The Artist’s Way Week One

Last week I started participating in Julia Cameron’s 12 week course The Artist’s Way. It might seem odd that I would start such a course at this stage of my writing life. I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, I’ve had short stories and articles published since 2000, and my novels have been published since 2011. I was doing all right, right? I was writing, publishing, and finding successes where I could.

I wrote last week about how suddenly, after writing and publishing for years, I hit the wall of Resistance pretty hard, leaving me with bruised extremities and a soft-boiled ego. What happened? You name it, and it was probably right–I was lazy, I was afraid of failing, I was afraid of dreaming too big, I was tired of battling between what I wanted to write and what I thought I should write.

I’ve always believed that you will find what you need if you open yourself up to receive it. On a whim, I pulled The Artist’s Way off my bookshelf (it was one of the few paperbacks I kept after I embraced the minimalist movement and started donating books and other things I no longer used). I skimmed through the pages and recognized it as a 12 week course that needs to be worked through rather than read cover to cover. I made the decision to take the plunge. Luckily for me, I had just reread Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Goldberg’s suggestions went along perfectly with the purpose of The Artist’s Way. Here’s what I did for Week One:

  • I completed my morning pages for each of the seven days. If you’re not familiar with Cameron’s morning pages, it’s a journal that you keep every day. The only rule is you have to write at least three pages, but otherwise you can write about whatever you want. The idea is just to get the thoughts flowing. Natalie Goldberg refers to it as writing practice. I use Goldberg’s idea of using sensory detail and memories and life happenings as fuel for my writing. Here’s a sample from my morning pages from last week:

I have been to this hospital too many times to count. It is as though the hospital itself waves “Hello! Welcome back!” whenever it opens its sliding glass doors to me and I walk from the 115 degree dry desert heat into the cold, stale air of the waiting room. If I think about it, I can count the number of times I have been here: one…two…three…four…five…six…seven… My mother calls this hospital her home away from home, and it is. The hospital is located at the north end of Tenaya Way, the medical district with doctors’ offices, physical therapists’ offices, blood-draw offices, and MRI offices. There’s also a post office and a pub for those in need of a pick-me-up from waiting in tight-fisted doctors’ offices or hospital waiting rooms where people are packed tighter than pencils in a box. There is the serenity of the mountains in the distance, but there’s also the freeway just a few feet away, and if you stop and listen you can hear the zoom of the car-chase type speeds as vehicles zip past, as though the drivers believe they are race-car champions. 

I won’t bore you with the rest of it, but you can see that I’ve incorporated Goldberg’s idea of including sensory details as a way of practicing the pinpoint eyesight through which I can observe the world and use in my writing.

  • I did my artist’s date. An artist’s date, according to Cameron, is a weekly chance for us to get in touch with our inner creative person. It’s a chance to do something fun and creative simply to do something fun and creative. This week I did a page in my art journal. I discovered art journaling last summer and fell in love with it, and then I didn’t touch my journal for months. It was great fun to pull out my paints and stencils again, and I’m sorry I let it go for so long. The inspiration for this page came from Mimi Bondi, a French mixed media artist living in Australia. I love Mimi because she’s all about finger painting and having fun and doing whatever you want and you can’t do it wrong, which goes right along with the intention behind the artist’s date. If you’re looking for art journaling inspiration, check out Mimi’s YouTube page.
  • I answered the questions and completed the tasks at the end of Lesson One. I wrote my responses right into my morning pages journal. I took a walk (in 115 degree nose-bleed dry desert heat, which is great commitment, I must say), and I discovered that the monster who has done the most to discourage my creativity and my writing is me. Now there’s a revelation.

It’s only been one week, but so far so good. So far I’ve read the lesson for the second week, and I’m looking forward to the discoveries ahead.

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Decluttering for Writers: 5 Easy Tips

I mentioned in this post that I’ve recently reread Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and now I’m half-way through The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify (Updated and Revised) by Francine Jay. Both books have a message I needed to hear, especially now that I’m serious about creating a career for myself as a writer. How much do you really need to be happy? Am I happier if I have more stuff? (Answer: no.) Did I really need those stuffed animals I kept in my classroom when I taught elementary school or those grunge rock CDs from the 1990s? Over the past week I’ve brought 12 bags and four plastic bins of clothes I no longer wear (some even with the price tag still on them), CDs I no longer listen to, books I no longer read, and DVDs I no longer watch to Goodwill, a charity organization that resells gently used items. I even tackled my garage, which seemed insurmountable but in reality took me about three hours on a Saturday.

