Conversation: Accountability

A picture of a strawberry milkshakeMy seven-year-old grandson, Beckett, knows the name of my book. I don’t remember ever talking about it with him. Maybe he heard a relative asking about my writing pursuits during the holidays. Wherever he heard it, listening to him say it made me feel more accountable than anything else has in months.

We were going through photos on my iPad to distract his five-year-old sister Emerson—who was having what seemed like the worst day of her life—because she found out that Beckett got a milkshake at lunch while she was at preschool. Never mind that we all got frozen yogurt after we picked her up. He had gotten something she hadn’t, and that was just plain wrong.

The photos had a magical effect. The sobs were stifled. She was mesmerized by seeing herself in so many pictures. Backward through time. Watching them shrink. The majority of photos I take are of my grandchildren. Followed by, in order of volume, pictures of Scotland in the summer and photos from other trips. No pictures of food, no selfies.

Once in a while, I grab a photo of something because I’d like to have a copy of it. Sometime in the last few years, someone brought a hand-out to my writing group that they had received at a workshop at San Diego Writers, Ink. It was about query letters. I had taken a picture of it so I could study it later.

Beckett is an advanced reader for his age. I know he was read to from the time he was a baby, but I think the ubiquitous billboards in Los Angeles helped. The world’s largest flash cards.

He saw the headline and asked, “What’s a query letter?”

“It’s a letter you send to someone when you want them to publish your book.”

“Has your book been published? Hair on Fire?”

I felt my face getting red, hearing him say the title of my book.

“No, I haven’t finished it.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t really know why not.”

“Well, you should.” This was ambiguous to me. Should I know why? Or should I finish? You always hear people say you should do things for yourself, not for others. But I want to be who this precious and precocious little boy thinks I am.  

The moment passed, and we kept going on our reverse journey. I have almost 2,000 pictures. There would be more, but I winnow from time to time to avoid having to pay for iCloud storage.

We finally reached the end. The first photo I ever took with my phone was Beckett at about three months, sleeping in a carrier.

“Where am I?” asked Emerson, still sensitive to being left out.

“You weren’t here then.”

“Why not?”

“Because your part of the story hadn’t started yet.”

“Oh.”

They both wandered off after I refused to let them watch YouTube videos on the iPad. I sat there staring at the screen, wondering… when am I going to start to finish my story?

 

headshot of Andrea Moser

Andrea Moser spent 35 years writing for other people and organizations, from elected officials and civic leaders to universities and non-profits. These days, she is animating the characters who inhabit her first novel, Hair on Fire. She is an avid theater-goer, in San Diego and in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she has been attending the annual Fringe Festival for 20 years.

 

Photo Credithttps://pixabay.com/3287788

2018 Gift Guide for Feisty Writers

It’s that time of year again, and we’ve compiled another fantastic list of gift ideas from our Feisty team for your favorite writer.

Lisa Franek’s Gift Ideas:

1. Literary Insults Chart $25

a chart of literary insults

For those times when your words fail you, you can turn to the masters for a quippy turn of phrase when you need it most.

2. Scrivener $45

Scrivener software logo

I bought this writing program several years ago and haven’t looked back since. It’s perfect for organizing long-form works (like novels, screenplays, plays, and so on), and formats like a dream. Every writer should have it.

 3. “Tequila Mockingbird” by Tim Federle and Lauren Mortimer $10

the book cover for Tequila Mockingbird book

For your writer friends who like a little spirit with their story, this book is full of fun recipes to try (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita.). Just remember: Write drunk, but edit sober.

Lisa Whalen’s Gift Ideas:

1. The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala
Book Cover for The INFJ Writer book
Though aimed at INFJs (on the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator), it’s a helpful guide to the writing process for all writers, especially introverts. It’s encouraging and offers exercises for inspiration and overcoming writer’s block.
2.The Emotion Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
book covers for Emotion Thesaurus and twoother books by same authors

 

These books will help you develop believable characters and avoid using the same descriptive phrase repeatedly.

3. Power Structure Storytelling Software

Power Structure logo

This easy-to-learn program offers a variety of ways to consider and shape any story. Writers can isolate or link features that include line graphs for plot, flash cards for character traits, arcs for character development, tabs for chapters and sections, and word processing for the actual text.
a picture of two mugs for writers

Their selection of mugs expresses our sentiments exactly.

 

Marijke McCandless’s Gift Ideas:

1. “Educated” by Tara Westover
Book Cover for Educated

2. “Tarot for Writers” by Corrine Kenner

Book Cover for Tarot for Writers

3.“H is for Hawk” by Helen MacDonald

Book Cover for H is for Hawk

A great memoir illustrating how to take a niche passion (Goshawk training) and build a true story for everyone.

