On New Blood, Next Books, & Tending the Well (and Self)

Turning in a book is like graduating, or making a purchase you have saved and scraped for, or (this writer imagines) achieving long-schemed revenge: victory followed by a fog of purposelessness. You go from hell-bent, immersed, and productive to…not in the time it takes to send an email. Then, slowly or with evil speed, the real demon rises:

What now?

The next book is a logical answer. But what if you aren’t one of those writers blessed with constant ideas as you go? What if to start a novel you, like me, need that one enchanting, concrete detail of something that sings to you so deeply you cannot help but write a story around it – and don’t have it yet?

You start looking. Digging. Mining for that glint of a diamond. But if the gems are half-cooked? If all you find is coal? You can carve and hack and try and try and try to cobble pieces together, reverse engineer something, and still come back empty-handed.

What now?

In writing, this is where you’d turn to showers or a walk or some activity, place your thoughts can go to simmer. But calling up the heart of a novel is thornier magic than summoning names or a plot fix, and doesn’t come from nothing. A potion is only as good as its ingredients, and if something’s stale or lacking, all the stirring in the world won’t make it act right. So how do you enrich the pot – or, as I am trying to work on – keep a fresh stock roiling in the background?

You add to it.

You pour new life into the well.

The creative well: that’s what I hear it aptly called. The confluence of our inputs, from the wealth of our own lives and experiences to those we curate: favorite shows and reading and music, what we do, live, consume. Writing this, I wonder if that’s not just the subconscious: that dreambed of parts and possibilities we all carry, ever soaking and swirling.

So why is it so damned hard to harness sometimes?

In my limited, but growing experience, I’ve found ideas need at least two things to manifest:

  1. influences – parts of stories, art, research, experience, pop culture, events, etc. that excite us – and
  2. leisure. The time, and a space where your mind is relaxed and not looking for ideas – but has the luxury to wander, consider and connect. Sometimes right into them.

So if I’m feeling creatively stagnant, I’ve learned, and aerating the cauldron isn’t working (hello fodder folders, short works, journals of meandering freewrites), it’s time to mix things up. That might mean reading more, a new show or music, going out of my way to do or see something that interests me. Like cooking, there are endless ways to make a dish, and sometimes it’s more about intuiting needs than the recipe. What am I missing? What do I crave more of? What would I like to try, or haven’t I tried before?

Recently, I turned in a draft and felt something greater lacking. I was hungry – and not just for a new podcast or genre. Incidentally, I kept seeing people talk about hobbies and the importance of pursuing something regularly, for fun, not related to your vocation. Play. And maybe that’s where the magic happens: when we free ourselves of constraints and expectation and do something just for us. At a minimum, I figured, a new activity would be refreshing – and maybe operating at a different wavelength would rake the well.

So I turned to art, my longest-neglected hobby. And currently I’m beginning something I have dreamed of for several years: making art on a tablet, and taking art-related classes on Skillshare. (See new banner!) Is it turning up new story leads? Not measurably, not yet. But it is:

  1. feeding the well, as I can listen to audiobooks, music, shows, podcasts, etc. while drawing
  2. a thing that occupies me and isn’t writing, which is where I tend to find ideas
  3. soul nourishment
  4. giving back to me. I’m learning something new, plus efforts yield visible fruit at the end of the day. I love that every finished piece is something you get to keep, share, enjoy — perhaps put to purpose (and I have one in mind – keep an eye out in the coming months, or catch glimpses of work over on Instagram & Twitter!)

But can we focus on those last two a minute? Number three in particular?

This post has taken weeks to write, because when I set out to, I think I felt this latent pressure to justify how this new venture I was pouring time and self into was helping my writing. But that’s just it – I think that’s the whole point. People, but perhaps especially creatives, need a non-work hobby that nourishes the soul, period. It shouldn’t have to help writing or whatever your vocation is. In fact, having no bearing on the writing is what makes it self-care, and therefore specifically by virtue of not helping writing IT IS HELPING WRITING, because it helps me function as a human being. It is grounding, meditation, an anchor when I need one. It is wonder and joy.

It is a thing that makes me okay with not yet knowing or throwing myself at my next passion project—

Which is exactly what I think I need to find it.

Homemade Calendar – December

december 2014 calendar 2I’m pretty pleased with how December turned out considering I was way behind and had no idea what I was going to do for my monthly artwork until the eve of the 31st! Since this is the last month in my 2014 homemade calendar series, I want to take a moment to observe some things I’ve learned in the course of doing it.

