New (School) Year’s Resolutions for Writers

Orange maple leaf (due to seasonal change) on green grassFor me, fall ushers in a mourning period. Although I welcome its drier air and kaleidoscope of color, its football season and Minnesota State Fair, loss lingers beneath the breathless bustle of a new school year. Loss of daylight and summer warmth. Loss of long walks with my sister and family time at the lake.

I grieve writing losses, too. Loss of (mostly) undivided attention, absent my full-time teaching job’s preoccupations with lesson plans and committee reports, student struggles and institutional politics. Loss of mental energy to revise a book without brain-draining essays to grade. Loss of early-morning quiet when my mind is fresh and ready to fire. Loss of time due to commuting in traffic and raking leaves.

After half a lifetime as a student and almost 20 years teaching, I’m getting better at managing fall’s losses, but there is a point each year—usually two weeks after school begins—where I sink into a mini-depression before I rebound. In the two-plus years I’ve spent writing and revising my first book, I’ve discovered my mini-depression carries with it resentment that I have to keep in check.

To prevent my negative emotions from leaking out in classrooms and meeting halls, I have begun treating the new school year like the New Year’s holiday. I have developed a New School Year tradition that consists of three parts: assess, acknowledge, select.

The advantages of New School Year Resolutions over their January counterpart include:

  • no holiday complications
  • no pressure to make resolutions public
  • no baggage left by decades of failed calendar-induced resolutions
  • no opposition from nature; it, too, is beginning a time of great change.

Here’s how I implement my tradition:

Assess

Teachers hear a lot about assessment every fall. We assess our teaching, students’ learning, the institution’s development, and yes, we even assess our assessment. Assessment is on already on my mind, so I turn that focus to reflecting on and assessing my writing year:

  • What did I learn about myself as a writer? about my process?
  • What did I do well?
    • How did I spark new ideas? avoid rushing the process? manage time? balance deadlines? let go of projects that didn’t work?
  • What evidence supports my answers to the questions above?
  • What would I like to do better?

Acknowledge

As a Type-A personality, I can get hyper-focused on achieving goals and checking them off lists. Once something is off my list, it’s off my mind, so I forget to savor successes and recognize progress, especially if that progress isn’t attached to a tangible result. To foster health and happiness, I’ve built into my tradition a step for acknowledging and celebrating growth.

Sometimes acknowledgment means sharing a publication on social media—something I used to avoid because it felt like “bragging.” Other times, I reward myself: a visit with my sister, an extra hour of reading, a new helmet for horseback riding lessons.

Select

Reality rarely allows enough time and energy to pursue every goal I can dream up, so from among those goals, I select resolutions that will become my year’s focus. Then I follow nature’s lead by asking:

  • What mindset or habits do I want to let die off this winter?
  • What mindset or habits do I want to cultivate for next spring?
  • What don’t I know that I want to find out?
  • What would I like to gain?
  • How will I mark my progress?
  • Where do I hope to be next year?
    • aspirationally (sky’s the limit)?
    • realistically?
    • minimally?

My answers include short- and long-term resolutions, and they vary widely, from submitting monthly blog posts to The Feisty Writer to finally finishing and sending my book to literary agents. But the best thing about fall resolutions is that, unlike New Year’s resolutions, they don’t come with a built-in expectation to share and then forget them.

For too long, I relied on a lot of stick and very little carrot to keep myself moving forward as a writer. Riding horses has made concrete for me how ineffective that approach can be. Therefore, I’m trading both carrot and stick for an ongoing process of reflection and renewal.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com

Write Like a Charlie Horse, Not a Charley Horse

Lisa walking the horse named Charlie through a pastureConfession: I’m impatient.

I like things to move and keep moving—quickly. I failed my first driving test at age 16 because of…you guessed it: speeding. (In my defense, test roads vacillated between 45 and 35 mph within a short stretch, and the surrounding traffic was flying.) Awareness of more serious consequences than a failed test has kept my lead foot in check since, but when I walk around lakes near my home, strangers comment on my pace.

Unfortunately, my need for speed includes writing. Like any Type A personality, I chase the satisfaction of completing projects and ticking them off lists, so I’m easily lured into treating the writing process as a means to an end instead of as the revelatory gift it is. My product-versus-process conflict reached its peak when I wrote my first book and discovered that the publishing industry moves like a sloth.

Then I met my patience coach: Charlie.

