Are You Making Changes? Are You Pursuing Your Passion?

Gilcrease Orchard

Gilcrease Orchard Autumn 2015

Earlier this year I wrote about making changes. First, I wrote a post called Wherever You Go, Go With All Your Heart about how I had decided to become a PhD student after dreaming about it for many years. Then I wrote Hello, Goodbye: Changes Are Good for the Soul. And I still wasn’t finished making changes.

I was fortunate enough to receive a Graduate Assistant position at my university, and while the pay is below poverty wages (no joke), I wanted the experience of teaching and researching at the university level, so that was another change I made—leaving behind my full time teaching job for a G.A. position. One thing I gained from leaving behind my full time job was the gift of time. Certainly, I’m busy with university obligations, but otherwise time has opened up for me in a way it never had before. For years I wanted to put together an anthology of historical short fiction by contributors from The Copperfield Review. With my new-found time, I was able to put the anthology together, and History Will Be Kind is finally out in the world. My current writing project, the historical novel that drove me batty over the summer, is now full speed ahead and looking good for its February release. For my studies I was fortunate enough to have stumbled onto a research subject that fascinates me, and I’m finding this time at UNLV invigorating in a way I hadn’t expected.

I mention this because I’ve recently become aware of Steven Pressfield’s concept of the shadow career. In his book Turning Pro, one of the examples Pressfield uses is “Are you getting your PhD in Elizabethan Studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you?” First of all, I’m getting my PhD in Teacher Education, not Elizabethan Studies, thank you very much, and second of all, no, I’m not afraid to write the tragedies and comedies I have inside me. Then I realized Pressfield isn’t speaking to people who have a go at realizing their dreams—he’s referring to people who don’t pursue their passions. He points out the dichotomy between artists and addicts, an addict in this case meaning a self-sabotaging amateur who distracts herself away from her true passion with distractions, displacement activities, and meaningless jobs. Instead of pursuing our true callings, Pressfield says, we hide behind shadow careers.

Pumpkins 2015I’ve spoken to many people over the years who have a burning desire to be a writer yet they don’t write. I have a friend, a fellow teacher, who has been wanting to write a mystery novel for as long as I’ve known her (nearly 10 years now). She reads mystery novels, reads about how to write mystery novels, and she even travels across the U.S. to attend the Sisters in Crime conventions. I’ve often wondered what’s really holding her back. Whenever I think of people like my friend, I remember that quote from Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I wish I could help my friend realize it’s okay, you can do it, you don’t need permission from anyone, do what you can do right now. I think sometimes people are so afraid of making any kind of change they make excuses and talk themselves out of doing something that’s calling to them from deep in their hearts.

The funny thing is, I don’t think being a teacher is a shadow career for my friend. I think she genuinely enjoys teaching. The problem isn’t that my friend isn’t making a living as a mystery novelist. The problem is that she isn’t pursuing her passion. Yes, it’s hard to find time to write when you’re a teacher (there’s always so much lesson planning and grading to do), but I believe that if you want to do something badly enough you’ll find a way to make it happen. I wrote seven novels and edited The Copperfield Review while working as a full time teacher. Why? Because I had to. I had untold stories burning holes in my innards and I couldn’t live with the agony of not sharing them. Pursuing my PhD isn’t my way of turning from those untold stories. I’m still writing novels—yes, it takes me longer these days to finish one, but I’m still writing them, and I’m still running The Copperfield Review. And since I love writing so much, when I’m teaching writing I feel like I’ve come home. As a result, I’m researching what can be done to train future writing teachers, and it’s fascinating stuff, let me tell you. You might have several passions as I do, and yes, it’s a challenge to juggle them, but it’s worth it. If you’re pursuing your passion and have a day job, I refer to my post about day jobs. I will insist, always, that you are not less of an artist if you have a day job. As long as you make time for your art, you are an artist. Even if my friend writes 500 words a day, 250 words a day, 100 words a day, whatever it is, it’s allowing her to pursue her passion at a pace that’s right for her. Don’t listen to the people who want to tell you how to be a writer (or a painter, or a dancer, or a photographer, or an underwater basket weaver). Don’t listen to the people who want to tell you that you’re not a writer unless you write a certain number of words every day (that is, unless it’s November and you’re participating in NaNoWriMo. Then 1667 words a day is about right). You get to decide how to be an artist for yourself. Really.