  1. The project began as simply a more colorful way to mark off the days– I thought it’d be an excuse to air out my art supplies. But as the months went on, it evolved from basic colored squares to full out compositions. Which was awesome! But very time consuming.
  2. I never regret the time I spend on my art projects. But I did, as the bar was raised, begin to feel a certain pressure each month to produce something at least as good or better. Which meant ALWAYS putting in solid time and effort. That part made it stressful when I had to cast about for subject ideas.
  3. But at the same time, I’m glad I had this sort of structure in place– it meant I was making at least one physical art work each month.

In conclusion: It’s been fun but also somewhat obligatory– which I suppose is normal of any pursuit one commits oneself to. It’s like showing up for a class or a job you enjoy: As much as you love the work and the content, it comes with pressure and deadlines and sometimes burnout. But you have to show up and turn in your stuff anyway, regardless of whether or not you want to. This is how progress is made, how projects are finished. I’m going to try to take that lesson forward as I set my priorities for 2015. Look for elaboration soon! And finally…

Happy New Year! 🙂

Homemade Calendar – November

nov 2014 calendar

Ok, I admit it: It’s become more about the art than crossing off the days. Which is great for getting in a minimum of one art project a month, but not for observing the date. I think next year I’ll go with a more practical calendar.

December is always a variable time of year– lots going on, people visiting, normal processes interrupted. I can say with certainty there will be reading, revising, guitar, and French for me, though it is difficult to say how much. I also recently bought a deck of tarot cards (I’ve been interested in learning more about them ever since some research I did for a story) and hope to start acquainting myself with reading basics in the coming weeks.

In other news: as of last month I completed one of my biggest goals for the year, which was to read 52 books, or roughly one a week! And there’s still several weeks to go…(Here I come, Landline and Thieves of Manhattan.)

What will your end of year activities look like?

26 Things I’ve Learned So Far

I recently turned 26. Goodbye, quarter life crisis! Hello, glorious new year of awkward transitional 20s. (Don’t listen to me. I love my 20s.)

Taken on my bday. I am not 22.

Taken on my bday. I am not 22.

I don’t feel older, but I do feel more adult. There are still many regards in which I do not, but some things (liking chocolate doughnuts with rainbow sprinkles and YA books, for instance) will never change. I look forward to the next year of growth and experiment, and in the meantime present a handdrawn list of 26 things I have learned in recent years (inspired in equal parts by Laekan Zea Kemp’s traditional bday blog post and the 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far column in Writer’s Digest). Typed list follows for ease of reading.

26 things ive learned so far - 2 doc size

26 Things I’ve Learned So Far

1. Beauty, like humor, is subjective.
2. It’s better to buy one thing you need than two you don’t (even if the two things are cheaper).
3. True motivation can only come from within. You have to want something for yourself.
4. Everything you don’t absolutely need in order to exist is a luxury. Notice it. Appreciate it.
5. No two people, living or deceased, experience the world exactly the same way.
6. Life is a series of choices. You will have to make them.
7. No effort is wasted if we learn from it.
8. Love is free. Give it openly and make the world a better place—one smile, one affirmation, one kindness at a time.
9. People are sponges. You are what you eat, read, watch, do, listen to, associate with.
10. Don’t rely on other people to make your life meaningful. Make your own meaning. (But do let others add to it.)
11. Choose commitments with care.
12. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can anybody else?
13. Stress is a sign of growth. It means you are out of your comfort zone.
14. It is better to fail than to not even try.
15. Kindness can move mountains.
16. A person who shames others for loving something is arrogant and narrow-minded.
17. Confidence is everything.
18. Don’t judge a shirt by the way it looks on the hanger.
19. Small luxuries bring great joy.
20. Surround yourself with people you admire.
21. Remove yourself from negative/draining influences.
22. Pursue the things that energize you.
23. Keep electronics higher than liquids.
24. If you want more time, change how you spend it.
25. The longer you look, the more you see.
26. ENK (Everyone Needs Kindness).

Homemade Calendar – June

june 2014 calendarThis month is brought to you by tropical Skittles. Skittles: taste the lurid color!

And now on to July, in which I will continue the first draft of a project and have plans for several short term art works. Stay tuned for details!

In the meantime, if you’re a fellow writer or book lover on tumblr, I am finally starting to get the hang of that young person’s jungle gym. You can find me on tumblr here.

Hope your summers are off to a good start!

 

Homemade Calendar – March

Last month I shared the first page of my homemade 2014 calendar. This week I bring you the completed March:

march 2014 calendar_0001

Materials this time included paint pens and permanent markers. I’m IN LOVE with Craftsmart’s gold foil!

Looking ahead to April, my month’s goals include but are not limited to:

  1. Completing Draft 3 of my WIP
  2. Query research
  3. Continued French review (units 3 and 4 in my textbook at a minimum)
  4. My extracurricular: reading up on how to read facial expressions, body language, and items within that vicinity (Liespotting, anyone?)

How about you?