I’m not sure if I qualify as a minimalist according to Jay’s definition since I’m not going for bare walls or getting rid of stuff simply for the sake of getting rid of stuff. There’s nothing inherently wrong in things if they are things you love or things you use. It’s the stuff that hangs out in plastic bins in our garages or shoved into the back of our closets, things that you haven’t looked at in years, that can weigh on our psyches. In my case, it’s been 7 ½ years since I moved into this apartment and looked at the things I had stashed away in plastic bins.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the week I spent going through my belongings was a week I wasn’t writing. As a matter of fact, you would be correct. I didn’t get much writing done last week, but I would argue that it was still time well spent. I agree with Kondo and Jay that a cluttered home, or even a cluttered desk, can hamper our best intentions to sit, concentrate, and work. When everywhere you look is busy with things you don’t need and never use, it sucks up brain space (at least it does for me), making creating that much more difficult. As I was going through my belongings, deciding what to donate and how to organize what I was keeping, I realized that this tidying up was necessary for my writing process because I was creating room to work. Instead of my eye falling on clutter or my monkey mind thinking that I was going to have to tackle the garage one of these days, I attacked the problems head on, handled them, and now I can move onto other things. I was making sure everything was in order so I could spend my writing time thinking about—you guessed it—writing.

Of course, a writer’s brain is a writer’s brain, and while I was decluttering I discovered a few tips for writers who want to get their space together.

Yes, the Dickens books had to stay, along with my Dickens and Shakespeare action figures. They’re silly, I know, but they make me smile when I look at them.

  1. Pare down your books

Writers believe that books are magical and sacred, and they are. Many of us decided to become writers because we loved to read so much. I believe we can only ingest so many words before we feel compelled to start spilling words back out. I’m not suggesting that we need to get rid of every book we own, but imagine how much nicer our space would be, and how much more meaningful, if we kept only the books that were important to us. Like many writers, I had more books than I had space, some which I had never read (like most book lovers I tend to buy books faster than I can read them), and others which I read once and that was enough.

I let go of the extra books and kept only the ones that bring me joy, as Marie Kondo suggests. I still have books. I have my Dickens, books about writing, self-help books that have been meaningful, and of course I have my own books because it brings me joy to look at my shelf and see my name on the books I’ve written. I have a few knick knacks and a few photographs, and I have my coloring books because I love to color. Now when I look at my bookshelf I smile because I’m happy with everything I see.

I rarely buy physical books any more. I have my handy-dandy Kindle, which allows me to buy or borrow books, and instead of physical tomes that gather dust, I can bring all of my digital books wherever I go. I can read on the Kindle itself or on the Kindle app on my phone. I know there are people who still love having a book in their hands, and I get that. Part of my love for my Kindle is that I can make the text larger, which is easier on my progressive lens wearing eyes, so that’s a personal reason for my preference for electronics books. If you want to buy new physical books, by all means buy new physical books. If the book sings to your soul, keep it. If you read it once and that was enough, pass it on to a family member, friend, your local library, or another charity that accepts used books. Remember libraries? We can borrow books from the library, too, so we don’t have to spend money or find a place for everything we want to read.

Here’s my new desk with the handy-dandy shelves for my coloring supplies. It keeps the desk itself free for my computer so I can think without having to push crayons or colored pencils aside.

  1. Keep your desk clear

Desks are easy places to pile things. It must be something about the flat surface. But if your desk is messy or cluttered, it’s often the mess or clutter that captures your thoughts, not whatever it is you’re trying to write. It’s easy enough to get distracted these days by the Internet and Netflix without being distracted by our own belongings. I love to color, but my old desk had nowhere for me to put my colored pencils and markers. The coloring supplies were scattered all over my desk, taking up every square inch of space. There was no room for me to work. I donated my old desk to the Salvation Army and bought myself a nice, neat desk along with a nice, neat set of shelves (both courtesy of IKEA) with room for my coloring supplies. This left the desk itself clear for my computer so I have room to write. Having somewhere to sit and think without distractions makes so much difference.

