a good fit. The prospective member exchanges writing samples with the group leaders and then attends a meeting. If everyone agrees the fit is good, the new member is added to the google folders and email chain.
Members are dropped from the group if they can’t regularly attend or contribute to online exchanges. If someone’s life is too busy to participate, then the space goes to another writer who can. Former members can cycle back in when their life calms down and if there is a space open.
The largest criticism I’ve heard of this format is whether we’re too soft on each other, surely critiques need to be brutally honest in order to be useful. I agree that they need to be honest, but not that they need to be brutal. It is entirely possible to help a fellow writer see the flaws in what they have written while simultaneously leaving them feeling encouraged and excited to go fix those flaws. Which I believe is far better than leaving a fellow writer to go home and emotionally process a harsh critique.
Obviously, ymmv. Some writers may thrive on competition and harsh critique. I know that I don’t, and judging from the interest in the format of my group there are other writers out there looking for alternatives as well. There are as many ways to form writer’s groups as there are writers to form them.
This time next week I’ll be in Houston for the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. We’ll have a few days on land and then we’ll be on a cruise ship for the remainder of the event. I’ve gone on these trips annually for the past four years, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. They aren’t trips we ever would have been able to afford on our own, so we work hard as staff to make the event amazing and thus pay for our tickets with our efforts.
It does mean that I end up spending the week of the trip in something of a liminal space. I’m staff and therefore not able to blend in with the attendees. However I’m not one of the Writing Excuses podcast hosts or an invited guest instructor. I assist with the family programming for non-writers, helping them connect with each other and learn things about supporting their writers. I fit in that role since I am the life partner and enabler of a person with a creative career. However I’m also a writer myself, so I bounce into those spaces as well. Being not exactly one thing or another provides fertile ground for anxieties to grow. So this week I’m spending significant amounts of mental energy weeding anxieties out as soon as they pop up. The minute I realize I’m worried that I’ve disappointed attendees I remind myself that it isn’t possible for people to be disappointed by me when they barely know I exist or haven’t met me yet. When I have thoughts about how I probably shouldn’t speak up in conversations about writing, I remind myself that I have as much right to speak about my writing struggles as anyone else. Anxiety sprouts, I pull it out like a weed. Repeat.
This year I’m going on the trip with a specific writing project and goal. I’m eschewing shore excursions so that I have longer stretches to sit and write. I’m trying to refocus myself as a writer and remember that projects only get complete if I actually put in the time. I’m anxious about all of this as well. Writing is surrounded by a whole garden of anxiety weeds which have barbs like thistles They are thoughts that sting and hurt whenever I bump into them.
What is the point, it’ll never be published anyway.
What do you have to say that hasn’t already been said.
You don’t have the skill to do this.
Who do you think you’re fooling, if you were a real writer you’d… [fill in the blank]
And dozens more related thoughts. I already know the words to counteract these thoughts. I speak them regularly to students and friends. I teach them in classes. I believe them when I say them to others, yet somehow it is harder to accept that they also apply to me. Anxiety is like that. It is a lying liar who lies.
I write the counter argument here to remind myself: creation is always worthwhile even if the only one who is changed by it is the person who creates. I’m very good at nurturing the personal growth of others, and I need to turn some of that effort inward.
Along with the writer anxieties, I’m also dealing with anxieties about the things and people I need to leave behind while I travel. Also dealing with the inherent anxieties around the ways that travel can go wrong. Thus far the all the anxieties (travel, writerly, etc), while abundant, have been low level. More like background noise than something obtrusive. But the volume will increase the closer I get to departure. Writing this post is one of my ways to stare anxiety down and say “I see you. You don’t win.” It may be silly, but it works.
This week I’m at my house looking at damaged flooring, clutter, and bathrooms that need to be cleaned. Next week I’ll have vistas of caribbean water and white sand beaches. Yet I’ll be the same me in both spaces. I’ll carry anxieties with me on the trip and then back again, unless I can figure out how to shed them before I go. And if I want to feel calm, serene, happy I need to not wait until I’m surrounded by loveliness to cultivate those emotions, otherwise when I leave the lovely location I’ll also leave the emotions behind. Travel definitely provides an impetus for me to examine my internal landscape, but it is at home that the real work gets done.
The morning began with a quest. I’d only been up for a few minutes when Howard wandered into the room and said “you want to go get crepes for breakfast?” The crepe place is down in the Riverwoods shopping area, which is full of Pokestops and Pokemon Gyms. This fact is relevant since our entire family has taken up Pokemon Go in the past month. So we gathered everyone who felt like questing and off we went.