Marni Freedman’s Gift Ideas:

The logo for Audible, an Amazon Company
Writers can use it to download audiobooks, magazines, and newspapers to their computer, tablet or phone.
Use the above link to get 50% off the first three months.
Necklace that says I am not afraid, I was born to do this
Book Cover for Excuses Begone
This is a great book when you are wondering how to actually change old thinking that can sabotage your writing like “I’m too old/too young,” “I’m too busy/tired,” “Who am I do write a book?” or “I can’t change my habits, this is the way I’ve always done it.” It’s the kind of book you can keep by your bedside and reread the sections that will gently challenge your old thinking and charge you up as you nurture your passion.

Paula Margulies’s Gift Ideas:

1. Archangel Gabriel Oracle Cards by Doreen Virtue

A picture of Archangel Gabriel Oracle Cards

These gorgeous cards are great for creativity, teaching, and parenting. I bought mine at the temple on Meditation Mountain in Ojai and really love them (they’re spiritual, but not overly religious).
2. Writing gloves from Storiarts
picture of writing gloves
This website features scarves, bags, and other items with words from famous works of fiction on them, but I love the writing gloves (with fingertips cut out) for typing on cold mornings. A portion of the proceeds goes to LitWorld, a non-profit organization dedicated to tackling illiteracy worldwide.
3. T-shirts, socks, and onesies from Out of Print
Little Golden Books t-shirt
Out of Print has clothing for lovers of all things literary. If you know anyone expecting, check out the cute assortment of onesies featuring children’s book titles.

Tracy Jones’ Gift Ideas:

a photo of The Wild Unknown Tarot Deck
One of my clients brought these to my writers’ retreat, and I loved them! Each of the seventy-eight cards is gorgeous with hand-drawn, striking images that explore the mysteries of the natural world and animal kingdom. It also comes with a beautiful guidebook. Try asking your character a question or how to structure a scene and see what the tarot inspires.
A photo of Blessings Gratitude cards
In our chaotic times, it often takes practice and dedication to find joy and peace. This is my gift to myself this holiday season to keep focused and grateful on what matters in life: healthy, family, friends, and writing!
Photo of cross pen
A client recently gave me a Cross pen, and I was brought back in time to receiving an engraved one from my grandparents when I graduated high school. It’s long lost now, but the memory remains. I had forgotten what a real pen feels like and it’s a delight to write with. If you’re like every writer I know who is always searching for a pen, treat yourself. (The engraving makes this a great gift!)
Photo Credit to Feisty bloggers and Amazon.com

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

Writing Books

A drawing of a soup pot with pictures of books coming out of itMy husband, Mark, and I are writing books—he’s writing one and I’m writing two. So, our home has become a book-production factory.

By factory, I mean sweat shop.

Mark’s book is called “Serious About Retiring.” It’s a guidebook for people who are close to retiring or have just retired.

I’m juggling two books. One is a whimsical picture book about marriage—”Grow Old with Me.” The other book is a quasi-memoir about my late brother who was a war correspondent in the early years of America’s Vietnam War. I’m writing it in “collaboration” with him—so this book gives the term “ghost written” a whole new meaning.

You might think that writing is all about creativity and inspiration, that beautiful words flow off the pen (or word processor), and that when you reach 200 pages, you send it to the presses and you have a book. I wish it were so. Writing a book is hard labor.

Mark and I have been working on all three books for a very, very long time—I started the book on my brother almost three decades ago! All three books have gone through scores of incarnations.

It’s all about revising…and revising…and revising.

What if you were making a pot of soup the way you write a book? Let’s say you start out making chicken soup. You put in chicken, water, an assortment of vegetables, and various spices. But then you think—no, this isn’t quite right. So you take out the chicken and you lift out some of the vegetables. Instead, you put in potatoes and other vegetables. Then you think—no, this isn’t right, so you move those vegetables out and maybe put in some beef…

Finally you taste the soup and you say—this isn’t chicken soup, this is butternut squash soup. Should I add some chicken?

Of course, when you’re making soup, you can’t really take out and swap ingredients. But when you’re word processing a book, you can take stuff out and add stuff and do this over and over. Forever.

What this means is—when I write one book, I’m really writing 100 books.

The next time you’re reading a book, you might wonder—what happened to the 99 books that dropped out along the way?

*********

A photo of author, Lucy Rose FischerLucy Rose Fischer is an author and artist living in Minnesota.  Her most recent book is a whimsical picture book, I’m New at Being Old, which received a Midwest Book Award and an Independent Publishers Gold Award.