  1. A place for everything and everything in its place

Both Kondo and Jay talk about steering clear of expensive storage bins, and I’ve found this to be true. Finding a place for everything you’re going to keep doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. There’s a Dollar Store down the street from where I live, and I managed to organize my bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom closet with plastic bins that cost $1 each. This is where organization plays a role because you have to decide where you’re going to keep everything you need. Jay talks about the 80/20 rule—you use 20% of your belongings 80% of the time, so you want to keep that 20% of stuff you use frequently close to where you’ll need them. All of my writing materials are located near my desk so I don’t have to go searching for them. I know where everything is. Instead of scrambling at the bottom of a drawer for a paperclip, I know they’re in the plastic container. It’s the little things that make a difference when we’re searching for time and space to write.

  1. Go digital

To stop the avalanche that happens when we have a lot of handwritten notebooks hanging around the house, I’ve become more digital. I used to keep spiral notebooks, but as I’ve become more aware of decluttering and staying decluttered I started keeping everything in electronic format. I keep whatever I’m working on on my computer and Dropbox and Google Drive help me keep larger files. I’ve started taking notes and journaling on my computer too. It took some getting used to since for many years I believed what Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within—writing longhand in spiral notebooks helps create a hand to heart connection with what you’re writing. I do still believe that, and there have even been studies that prove the point, but this is the digital age after all and I can type a lot faster than I can write by hand. Plus, having all those notebooks around my small apartment became cumbersome. It was a hard decision to recycle years of my handwritten journals, but I realized that I never went back into old journals to read them. I wrote them, got the thoughts out of my system, and then I was done with them. Why keep that old energy around?

If you do comb through your old notebooks for story ideas, then by all means keep them. If you love to write longhand, then do. Find a container where you can keep your notebooks (you’ll probably need more than one), buy cute Mickey Mouse or Wonder Woman notebooks as Natalie Goldberg suggests, and do your thing. If you are interested in going digital, Scrivener is a great tool to keep your notes, research, and drafts in the same computer file. You can even import photographs. Here’s my post about my experience learning to write a novel using Scrivener.

Marie Kondo talks about getting rid of papers because papers never bring anyone joy. Lordy, is that true. I had two bins and two cardboard boxes of old papers in my garage, and I finally let them go. The papers were so old I found a coupon from a clothing store that expired in 2009. No joke. If they’re old papers, get rid of them. They will bring you no joy. If they’re papers you need, find a space for them and keep them all together so you know where everything is. One thing to keep in mind is that we don’t want to clog Mother Earth more than she already is, so please do recycle those old papers, but definitely get them out of your house.

  1. Be honest about your goals

What do you really want to accomplish? This is an important question for both declutterers and writers. Why are you really keeping that high school memento? Why do you really want to publish that book? Often, we do things motivated by how the thing makes us feel than by the thing itself. The more honest we can be with ourselves, the more we can accomplish. I want to declutter so I can relax and feel more comfortable in my own home. I want to clear my writing space so I have room to move my thoughts around and flex my creativity. It’s hard to settle your mind to a creative task when there are things around the house that need seeing to, so take some time to see to the tasks.

The point with decluttering isn’t to get rid of things you use or love. The point is to be honest about what you use or love. If you don’t use it or love it, you have permission to recycle it or give it away. It is a freeing feeling. The only problem I’m having now is that I need fresh excuses about why I’m procrastinating and not getting any writing done…

Writing this post made me think of George Carlin’s classic bit about a house being simply a place for my stuff. If you’ve never seen it, give yourself a five minute treat and watch. Carlin was always ahead of his time, and this bit is particularly funny in this age of decluttering and minimalizing. For me, at least, decluttering has helped me become more aware of what I’m keeping in this place for my stuff.

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The Importance of Being and Doing

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. I’m always working toward something, which gives me motivation to keep on keeping on. The problem with being a goal-oriented person is that at some point the goal is achieved, and then there’s an awkward period since I’m not sure who I am without something to aim for. In his book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle warns against being too achievement oriented. It’s not that he thinks we shouldn’t accomplish goals, it’s just that he’s wary of how so many of us are always focused on the future to the neglect of our lives in this moment. When I do that I’ll be happy. When I have this I’ll be happy. When we’re consumed by thoughts of the future, Tolle warns, we’re not appreciating what we have in this moment.