After my first few horseback riding lessons on Charlie, I dubbed him The World’s Slowest Thoroughbred (a horse breed known for its speed on the racetrack) and grumbled inwardly when assigned to ride him. His lumbering canter felt like riding an oil field pump. His name should be Charley Horse, I groused when my calves ached from the effort required to keep him moving.

“Wait for it. Wait, wait…” my riding instructor cautioned one Sunday morning as Charlie and I cantered toward a fence we aimed to jump.

“Nope,” she said when Charlie landed. “You anticipated, so you leaned forward and knocked Charlie off-balance. If the fence were any higher, you’d have been in trouble. Stop rushing! Wait until Charlie gets to the takeoff spot and go with him, not ahead of him.”

Easier said than done.

I had longed to gallop though jumper courses since I’d started lessons a few years ago. I discovered in the meantime that they are a test of skill, not speed, so they require a controlled canter.

The more I rode Charlie, however, the more I recognized his talent. Whether easing first-time riders’ fears or carrying advanced jumpers through courses in competitions, Charlie does it all well. The key to his success is his patience. He meets each rider where she is and stays with her as she progresses. He also takes courses one fence at a time—exactly the way successful riders approach them.

I’m learning to accept that too much speed can cause injuries in riding. Charlie forces me to practice patience and to appreciate process for its own sake, which I’m working to apply to my writing.

One of the first things Charlie taught me about patience is that allowing time to meander leads to discovering nuggets I would have missed if I had galloped toward a finished product in writing my book. Many of these nuggets grow into blog posts and essays, turning what seems like wasted time into published work.

One such meander led me to suggestions for preventing and treating a charley horse—a list that reads eerily like a manual for writers’ self-care:

Warmup

I’ll admit it, though I warmup when exercising and riding, I rarely do it when writing. I don’t do morning pages, and I dislike journaling. But there are a million things I can do when I’m not ready to leap into a big work-in-progress, like a book: research agents and publishers, follow writers on social media, look for opportunities to submit essays, scan image sites like Pinterest for descriptive details I can use in current projects. These often become the meanders that lead to a new image in my book or content idea for my blog.

Stretch

While I haven’t taken to morning pages, I have experimented with process by trying prompts and exercises found online. They perk me up when I’m feeling depleted.

Start Slowly and Work Toward Small Goals

Big writing projects can overwhelm, so I approach them the way Charlie approaches courses: one fence at a time. If I’m not up to working on my book, I tackle something manageable, like brainstorming for my blog, revisiting unfinished essays, or describing a recent everyday experience in exaggerated detail. Description sparks inspiration; it’s my way into every project.

Track Your Progress and Celebrate Successes

Like many writers, I keep a color-coded submissions spreadsheet to track what I have submitted where and whether it has been accepted, rejected, or ignored. What I’ve come to think of as “Ignored Gray” dominates but seeing bursts of “Accepted Blue” boosts my confidence. Rereading my blog does the same and supplies topics for follow-up essays.

Stop and Rest If You Feel Strain

It’s all grist for the mill, I tell myself when life interferes with writing. I’m still training myself to “walk the walk” when it comes to that saying, but when I succeed, I discover a wealth of grist. My concentration is sharper after time away from writing, too.

Be Patient with Your Body and Yourself

For me, this is the hardest lesson. When I feel rushed or get frustrated with slow progress, I tell myself, You want a Charlie Horse, not a Charley Horse. That means to not become hyper-focused on the finish line or push myself to extremes.

So, I keep plugging along: revising my book, drafting blog posts, submitting to contests, and researching agents. Riding Charlie assures me that I’ll jump publishing’s fences as they come—one at a time, using a moderate pace—and land more successfully for having completed my book’s jumper course at the right pace.

 

Photo Credit: Lisa Whalen

Strategies for Beating Summertime Writing Blues

a picture of beach sand with the word success carved into the sandTime for some painful honesty.

I was more fidgety than the students I teach in anticipating summer. I couldn’t wait to revise my memoir without interference from my full-time job as a college professor. Gershwin’s song became an earworm: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy . . .”

Summer 2017 lingered in memory as an ideal I sought to recreate. It had been my first experience of feeling like a “real” writer. I woke early, dove into revising and suspended in a flow. My enthusiasm often outlasted my body’s willingness to hunker in front of a screen, so I went for an afternoon run, walk, or yoga class. Then I returned to revising, brimming with ideas that exercise and a shower had shaken loose.