 

Photos courtesy of Lucy Rose Fischer

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

Listen Play Write: A Writer’s Recipe for Enlivenment.

a heart-shaped moon in the skyHave you heard the voices?

The voices of self-hate in the head I mean.  The ones that judge and analyze, compare and shame. The ones that tell stories of great woe. The ones that cause suffering.

When they arise, I despair. I want there to be a formula that I can turn to in times of distress.  I want someone else to tell me how to do it. Just tell me what to do I silently implore.  I notice, however, that when someone does, I judge and scoff thinking I know better.  

And so the conversation in the head goes on: one voice shameful and despairing, the other a righteously indignant know-it-all.

The voices are well-worn thought patterns that have been sculpted by my cultural surroundings, life experiences, gender, desires, aversions, beliefs. They can be triggered by words or events, and because they are very good at telling stories, they sound just like me.

But they are not.  

How do I know?

Because when I am most alive—when life and creativity flow from me unbidden, when I am playing or writing or making love, when the stillness of a moment fills me up with wonder and awe—those voices are not there and yet I still am.  And that “I” feels enlivened, pulsing with energy. That “I” participates fully in life without the help of the voices.

Not to say that our conditioned thoughts are not helpful. Sure they are. They help me remember names and places, pay bills, plan trips, and acquire skills, but they don’t rightfully belong in the arena of making me happy. And, when they cross over into the direct realm of causing suffering, it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere.

Just the other day I stepped into my own private darkroom while collapsing under the weight of self-inflicted suffering. I had taken something someone said the wrong way, and a whole minefield thought storm followed. But today? Well, today, I saw the thoughts still brewing, but instead of revisiting that well-trodden path of despair, I gathered painting tools around me in bright luminescent colors and invite friends to come over for a painting party.

Wow, I thought. Did it last a bit shorter this time? Did I let go of suffering a tad bit faster?

“No!” the voices in my head screamed. “You’re still all screwed up.”

I dipped my toe out of the persistent suffering mind for a moment, testing the waters.

Hmm. Nope. No suffering here: just my chair and my fingers typing, breath in my chest, blue sky out the window, and painting designs swirling in the background.

“Yeah, but . . . remember how you felt just yesterday? How you were all closed down, and there was a big weight on your chest? What, you think that’s not still lurking in the shadows?” the voices taunt.

I consider their mean words and realize I don’t have to listen to them. They are not me. As I ponder this moment of clarity, the words of my good friend, who had heard enough of outward bemoaning one day, drop in:  Are you done yet?  Can we go play now?

So, like the Titanic making a 180-degree course correction, I intentionally move my attention away from them—leaving the tip of their iceberg behind, knowing beneath that tip is a mammoth structure that will take me down.

As I pull my attention away, the voices warn me about repressing my feelings, but I’ve got that number. I remember feelings are physical sensations in the body—energy moving, not voices telling a story about what those sensations mean.

I spend a few moments tuning in to my body. I feel my feet against the floor, the tightness in my back from sitting too long. I close my eyes and draw my attention to where my right hand is.  With my eyes closed, I can’t even be sure that my right hand exists, but I notice a pulsing aliveness there. I let a smile creep into my cheeks, just for the hell of it, and wonder at the warmth that spreads to my chest when I do so.   

I enjoy being still for a moment and genuinely listening to life, listening to everything but the conditioned voices in my head. I hear a bird call, the wind rustling, the sound of my own heartbeat, my husband puttering in the kitchen. A playful thought drops in about hugging my husband and giving him a coy smile of invitation. And then, I return to the computer and write because writing, like meditation, affords me the opportunity to pay attention to all the details of what is.

My journey to happiness is a moment-by-moment choice to navigate away from suffering back to that which helps me pay attention to now.

And then it comes to me: I do have my very own formula for enlivenment: Listen. Play. Write.

What’s your formula?

 

Photo Credit: https://1164739/

 

How to Write While Triggered

a man in a suit reaching toward the red nuclear buttonI’m triggered, and I have good reason to be: the state of our world. Need I say more?

My curled, stiff trigger fingers can’t type, and even if they could, my words are frozen in my brain by my powerlessness. By the fear of what could become of us and the wheels of darkness that are already in motion. By the sadness rising in my throat as I watch it unfold. And the guilt pounding in my temples for not doing more to stop it.

When I am triggered like this, my writing comes screeching to a halt. But I can’t allow this. Because my writing is connected to the wellness of my mind, body, and soul. To stop writing now, when the world desperately needs the power of our words, would be admitting defeat to the evil rising around us. And if our world is a contest, this is not one I am willing to forfeit.