I’m currently rereading The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, and I appreciate the message more now than I did when I read it years ago. I’ll always have plans for the future, that’s too much a part of who I am, but now I’m learning to be in the moment. Right now I’m thankful that I have this time to write. I find that I have to remind myself to be grateful. It’s all too easy for me to get caught up in the negatives (some real but most imagined) since I’m a worrier. I could blame it on my worrier of a mother, or my worrier of a brother, or I could say it’s just my overactive brain’s way of processing the oddities of this world. But then I remind myself, as Tolle says, to leave aside the memories of the past and concerns about the future and focus on this moment, and in this moment I am fine. I have to remind myself that I have permission to simply be.

I agree with the heart of Tolle’s message—that now is the most important time we have since now is all there really is—but I do think it’s okay to imagine the future I want. I can’t live in the future, but now, today, I can take actions that will help me create the life I want. In a moment of deep understanding, so sharp and bright it was like a blast of sunlight illuminating my thoughts, I understood my goals in a completely different way. The epiphany that comes with an important realization is much like Dorothy understanding there’s no place like home; in other words, what you really want has often been right in front of you all along. What do I want more than anything? What do I love more than anything? Writing. I love writing. I want to make my living as a writer. I think that’s what I’ve always wanted, but the desire has been pressed aside for one reason or another. Further introspection helped me realize that I’ve been scattered in how I approached my writing. Either I pursued writing relentlessly or I let it fall by the wayside. I did a little bit of this and a little bit of that, seeing some good results here, some great results there when I was lucky, but I was never consistent in a way that allowed for sustainable growth.

I am at a point now where I’m learning to stay focused on this moment, as in right now while my fingers press the letters on my laptop keyboard, searching for the words and the meanings I want to share with you. I’m learning to be grateful for what I have when I have it. Losing someone you love really hits that lesson home, hard. I had to say good-bye to my cute little red-headed boy cat, Chuck, who lost his battle with cancer about a month ago. I’ve been staying strong because I remember all the joy he brought me over 12 years, but those of you who love your pets know that their loss is no different from that of losing a family member because they are family members. I’m in the moment when I play with my three girl cats because they make me laugh. I’m accepting where I am in my life, and at the same time I’m doing things that will help me enjoy my life more in the moment. For example, I just finished rereading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and, again, the book resonates for me more during this second reading. I’m organizing all my spaces, donating clothing and books and recycling old papers and magazines. Marie Kondo is right: there is magic in tidying up! Decluttering not only frees up shelf space, but also brain space. I’m not sure how the two are connected, but they are. I’m decluttering financially as well, weeding out expenses I no longer need. I cut the cord with my cable company, something I had been considering for some time since they raised my rates yet again and I found myself paying for TV channels I didn’t even watch. I’m considering what’s really important to me and what I really want from my life. The more I declutter both my home and my brain, the more I’m able to focus on the moment instead of being distracted by this, that, and every other thing.

For me, it’s hard to be in the now and not at all consider what the future might hold. I’m not as evolved as Tolle, I guess. But I am learning to be at peace with where I am in the journey now. It’s not about being obsessed with the future at the expense of being with those, human and animal, I love, and it’s not about spending every waking moment with a telescope pointed with one gleaming eye only toward the future. It’s about accepting where I am right and then making choices that will help me steer my ship so that my future heads in the direction I want to go. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that success is not about external achievements: I have this many college degrees, I’ve sold this many books, I’ve been on these bestseller lists. Success is about acceptance, gratitude, and making peace with the journey. I feel like I’ve come back to writing with a new vigor, a new purpose, and a new vision. All the wrong turns were worth it if I feel at peace with where I am now.

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What I Learned About Writing from Coloring Books

As I’ve said before (in this post), I’ve joined the coloring book craze. I loved coloring when I was a kid, and as it happens I still love to color. I consider myself a wannabe crafter, and I used to dabble in painting with acrylics, and while coloring isn’t actually crafting or creating an original work of art, it still allows me to play with colors.

Peacock

This is definitely one of my better pieces, maybe because I love peacocks.