By August 1st, I had rewritten my book’s second or third draft (I’d lost track). I felt proud of my rewrite’s unique structure, which I’d arrived at by sticking and unsticking color-coded Post-It Notes to my office door as if playing Tetris. I liked the structure’s resemblance to lattice, its layered imagery and echoing themes. I liked how closely that structure mirrored the content, which describes how learning to ride horses in my late 30s helped me recover from a decades’ long eating disorder and accompanying depression. The book felt like a true representation of who I am as a writer.

With the Dog Days breathing down my neck, I pivoted to prepping classes and hatched a plan: spend the academic year querying agents, entering contests, and building my author platform.

I attended a pitch conference in September, where a senior editor at one of America’s largest publishers requested my manuscript. I was thrilled but realistic, aware that a request was worlds away from an offer to publish. I also held the suspicion that every editor/agent we pitched to requested a few manuscripts regardless of intent to publish so we writers would leave happy and conference organizers would extend more invitations to earn stipends.

Months passed. The senior editor remained mute. Two agents not affiliated with the conference requested my manuscript, but neither wanted to represent it. Rejections trickled into my email inbox.

March 2018’s slog toward Spring, along with feedback from agents, forced me to some conclusions about my memoir:

  1. its premise was interesting
  2. its voice was appealing
  3. its structure was off-putting.

Agents, it seems, want a memoir that adheres to Freytag’s Pyramid, the familiar structure girding nearly every creative work, from ancient Greek plays like Oedipus Rex to 1940s novels like George Orwell’s 1984 to 21st century short stories like George Saunders’ “The 10th of December.”

I’d gambled on a structure and lost, so I stopped submitting. I put plans for a new writing project on hold and resolved to spend summer 2018 restructuring my memoir.

I submitted final grades gleefully in May and then . . . did everything possible to avoid my memoir.

Revising to please others (instead of myself) held no appeal. My book’s content felt stale—far removed from the experiences that had inspired it—and trampled by over-editing. And I couldn’t escape the knowledge that I might spend a precious, too-short Minnesota summer plodding through work I dreaded only to end up without publication to show for it.

June 1 came and went. I had to decide: Do the work or chuck the book. I finally managed to unearth some excitement about revising with help from some essential tools:

  • Self-help books. While looking for texts that would help my students learn time management, I came across Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Her book encourages readers to identify their preferences in order to form good habits. A passage on novelty versus familiarity answered questions I’d puzzled over for years: Why I did tackle some challenges eagerly but avoid others? The answer was my preference for novelty. While some people find familiarity comforting, I find it irritating. I crave discovery. Understanding that preference turned a character flaw into a small solvable problem: Hate the repetitive nature of vacuuming? Listen to a podcast while doing it. Dread revising a memoir? Find some new tools.

 

  • New tools. As a starry-eyed creative writing program graduate in 2003, I bought novel-writing software called Power Structure. Then I left the installation CD untouched. But I broke it out this summer. Learning a new program adds novelty to a familiar process. The software also presents options I’d never considered for experimenting with plot, character, and narrative tension.

 

  • Different environments. I struggle to write in the home office where I create syllabi and grade essays. My two professional roles—writer and teacher—require different mental framework. Simply moving from the office to the dining room table helped my brain shift gears.

 

  • Other writers. At my lowest point, I considered giving up writing altogether. Conversations with other writers lured me back to the keyboard by reminding me that we all sit on an emotional seesaw, that failure is a means rather than an end. A colleague who read my book’s first draft suggested beginning the revision with an event I’d mentioned in passing—something I hadn’t considered writing about. As soon as she suggested it, I could envision how perfectly it would set up the book’s central conflict. Viola! More novelty to fuel my fire.

 

  • Support Networks. Talking to my sister revealed how unreasonable I was in expecting an overnight transition from teaching to writing. Our conversation also reminded me of the two-year creative drought that followed my Ph.D. Every time I sat down to write, I heard my dissertation advisor poking fun at my proposal draft, saying that including transitional phrases was “bad writing,” and declaring I must start every sentence with one of three phrases she dictated. The power imbalance in our relationship convinced me she was right about my writing despite what tutoring graduate students in a university writing center had taught me. A supportive writing group helped me recover then, and it would now, too.