So how do I get back to a place where I can create? Where I can produce work that is not filled with rage or fear or hopelessness? At this juncture, how do I yield writing that is both heartfelt and engaging, while also staying aware of my mission and true to my humanity?

I have scraped together a few tips here. My hope is, when you find yourself blocked due to stressful circumstances, be they in your family, in your body, or in your politics, these tools will help you, too, find a way back to your pen.

  1. Meditation. You’ve heard this a thousand times, but in my opinion, it can not be said enough. Meditation is free, it’s easy, and it works. This guided meditation by Feisty guest blogger Kimberly Joy (also featured today) deals with this very thing—allowing meditation to help you create distance between your trauma and your words so you can write your story. Remember, it can take up to six months to feel the initial effects of meditation so don’t give up. Never give up. On any of this.
  2. Read something that inspires you. Make it a sure thing. Pick a piece highly recommended by a friend in your favorite genre. Or something written by someone you admire. The point is, when all else fails, bury your head in a book that will bring you joy. My guess is your head spent a lot of time bent over pages as a kid, not blinking, tearing the bindings of your favorite series. Being child-like during times of stress is always liberating to the pen.
  3. Go to the place where your best ideas come. Whether you’re on a nature walk or stepping toe to heel in a tight circle in your living room, blowing bubbles in the shower or while surfing, jabberjaw-ing about ideas with a buddy or sitting in silence at your favorite museum, identify the setting where many of your ideas land, and spend time there. My best ideas arrive when I’m driving. I wouldn’t think that would be my place of enlightenment, but alas, it is. On episode 22 of the Masters of Scale podcast, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkdIn, talks to Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, about How to Find Your Big Idea. Turns out her ideas come in the car, too. So although she lives a few minutes from the Spanx headquarters, she wakes up an hour early and does what her friends call a “fake commute,” driving around Atlanta, giving ideas permission to enter. Sara Blakely is an entrepreneur, but I think writers and entrepreneurs depend on a few of the same things—fierce creativity and even more ferocious bravery. To stay inspired for this ferocity, setting matters. So be in your place.
  4. Redirect your thoughts. Meditation helps with this but if you can’t do that, simply do this. Acknowledge that your thoughts are not you and that, in fact, they are both separate and directable by you. In the beginning, this may feel hard. But like most things, it takes practice and more practice. Once you have it down, choose to direct your thoughts toward creative, productive pursuits.
  5. Write cat poems. Maybe this sounds like it doesn’t apply. Give me a sec, and I’ll explain. I have a thing for my cats. They are a bottomless well of cuteness and entertainment to my family and me. You can exchange the word “cat” for “dog” if that fits better. Or “horse.” Or “pig.” Anway, recently, with pen stuck like glue, I was compelled to write a cat poem. Then I posted it on Twitter. Twitter has limited characters and, for me, an even more limited audience. This makes it a perfect place to write publicly about the crazy beasts that make me smile. And it was fun! And easy. Maybe you don’t want to tweet animal poems. My point is less that and more this: push your boundaries. Try something new. Find what brings you joy and write about it somewhere. Publicly, privately, it doesn’t matter. Just write. Whatever, whenever, however you can. Don’t abandon your words. Our world needs your voice to create necessary change, now more than ever.

 

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-3038098/

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

If Meditating Pisses You Off, Try Connecting

meditating, a flower floating in a pondMeditating pisses me off. Mostly because I feel like I’m failing every time I go to quiet my endlessly active monkey brain.

However, I know that getting quiet and accessing that meditative state is one of the most fruitful and rewarding experiences we writers can have.

The other day, while wandering through the Huffington Post, I came upon this quote:

“Mindfulness meditation is a great technique to help improve creativity. It … reduces the reactivity of the reptilian brain, increases resilience, stimulates the neocortex, as well as improves emotional intelligence. All these assist in getting ideas flowing directly to your best creative thinking brain: the neocortex.”—Bianca Rothschild, Huffington Post

Let me be clear: I have deep respect for successful meditators. I aspire to be one of those awesome people who can sit on a cushion with legs crossed, palms up and go deep for twenty minutes or more a day. But somehow when I’m on my second inhale of breathing deeply my cat always seems to puke or a pipe burst.

Why Is It Essential to Connect to That Meditative State?

Artists and writers have long attributed their creative inspiration from being able to access this state. Many look to it as a form of otherworldly guide. Some call it the hypnagogic state, which is the realm between sleep and wakefulness, where both the theta and the alpha waves are present. (Hypnagogia comes from the Greek words for “sleep” and “guide”). During this state, it seems that the brain is more open to finding unique connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Many studies have shown a strong link between the waking-dream state and improved problem solving and increased creativity.