I’ve found that, at least for me, there is a meditation-like quality to coloring because the coloring itself is all I’m thinking about while I’m engaged in the activity. I’m not worried about schoolwork I have to do, crazy professors, and all the writing I have to get through. All I’m thinking about is the page I’m coloring, what colored pencils, crayons, or markers I want to use, and which colors I think will look best. The more I have to do, the more I appreciate the simplicity of sitting down with some crayons and filling in the pictures.

As coloring became more popular, suddenly there were countless posts and articles about how to color. It’s similar to what happened with writing and indie publishing—suddenly there were all these experts shouting about the right way to do things. Something that should be relaxing and fun becomes stressful as we try to keep up. There’s nothing like an expert to take the fun out of something.

I had the realization (while coloring, of course) that my attitude toward coloring was the same as my attitude toward writing. I had to decide for myself how I wanted to color, just like I had to decide for myself how I wanted to write. Here are a few things I learned from coloring books and how they relate to writing:

  1. Use the colors you want to use.

The experts in coloring will tell you to choose your palette first—use a color wheel to help you determine which colors to use. They’ll tell you which colors go with each other, and if you use that other color combination, look out! The Crayola Police will hunt you down. Hey, they say, that’s how painters do it, so that’s how coloring people should do it too!

And then I realized that I could use any color combination I want, just as I can write my stories however I want. I don’t like choosing my colors ahead of time. I like to choose my colors one by one as I’m coloring in the picture. Sometimes I have an overall idea of the color scheme I want to use, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy with how the pictures turn out, sometimes I’m not. When I’m writing, I have an overall idea of how I want the story to turn out, but I’ve also learned to get out of my own way and allow the story to find its own path. If I prefer choosing my colors as I go as opposed to choosing them first then I can do that. If I prefer letting my stories find their own way, I can do that too.

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There are some amazing coloring websites out there where the coloring people post their finished pages. Some of those colored pages are indeed museum ready. They’re absolutely beautiful with shading and light and the way the colors blend together. My pictures don’t look like that (as you’ll see from the examples in this post). I love playing with colors, and some color combinations I try I like, some I don’t like as much, but so what? I wouldn’t know what I liked unless I allowed myself the freedom to experiment.

I have no desire to become a professional artist. Making myself crazy trying to make my pictures look like some of these artists’ pictures doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a lot of time to color because I’m so busy with other tasks, so when I do have time to color I don’t want to spend my time being stressed because my picture doesn’t look good enough compared to what other people can do. Where’s the fun in that?

Writers often have severe cases of compare-itis. We’re always looking to see which writers are selling more books, getting better reviews, or winning more awards than we are. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not in competition with other writers. This isn’t a race. Our careers as writers are just as unique as we are as people. No two writing careers are alike. We need to remember to focus on ourselves and helping our own careers move forward. Like runners, if we keep looking back to see who might overtake us we’ll lose steam and slow down.

  1. Outline if you want to (and it’s okay to color outside the lines).
Blue Birds

You can see that I outlined the leaves in dark green and filled them in with light green.

When I was reading posts of coloring tips, a number of the experts said not to outline your drawing. Apparently, with outlining you’re not going to have a realistic looking product and that’s not how the professionals do it. Oh well. I’ve always liked to outline my coloring pictures. Even when I was a kid I’d outline the shapes with whatever crayon I was using. A lot of times, I’ll outline with a darker color and fill in the shape with a lighter color (as evidenced in the picture to the left here), and I like the way that looks. Is it wrong? Not to me. It’s my coloring page and I’m going to do it the way I want to. It’s the same with coloring outside the lines. I like it when my coloring pencils or crayons end up outside the line because then when I’m filling in the next color they blend a bit. How maddening, to feel like your coloring page is all wrong if your hand slipped and some color ended up on the other side of the black line.

There are many posts out there for writers about the right way to do things. Write in these genres if you want to make money. Publish this many books a year. Set your books at these prices. Grow your social media presence and build your author platform. But what if you don’t want to limit your writing to certain genres, or what if you have another life outside of your writing like I do and you can only publish one book a year? Does that mean that you won’t have any career as a writer? Not at all. It means that you get to decide what kind of career you’re going to have.