 

  • Value Mindset. Maybe it’s hubris, but I think my book offers value, especially to people battling negative body image, bearing depression’s weight, doubting the power of mind-body-spirit alignment, or seeking to understand what horses teach us about ourselves. I want to share hard-won insights so that others can avoid my mistakes. Believing in my book’s purpose adds meaning to a process that too often seems pointless.

I’m in the exposition phase of revising (again), so this post leaves Freytag’s Pyramid incomplete. Here’s hoping my summer plot thickens . . .  

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1909823/

Curiosity Cures the Cat . . . and the Writer

Cats, Bubba and Spaz on Window SeatMy husband and I often joke about our cats’ reverence for routine. The more predictably their days unfold, the straighter their tails stand at attention (a sign of confidence) and the narrower their eyes squint (a sign of affection).

Writers find comfort in routine, too. I see it when I ask the college students I teach to reflect on when, where, and how they write best. And I see it in myself. I drink Caribou Daybreak Blend coffee from the same stainless-steel travel mug every morning. I water our houseplants on Sundays and follow an identical pattern each time I vacuum our house. I begin writing projects—whether creative, academic, or utilitarian—by generating bulleted lists.

But too much routine stifles creativity. Even cats are inherently curious, as their Internet fame can attest. I’ve found that channeling their ability to see fleeing mice in stuffed toys nudged down a staircase and snakes in yarn dragged across a carpet acts like catnip in my hunt for inspiration.

Here are some recent—and unexpected—discoveries:

Books

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators. This novel puts the creative process under a microscope. Two writer-artists forge a path from obscurity to ubiquity, hitting signposts along the way that nearly every writer will recognize:

  • The discomfort of mining one’s life for material to put on display.
  • The tide of inspiration that drags a lull in its wake.
  • The pendulum of emotion that propels progress.
  • The spinning plates of daily life that interrupt project momentum.
  • The intoxication of creating art that reveals a sum greater than its parts.
  • The excitement of publishing a work that has been a labor of love.
  • The pain of fissures that crack open when relationships are depicted as art.
  • The void of purpose that follows a completed project.

Ultimately, however, Whitaker’s book confirms that no writer toils in isolation.

Joshilyn Jackson’s Almost Sisters. Readers accompany a writer as she untangles her identity from her protagonist’s while also convincing her family to accept her unplanned pregnancy. The novel examines creators’ art-imitates-life-imitates-art conundrum in fascinating detail.

Podcasts

Invisibilia, 99% Invisible, Radiolab and Ear Hustle. All four shows take a familiar concept (anything from parenthood to concrete and memory to lightning bugs) and twist it just enough to make listeners perceive it anew. Radiolab’s Placebo” (season 3, episode 1) is among my favorite episodes because of its relevance for writers: The hosts set out to examine the placebo effect and discover just how integral narrative is to our human brain’s functioning.

Heavyweight and This Is Actually Happening. These podcasts offer listeners a glimpse into one real-life event per episode. Happening serves as a study in voice because individuals describe an experience, such as getting stranded on a mountain or witnessing a mass shooting, in their own words. Their telling is organic but edited flawlessly by the show’s creator to eliminate the linguistic gear-grinding inherent in speech. The result is a sense that I’m inside the speaker’s head, observing as she processes what happened.

Ironically, Happening is the weightier of the two podcasts. Heavyweight garnishes its poignancy with wry humor. The host turns a spotlight on his life, narrating in real time and then reflecting in hindsight.

Both podcasts remind me that moments big and small can produce rich content.

New (or Borrowed) Toys

Last summer, my sister lent me a high-end camera she’d purchased to document her kids’ milestones. Playing with it proved, well . . . eye-opening. Searching for shots drew my attention to things I’d looked past and made me see them. The digital format meant I could experiment without getting stuck developing 100 unwanted photos for every keeper. Looking through a lens changed the way my eyes viewed and my brain processed the world, which sparked ideas I turned into blog posts.

Other Writers

Recently, I’ve met writers who have published a book while parenting and working full-time. One woman composed her memoir solely during lunch breaks. Another wrote his YA novel during his son’s hockey practices. These reminders perk me up when I’m feeling deflated (See? Anything is possible if you stick with it.) and kick me in the butt when I’m lagging (You have no children and a flexible work schedule, so no excuses!).

The most important thing I’ve learned from hunting inspiration is that its sources are endless when I remain open to possibility.

 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Whalen