Not everyone’s journey is the same, but we’re all going to need to make changes at one point or another. Yes, changes are scary, but if you need to make a change, make it. If you have a passion, pursue it, in whatever form you can right now. Life is too short not to listen to whatever it is that makes your heart sing.

Writing Tools: Scrivener, I Love You

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I had been struggling as I was writing my new historical novel. Nothing in the story seemed to be working, and for whatever reason I was at a loss as to how to fix it. In this post I talked about how I decided to give myself some time off from writing. It was the best decision I could have made since it allowed me to take the brain break I desperately needed. I’ve been writing long enough to know that the ideas would show up when they were ready, and I was right. Only this time I had some help from an unexpected source.

About two years ago I bought Scrivener as a screenwriting tool. I used it to write a couple of screenplays, and that was that. I saw that it could be used to write novels, but when I looked at the directions they didn’t make sense and at that time I didn’t have the patience to fiddle with it. For whatever reason I found the directions confusing and the buttons and other tchotchkes didn’t make sense. I ended up leaving the program to languish unused and hidden in my Applications folder. While I was taking a break from writing my novel, I kept reading these posts about Scrivener and how all these writers said the program changed their writing for the better. Kristen @ She’s Novel pins these Scrivener Tutorial Posts on Pinterest, and Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn offers a course about how to use Scrivener. As I read these articles, I remembered that I had Scrivener on my computer. I wasn’t sure if the program could help me through the fog that was my novel, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

Before I go on, I should point out that I’m not getting any compensation from the nice Scrivener folks at Literature and Latte for this. I’m simply sharing why I’ve come to love the program and how it helped me write my novel after I had been stuck in the mud for some months.

When I decided to try Scrivener for novel writing, I looked at the directions again, and again they didn’t make sense. This time, though, I was motivated to keep trying, and I watched some of the Scrivener tutorials on YouTube. The tutorials were integral in helping me understand what the buttons and tchotchkes were for and how they were used. My suggestion is to not try Scrivener without first watching a few of the videos or taking an online class. Where most computer programs can be figured out by twiddling with them, I find Scrivener needs further explanation. It seems confusing at first, but after I watched a few videos and played around with it I found it rather easy to use.

Scrivener Manuscript with Synop and Notes

I’m not going into step-by-step details about how to use Scrivener since there are so many tutorials that do that far better than I can. I’d just like to point out some of the features that helped me get my thoughts straight. First of all, I like that you don’t have to write your novel in one long file. You can write your story in separate chapters or you can write your story in scenes if that’s the way you think. You’ll notice on the left-hand side of the screen the different folders for each section I have so far. On the same screen you can also see your synopsis of the section you’re writing, and you’ll notice I added my research notes in the bottom right hand corner. This way I don’t have to go back and forth between my research notes and the section I’m writing—the notes are right there on the screen. If you find those doo-dads on the screen too distracting, you can use the full screen mode so all you see is the text you’re writing.

Scrivener Split Screen

Now here’s something I really love about Scrivener—the fact that you can import photos. The novel I’m writing is historical fiction, set in England in 1870, and so of course I need references about clothing, buildings, gardens, furniture, etc. If I want to see a particular photo, all I need to do is scroll down to the folder where I store my photos, click on the one I want, and there it is. If I split the Scrivener screen (another handy-dandy function) I can have the photo right in front of me as I describe it. In the example you can see the photo of the church in the beautiful English countryside, which is the photo I used as inspiration for the funeral scene that happens at the beginning of the story. With the split screen I can look right at the photo while I’m writing. Since I tend to use photos to inspire my writing, this feature alone makes Scrivener a winner for me.