Here are my own tips for coloring (and they apply to writing as well):

  1. Choose what you want to color. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the book. You decide where to start. If you don’t love the picture, colorng it will be a chore. The same goes for writing. Write something you’re excited to get back to. If you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be hard to convince readers your writing is worth their time.
  1. Choose your own colors. You can use a color wheel to examine which colors go together, or you can choose whatever you want to choose because you want to choose it. You can choose them ahead of time, or you can choose them in the moment, whichever feels right to you. For writing, you get to decide how you use language. You have the final say in how you’ll string phrases together. You may not like the way some of it turns out. That’s okay. You tried it, you didn’t like it, so try again until you find something you do like.
  1. Don’t compare your pictures (or your writing) to anyone else. Find your own style.
  1. Coloring (and writing) should be fun. Listen to your favorite music. Turn off your electronic devices and other distractions. Make your coloring (and your writing) time special so you’re looking forward to getting back to it.

You can let the experts tell you what to do and how to do it, or you can find your own way. Whether I’m coloring or writing, I find it a lot more fulfilling to find my own way.

Are You Making Changes? Are You Pursuing Your Passion?

Gilcrease Orchard

Gilcrease Orchard Autumn 2015

One thing I gained from leaving behind my full time job was the gift of time. Certainly, 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. 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?” 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.

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.

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 coloring 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.

The Courage to Let Our Light Shine

quote

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

                        ~Marianne Williamson

I often spend my Sunday mornings watching Super Soul Sunday, which is how I’ve been spending my Sundays for as long as the show has been on OWN. I remember once when the show was about The Shadow Effect, a book by Debbie Ford, which is about acknowledging the darkness within ourselves so we can bask in the light. I was particularly struck by the quote about our deepest fear from Marianne Williamson.

I’ve read A Return to Love, the book from where the quote comes, but recently I realized that the quote spoke directly to the part in me that has been struggling the most lately—the part that feels like it needs to dim the light I have been striving for years to ignite. Williamson says, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” I had what Oprah calls an “Aha! moment” as I realized that I’ve been playing small to make those around me feel better.

A friend at work was so happy for me when a local magazine featured an article about me that she posted a link to the article on our school’s message board. As soon as I saw her post, I thought, “Oh no. This isn’t going to be good.” I learned a long time ago that people aren’t always happy when good things happen to someone else. When I was still living in California, an article about my writing and publishing appeared in The Los Angeles Times, and I told a few teachers I worked with about it. I thought it was cool, that’s all. I had worked hard to get some notice for The Copperfield Review and now there was an article about it in a major newspaper. The next day I heard from a friend that the talk in the staff room was about me: “She thinks she’s so special now?” As an intensely private person, I shuddered internally at the knowledge that people were speaking negatively about me, especially over something I meant to be positive. That’s when I slipped the dimmer over my light and stopped sharing anything about my writing or publishing successes with anyone except a trusted few.

The story hasn’t changed. After my friend posted the link to the article on the school message board, a few teachers went to her with the same “Who does she think she is?” One teacher congratulated me, but otherwise it was silence (crickets) from the rest of the staff. I tried to explain to someone that if I’ve had writing success it’s because of my life choices. Most people marry and have children, but I didn’t marry and I don’t have human children (my children say meow and sit on the keyboard while I’m writing). I can spend my free time however I choose, and I choose to write. In retrospect, I realize my response doesn’t really work since there are plenty of people with full-time jobs, spouses, and children who manage to pursue their dreams. But at the time I thought I could explain away why I was receiving attention for my writing.

Suddenly, I began slinking around, my head hung low, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I was embarrassed (again) that anyone had been talking about me. Finally (I’m a little slow sometimes) it occurred to me—why am I the one trying to hide? What have I done wrong? Does the fact that I’ve stayed stubbornly true to my dreams mean I have to feel embarrassed about it for the rest of my life? Seeing Super Soul Sunday simply expounded the “light bulb moment” I already had. Why do I feel the need to explain away my successes when I don’t expect anyone else to explain away their successes? I’ve been letting others make me feel small, but that’s my fault, not theirs. People can have whatever reactions they want. It’s up to me to remember to, as Marianne Williamson says, “make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” When I’m writing, I’m manifesting the glory of God that is within me. It’s what I’m called to do. No apologies required.

I’ve decided that I will no longer hide from my successes. I’ve earned every single one with years of hard work. Whenever I’m tempted to cower from public acknowledgement of that hard work, I’ll remember Williamson’s words: “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Amen.