The weather was lovely, the food was good, and most of the stores didn’t open for another hour or two. We wandered along the paths collecting Pokemon and spinning stops. Almost everything about Pokemon Go is designed to get people to leave their houses and walk to different locations. It has certainly worked that way for our family. We now have people randomly deciding to go for short walks, even though we’re walking the same paths over and over, it feels new because we never know what surprises the game will throw our way. Going outside to stare at our phones and play a game is healthier for us than staying at home to sit in a chair and play a game.
I posted the above picture on twitter, and multiple people commented on the snow-capped mountain in the corner of the frame. It is so easy for me to forget that not everyone has vertical landscape looming over them at all times. I so often fail to notice how beautiful Utah is. I need to pause and admire the mountains more.
On the return home, I still had almost a full day ahead of me. For once, the most pressing deadline was on a writing task. I have a short story due at the end of the month and it isn’t fully drafted yet. I’d so enjoyed being outdoors in the pleasant weather, that I decided to sit on my back porch in my red bistro chairs to find the right words to tell the story I had outlined. Milo saw me outside and was so forlorn that I put on his harness and brought him outside with me.
Writing is a strange process. After forming a scene in my head and then writing sentences to convey that scene, I hit a point where I don’t know what sentence comes next. That’s when I pause and open up twitter or do a quick stretch. I have to pull my brain away from the task at hand so that I can circle back around to it with renewed vigor. It is rather like getting a muscle cramp in my hand and taking a moment to shake it out and stretch.
During one of my twitter breaks, I had a series of thoughts about writing, happiness, and goals:
A thing I’m trying to make a habit: instead of focusing on the thing I want and can’t reach yet, focus on the thing I get to do today which may eventually help me to that goal.
My writing career may never make significant money nor have much audience, even though I’d like it to have both. But neither of those goals will ever happen unless I put in the work.
And doing the work is much easier when I learn to love the work for itself rather than treating it like a chore to get me someplace else.
Today I get to sit on my porch with green things all around (and a cat) while I write a short story. That is a beautiful thing to get to do, even if the story never sells and is never read.
I wish I could always cultivate that mindset instead of getting tangled up in grief and worry. Of course the realities of money and bills mean that many days I have to set aside my personal writing in order to do the tasks which actually earn money. Some day those two things may come into more alignment, which would be nice, but I’m also aware that it would change my relationship to the words and the process of making them. Having a dream job often means turning something you enjoy into work, and it isn’t always the best way to balance life. But all of that is in the future. For today I sneak time to do writing which I love and which pays for nothing. And I try to pause and recognize when I get to have a beautiful day full of breakfast quests, pokemon, and writing. No matter what comes next, it can’t take away that lovely day I had.
The number of blog entries that I partially write and then never finish is significant these days. It is increasingly hard to tease out stories I can tell on the internet from those that are too personal, too religious, too political, or simply not mine to tell. Would-be memoirists are told that they have to be bold and willing to give offense in telling their truths. I can see why when I read a memoir or blog and I am not given a full emotional picture because the writer has chosen to protect something. The words become vague rather than powerful when they are separated from full context. Yet there are relationships and duties that I prize more than I prize being a writer of raw truth. So I myself am intentionally vague at times. That likely limits my audience and reach. It also means that I will begin a post only to discover that the threads of thought are tangled up with something I choose not to share with the internet. So I leave the post fallow, incomplete.
I trust the internet less than I used to. In the past two years the level of anger and vitriol expressed on the internet has increased greatly. The algorithms of social media have had the unintended consequence of turning people I know to be good, into people who generalize and speak dismissively of others. I watch as people I used to enjoy interacting with either become unpleasant to read, or step away, drop out, vanish from the homes they used to inhabit online. I do not wish to vanish, but I have always been a person who falls silent when the conversation gets loud / vigorous / contentious. Yet on the internet to be silent is to vanish.
Every day on social media I see people shouting about causes that are important. Every moment has some emergency where I should signal boost, or send money, or lend my small weight toward swaying the choices of legislators. I could spend every penny and every minute on these causes. But then I would be in need of rescue. In scrambling to answer crises, I would have failed in doing the creative work which has the potential to heal on a larger scale. I am a teller of stories. I always have been. Stories are the most valuable piece of what I have to give to the world. Stories help us decide who we are as individuals. Shared stories are how we decide who to be as communities. So I measure out a portion of my time to crises, and a portion to daily maintenance, and a large share to the people who are mine to teach/serve/love directly, and a portion to the possibility of a brighter future. A brighter future that I help create by taking the time to craft words into stories which then move people, who then move society in better directions.