Scrivener Corkboard

Another thing I love is the corkboard. I know a lot of writers who have real corkboards on their walls in their writing space. They write scenes, ideas, notes, etc., on index cards and pin the cards onto the corkboards. I’ve always loved that idea, but I don’t have enough room on my walls for a corkboard so I was never able to try it out. With Scrivener’s virtual corkboard I don’t need room on my walls. I can create virtual index cards with all of the same details—characters, plot, research, ideas, notes—and I can rearrange the cards however I like. This feature actually helped me figure out the plot because I could see at a glance that the order of some of the scenes didn’t quite fly and I kept rearranging the cards until I liked the way the scenes flowed. I was also able to spot that there was some missing information—missing scenes, if you will—and I was able to add new cards with information about what will happen in that scene.

Research Split Screen

I also like the fact that I can add my research notes. Since my novel is historical fiction, I have pages and pages of research notes that I need access to while I’m writing. Instead of keeping a messy pile of notebooks around, which is the way I used to do it, I typed my notes into the Research section of Scrivener. From now on, instead of handwriting my notes I’ll type them into Scrivener. If you’ve typed your notes on another program like Word, Scrivener allows you to import them so you don’t have to retype them. And just like with the photographs, you can split the screen and look at your notes while you’re writing. As I said earlier, I like to add my research notes to the bottom right hand corner of the page, but if I have a lot of research notes for a particular section, I’ll probably split the screen so I have easy access to all the information.

Through the process of adding my novel to Scrivener, deciding on the folders I needed, using the corkboard, and importing the photographs and research notes, I was able to sort through the story. As a result, a lot of the problems I had are gone. I understand the characters better, I have a plot I’m happy with, and I can see where the story is going and what the underlying themes are. What Scrivener did for me was allow me to think through the story in a step-by-step way that helped me see what was missing and what needed to be reorganized and revised. I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but at least now I have a direction, which I didn’t have before.

I’m definitely on the Scrivener bandwagon. It isn’t crazy expensive ($44 when I bought it), and to me it’s worth the price for the way it allows me to organize my work. They even offer a free 30 day trial so you can try it out to see if you like it.

Have you used Scrivener? If so, what has been your experience? If not, are you going to try it?

Dare To Do Nothing: Replenishing the Creative Well

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas

The view from the park in The Lakes in Las Vegas.

To say I had been having a busy time of it would be an understatement. Suddenly, I was a university student for the first time in 20 years, I was still a full time teacher, and I was working on the first draft of my new historical novel. I was looking forward to summer vacation from both work and school as a time to focus on my novel full time. I think this is why I’ve never been worried about having a day job—even with my day job I still get summers off to write full time. Then a funny thing happened—nothing.

The novel was stalled. Where my last three novels were written fairly quickly in less than a year (that’s quickly for me, mind you), my current novel was stubborn and not coming as easily as I would have liked. I didn’t understand the characters as well as I thought I did. I felt the plot was lacking, though I couldn’t tell you why. I wondered and worried myself crazy, and while I tried to work on the book I realized I was getting nowhere fast. That’s when I came up with the radical idea of putting my writing aside for a while and leaving it alone. Normally, I allow the story some baking time after the first draft, which I had done, but then when I went to write the second draft there wasn’t much more than there had been for the first draft. The second draft is a little better than the first, but it’s nothing to write home about, and it’s definitely not publishable. For my last three novels, once I made it past the “shitty first draft” stage and had a complete second draft I was, except for revising and editing, home free. This one not so much. I was getting so frustrated I was ready to throw in the towel and forget the novel altogether.

I hadn’t suffered from writer’s block in this form since I first began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband in 2009. What if I never have another good idea? What if being a doc student has sucked away all my brain power and I simply can’t write fiction until I’m finished with my degree? What if this is it and my creativity is gone, finished, kaput? You know how writers panic when the ideas aren’t flowing. Then I started thinking about how I’ve been writing novels constantly for the last six years without a break. Since 2009, I’ve published seven novels. And the scholarly writing I do for school is creative in its own way since it takes creativity to figure out how to take information from various sources and construct a well-organized, persuasive narrative. Maybe, I thought, just maybe my creativity isn’t kaput as much as just tired.