Embracing the Variable

It’s April and I have officially cleaned out the first jar of vocab I had stored up for my weekly segment, Words of the Week. Although I still have 15+ pages of words lying around in notebooks and on hard drives, the completion of the first jar in conjunction with the end of the month gives the sense of a natural conclusion– or at least, of a time for reflection.

I enjoy running segments on my blog, and have been doing so for some time. I have done themed jaunts by the month (30 Stories in 30 Days; the 30 Day Know Thyself Challenge put on by Writer’s Relief; National Poetry Month), weekly series (Forum Friday, Where I Am, Words of the Week), and capricious but recurring installments (Good Writing Advice, Julieisms, etc.). Each has served a purpose, and in its own right, a time. Looking back, it is clear to me that some segments have been more successful than others, some more practical, some both, and some neither. Month-long series, for example, have been beneficial to both myself and readers (the 30 Short Stories posts still get regular views over a year later), but siphon time from my main projects and tend to leave me drained and burnt out. The weekly series have been more variable: less demanding, but resulting in either mundanity or creative burnout, and with mixed reception. The unscheduled but recurring installments have perhaps been my favorite, allowing for both content and time-related liberties while being generally of interest to readers. The drawback: being irregular, their readership is irregular, too.

I begin to wonder if blog posts, like central projects, should not be governed simply by going where the interest is hot. Many authors have discussed the power of pursuing the things that excite us (forthcoming post on this with specifics from Veronica Roth), and I think it only follows that when WE are excited about what we’re writing, it is much more likely that others will be excited about it, too. While my Where I Am posts were a great practice for me, they really only echoed what I already did in my planner to track my projects, and offered little of interest to readers. They became a sort of checklist item, which made them boring for both parties. Not cool. Good Writing Advice, on the other hand, is continuously well-received, because the topic– learning to improve my writing– is one I am consistently passionate about. As are my readers. Win-win.

What I am getting at today is that

1) I’m discontinuing Words of the Week. It was a sound idea in theory, but not so sound in practice. Apart from composing the sentences, I hardly looked at the words again, so I wasn’t really absorbing the new vocabulary– and as I seem not to have encountered many fellow lexophiles along the way, motivation dwindled. I will, however, take this occasion to thank the brilliant and generous Roy McCarthy, who always kindly shared his own recent vocab with me! Thank you, Roy 🙂

2) I’m going to try renouncing the weekly themed post in favor of writing only when the topic excites me. Ideally this will still be at least once a week– however, life is fluid, and as such that standard is also subject to flux.  Though less consistent, I think only posting when I am really eager to will make for a more colorful and enjoyable experience on both the reader and writer ends of the process.

3) I am thinking a small-scale blog remodel is in order– one that will reflect my greater creative interests rather than just reading and writing, as I will be posting about more of the things I am passionate/curious/excited about. This means the name “The Read Room” will probably change into my own name, and include a spiffy new tagline that sums up my endeavors. Stay tuned for changes.

I fully intend to keep this blog active– but for now, I’m embracing the variable!

 

Homemade Calendar

Inspired partly by a friend’s homemade calendar and partly by Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, this year I decided (albeit not until February) to make my own 12 month calendar to set goals and monthly focuses. Goals would be short-term, one-time tasks: write a letter. Read 4 books. Do X errand, memorize Y poem, try Z recipe. Month-long focuses would be either project-related or, drawing from Rubin, something I wanted to devote more time to.

It was these– the extracurricular focuses– that I was really excited about. These were the things that drove me to make this calendar. Mostly, they’re things I’ve been wanting to learn more about or learn to do better forever, and have always told myself I would, but never made the time to. Things that interest me, fascinate me, or would simply be useful to know: how to dream lucidly. Read Latin. Apply better, more professional makeup. Create ciphers. Analyze handwriting. Grow rosemary and saffron. Long have I meant to look up the latest fashion trends, learn all the guitar scales, study body language. Etc. ad infinitum. There is much to be said for letting Interest be your guide, and, in addition to enjoying the activities themselves, I could easily see any of these things finding their way into my fiction.

This is what my first month ended up like:

february 2014_0001

I used soft pastels to mark off the days, coloring each box as I went. This month I may try something else.

The rest of the calendar follows the same general format through December: large chart for days (just right for the stickers I’m imagining for Nanowrimo and other word count jaunts), space on the right for listing goals and focuses, and of course an artistic splash of pictures, relevant or impulsively chosen.

Do you keep monthly goals or focuses? What are you working on this month?

Oh, and one last perk to keeping this style of calendar: Since I knew I wanted to share my completed February (i.e., on my blog), I made sure to complete all the goals I listed first. One of them I’d been putting off, but having that accountability motivated me to wrap it up on the last day of the month!