This is why I will come back to writing, even after a period of unintended silence. It is why, after dozens of abandoned blog posts, I will find the way to finish some.
I was having a little bit of trouble motivating myself this morning. Not that I didn’t want to work, but I found myself wondering why I was spending effort on writing words that are unlikely to ever earn significant quantities of money. That voice doesn’t speak up when I’m writing blog posts or private journal entries. It seems to understand that the value of those words is in sorting my brain…or it has just given up arguing since I keep doing that writing anyway. But when I pick up words with the intent of publishing them via paths other than tossing them on the internet for free, the thoughts begin. The particular refrain this time around is that I really should be focusing on the work which will assist in my goals of paying down debt as fast as possible.
I have counter arguments of course. I know there is value in creative work even if the only one changed by it is me. I know that the people I’ve told about Herding Wild Horses have expressed interest in seeing it complete. I know that I can’t always tell what will grow from the planting of seeds that happens when I write outside of my comfort zones.
And I find myself thinking of a line that appeared in today’s Schlock Mercenary comic:
“If you look close enough at the present, you can find loose bits of the future just laying around.”
And I think of a thing I saw on the internet recently which spoke of how the butterfly effect is always cited in time travel stories, but that somehow people neglect to realize that this means we are all the butterfly. Every small change we make has the chance to dramatically affect the world we will eventually be carried into via the passage of time.
So the answer becomes: I write these things because any future that contains my words published and read, begins with a today where I write those words without any guarantee that they’ll go anywhere.
Go for a walk in the woods
Take some photographs
Maybe write up a post or two about thoughts related to the walk and photographs
Pull out my files of picture book ideas and refresh my thoughts on them
There are two that feel like I should push them forward right now: Herding Wild Horses about Amy’s Mommy, and an unnamed book about a little boy with anxiety.
Write some words on one of those picture books
Herding Wild Horses is 50% drafted now. Much revision will happen after the first draft.
Look at the fragments of blog posts and essays that I never completed
Found notes for three blog posts in my paper journal.
Pick one thing to write up as a full essay
Got one about Haiku and life structure. Will put it on the list for tomorrow.
Generate ideas for a short story or two
Done. They are fragments, but more than I had before.
Read a book
Several short stories from The Sum of Us, a speculative fiction anthology focusing on caregivers.
Help my son with an essay over speaker phone because that is the one last home thing that I do need to allow to encroach into this retreat.
I tried, but not much to do if no one on that end answers the phone. Since I got communication from several sources that everyone at home is alive and well, I know this is a simple case of no one picking up the phone when it rings because they were all too involved in their own things. I’ll try again tomorrow.
Additional things done:
Wrote emails to a couple of friends
Did some work setting up store items in our new store software
Read some online things
Conversations with friends who are also present at the retreat
Goals for tomorrow:
Finish draft of Herding Wild Horses
Write 1000 words of short story draft
Write the haiku post
Take some pictures
Post some pictures
I had a moment of quiet delight when I opened my laptop to enter the Wifi password and I discovered that my computer (Calcifer) had already connected. Calcifer remembers this place. So do I. This is my third visit to Woodthrush Woods. Even on my first visit the house felt welcoming and familiar, as if I’d been here before and only forgotten. The exact quote from a blog post I wrote at the time was:
I used to dream about my grandma’s tiny house. In the dreams I went upstairs and through a door to discover that her house had extra rooms and floors. Stepping into Woodthrush Woods was like stepping into one of those dreams, my grandma’s house–only different and bigger.
This visit there is actual familiarity along with that welcoming feeling. My first visit to this house is chronicled in a series of posts starting here. And my second visit starting here. That first visit was five years ago, time slipped past while I was not measuring. The switch over to cruises for the Writing Excuses retreats was the right choice for everyone concerned, but it did mean there were fewer events to draw me to visit this house.
Reading back over the posts I wrote five years ago, during that first retreat, I can see how far I have come. Back then I barely even had the word Anxiety to describe what I was wrestling with. It is so obvious now that anxiety was the issue, but in 2012 I didn’t know that. That trip was six months before the kids began hitting mental health crises. It was before all the diagnoses, tears, grief, and depression. It was back when my whole life was shaped by my anxieties and I couldn’t even see it. That trip dragged it out into the light and demonstrated why it was a problem. Since that trip I’ve traveled a long and winding emotional road. Coming back into this place shows me how far I have come. I am stronger and more fully myself that I was five years ago. My family has a nuanced lexicon of ways to self-assess and manage the now-acknowledged mental health issues that each of us deals with daily.
Pausing to acknowledge the road I’ve traveled these past five years is apparently the first work of this writer’s retreat morning. Time for the next thing.