I’ve suffered, like many of you, from what they call the Do Something Syndrome at Farnam Street blog. Even on my days off I feel like I have to constantly be working at something—whether it’s writing, editing, schoolwork, marketing, social media, whatever. I started reading a lot about stillness and how doing nothing can help to fill your creative well. Here’s a great post from one of my favorite websites, Zen Habits, called The Number 1 Habit of Highly Creative People where the artists talk about stillness and doing nothing as a way to stay creative. There are a number of other articles out there on the same topic. Doing nothing? I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I was willing to try since my creative well definitely needed replenishing. This hiatus was going to be different from the baking time since baking time is where, though I’m not actively writing, I’m still working on the novel because I’m reading, researching, and finding other ways to immerse myself in the story. This time I was going to leave the story completely alone and give myself a rest from even thinking about the novel.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

A page from my coloring book. I like this book, called Creative Coloring Inspirations, because of the inspirational quotes.

How have I been spending my days? Well, I haven’t been working on the novel, which is how I thought I would be spending this summer. I haven’t even felt guilty about not working on it—most of the time. Writers are great at laying the guilt trip on themselves, aren’t they? Whenever I see a book I’ve read for research laying around my desk, I remind myself that I’m filling my creative well and look the other way. Instead, I’ve been sitting on my little patio with my cat Ellie as we watch the Las Vegas desert sky turn from pale blue to slate gray as the thunder-filled clouds move in. I’ve gone to the park down the street with its fake lake (the water is real even if the lake is man made) and looked at the ducks, the boats, the pretty houses, and the mountains in the distance. I’ve been exercising and doing yoga after a bout of laziness. I’ve discovered the charms of adult colorng books (they’re just regular coloring books with more intricate details, folks. I know what you were thinking…). I used to love to color when I was a kid, and it turns out I still do. I’ve always considered myself a wannabe artsty-craftsy kind of person. I love watching the how-to-paint-flowers shows they have on PBS, and I even dabbled in painting with acrylics a few years ago. While coloring isn’t exactly an original piece of art, I enjoy the chance to play with colors and I’ve rediscovered the fun of crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors. I’ve been reading a lot, finishing two or three books a week. I’ve been watching some good TV shows, movies, and documentaries (yes, I watch documentaries for fun). Saying that I’ve been doing nothing isn’t quite accurate, but I haven’t been writing fiction, thinking about writing fiction, or, most importantly, worrying about writing ficiton. I’ve just been enjoying my days and filling them however I want to rather than stressing myself out about what I thought I should be doing.

Then, a couple of months into my self-imposed exile from writing fiction, I read a couple of novels that gave me some ideas for my own story. I still have things to figure out, but at least I have a few ideas now where before I had nothing. I refuse to start worrying again about when or how the book will be written. If it takes me two years instead of one to write, then so be it. I’d rather spend two years writing the story I meant to write than publish whatever just to get something out. Everything happens in its own time. I’ve always known that, but I find I need a reminder every now and again.

Hello, Good-bye: Changes Are Good for the Soul

One of the benefits of living in the 112 degrees of Las Vegas is the conservatory at the Bellagio Hotel. At least it’s cool in the hotels!

I recently finished my first year as a doctoral student in the Teacher Education program at UNLV. I even ended up with a B+ in my Statistics class, which for me is like an A+ for anyone else. For someone who has had to retake every math class she’s ever taken in her life, finishing the first time with a B+ was a definite personal best.

Recently, I made another change as well, which was resigning my full-time teaching position. Where at first I was going to apply for a leave of absence which would allow me to return to my position after a year, I realized that, when all is said and done, I’m not going back to traditional K-12 classroom teaching. Was it hard to leave behind the career that paid my rent and other assorted bills for the last 20 years? Well, it was a hard decision from the standpoint that I’ve made my living as a classroom teacher since 1994, and yet it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. It was time to move on. I just knew it. I had felt it in my gut for several years now. I knew I had gone as far as I could as a K-12 classroom teacher, and I needed some new challenge. It took me a few years to figure out what my next line of action would be, but I figured it out, and when it was time to go I knew it. Where normally leaving behind the job where I made my living would cause me no end of stress or worries, I found myself surprisingly calm as I made the decision to resign, which only further proved to me that I was making the right choice. I am still all in praise of day jobs, but I also believe that the day job should be one that makes your heart sing. There’s no worse feeling dragging yourself somewhere every day where you don’t want to go, and no better feeling than giving yourself a chance to do something different.

I thought I would feel more nostalgic than I did as I packed up my classroom. I had materials from all grade levels to weed through since in 20 years I’ve taught everything from kindergarten through high school, as well as a number of writing workshops for adults. And while some of the files I went through brought back a lot of good memories from some amazing years teaching great kids, mainly I felt relief that I was finally getting the change I craved. I gave away my reading books, posters, and teacher guides to a friend who is switching grade levels, and I recycled my paper files. It was like that feeling you get when you finally clean out the clutter from your closet—as though I felt physically lighter without the unnecessary baggage. I wasn’t particularly emotional when I handed in my keys for the last time. For the first time in a long time, I was looking forward to the changes and the challenges in the future. To me, that was yet another sign that I was headed in the right direction. For years, I had held onto that teaching job as though it was the only thing between me and financial oblivion. It’s amazing what a little faith can do to your outlook.

Waterfall at the BellagioIf you’re not familiar with Sarah Rudell Beach’s website Left-Brain Buddha, I highly recommend it. She talks about living with mindfulness, which is something I’m struggling to do every day—some days with more success than others, but it’s the intention that counts, right? In her post “Leaving the Classroom,” Sarah talks about her own journey leaving the classroom after 17 years of teaching. And like Sarah, it’s not that I’m no longer teaching, but simply that I’ll be teaching differently. Instead of one full-time job I’ll be working as a Graduate Assistant at UNLV, where one of my duties will be teaching a class called Teaching Writing Secondary School, which is right up my alley since that’s what I’m studying for my degree. I’ll also be teaching over the Internet, which is very interesting to me since I think, based on what I’ve seen as a public school teacher, that technology is the way we have to go if we’re going to capture the attention and curiosity of our 21st century students. I read in Stratosphere, Michael Fullan’s book about technology in schools, that we’re trying to teach 21st century students using a 20th century model. I couldn’t agree more. Through my studies at UNLV, I hope to find a way to prepare preservice teachers (fancy-speak for university students studying education) to become effective writing teachers. So, no, I’m not leaving teaching at all. I’m simply hoping to reach a larger audience now. My goal is to help others realize how strong writing skills can help us, all of us, not just those of us who want to write for a living.

I know the power of writing, as many of you do. I count myself among those who believe that writing helped to keep me sane at various points of my life. Writing is more than any essay (though no one could deny the importance of being able to write a well-argued, well-organized essay). Writing is big, and it should be treated, and taught, as such. I’m excited at the prospect of being part of that conversation. The freedom I’ll have due to my change in jobs will only give me more time to pursue my studies.

An another note, for you Loving Husband Trilogy fans out there, never fear. “Down Salem Way” is not forgotten. For those of you who have been contacting me with questions about the story’s publication, thank you so much for your messages, and I do apologize. I had optimistically said Spring 2015 for the release date, but the time came and went and the story isn’t ready to be published. “Down Salem Way” is high on my priority list, and it will be out June 2016. See, even with all these career changes, writing fiction is too much a part of who I am to be left aside. I think that goes back to the old writers’ adage that if you want to write badly enough you’ll make time to do it no matter what. I firmly believe that.