The Beatles shared that many melodies from their songs, including ‘Yesterday,’ came to them in that state or in their dreams. Mary Shelly described the story Frankenstein as having come to her in a waking dream. The Disney Company adopted meditation in the workplace early on. After employees meditated, they noticed a marked increase in creativity. The painter, Salvador Dali, described that his surreal paintings came directly from his dreams. Dali called this state “the slumber with a key.”

Finding a Way to Connect

So, suffice it to say that getting quiet and accessing this realm is chock full of good stuff for artists and writers. But what if you are like me, and sitting down to mediate only pisses you off? How do you connect, download and access that state of infinite possibilities?

For me, I noticed that at certain times in my daily routine, a steady flow of ideas would show up. As I investigated further, I realized that the ideas would most often flow while gardening, taking a long walk, or making a slow-cook soup.

What was happening?

In time, I found that when I was going about the more calming activities of my daily life, I had unconsciously taken the pressure off. A level of peace was traveling through my motions. I was garden-meditating. I was cooking-meditating.

I was connecting.

If traditional meditation feels just a little beyond your reach right now, don’t give up on accessing that magical realm.

A Path to Connecting:

  • Pick an activity that you find calming. See if you can perform it just a little slower than usual. Allow moments of complete stillness within that activity.
  • While you are performing that calming task, ask to connect. Ask for the information you are seeking to be downloaded.
  • Allow the information to drop in. No matter how kooky or wild the information might seem. Just take pen to paper and allow it into your consciousness.

Other ideas:

  • Stay a little longer in bed. Juice that time between sleep and wakefulness. (Permission to sleep late.)
  • Check in with the sky. Cloud watch or star gaze. (Permission to look like an idiot on the street.)
  • Connect your body to nature with ongoing nature dates. Stick your feet in the sand, get wet in the ocean or hold gardening soil. (Permission to hug a tree.)

Connecting, going within, meditating, accessing the hypnagogic state—call your practice whatever you want, but do it regularly. For me, calling it connecting took the pressure off. It also allowed me to understand that I didn’t have to perform some magical ritual to experience that that rich realm of creativity. That realm was never very far.

If you want to try gaining some juicy tidbits from the slumber with the key:

Slow down, pay attention and ask the stars. And keep your notebook handy.

 

Photo by J A N U P R A S A D on Unsplash

Stuck!

Old fashioned image of a woman who is stuckI’m stuck in rhyming couplets! My verses won’t flow free.

Poetic devices, please: won’t you rescue me?

 

Alliteration is elusive.  She shuns my shriek and shout.

Symbolism opens a window, so why can’t I climb out?

 

Consonance couldn’t care less ‘bout my stress.

Yes, I’ve tried Similes.  They’re as good as useless.

 

I manage to catch Assonance as she prances past;

Man, that fancy Assonance can prance away fast!

 

Onomatopaeia bangs the bars, clangs and clatters the lock,

Then skips away, indifferent as the ticking of my clock.

 

I’ve got metaphors by the boatload, so why’s this ship still sinking?

Imagery by the great-garlic-truckload; still, my payload sits here, stinking.

 

Illusion’s no help, clearly—a shy guy, gone at a glance.

Hyperbole to the rescue? Not a one in a trillion chance.

 

Personification?  Please see above.  It’s there, abundantly.

In fact, are these couplets taunting me?  I think you’d call that, “Irony.”

 

My friend Free Verse has heard enough.  She frowns an artful frown,

Lays a cool hand over mine, and urges, “Put. The devices. Down.”

 

“Jettison convention! Ditch cliché! Find a more sophisticated way.

Rhyming couplets? Ridiculous! All rhyming, really, is passé!”

 

A Celtic laugh comes rollicking in. Limerick’s been eavesdroppin’!

Irish eyes roll to the heavens, as he snorts through his grin:

 

“Sophistication! Bah! A tired old rumor!”

“Write how you like, lass! Better yet, write with humor.”

 

Konnichiwa!” chimes a sweet voice anew.

Tell us, Haiku! What is your point of view?

 

“A Poem is a playground. It’s structure, for playing in.

Think of it as a promise, please—not as a prison.”

 

And with a “domo arigato” to graceful Haiku

The doors finally opened, and our caged poet flew!

 

Never again to feel stuck rhyming, or confined to a timing

Free instead to stick with, what for her, will ring out true.

 

Jen Laffler, poetJen Laffler is an author and poet.  Her first children’s book, J is for Jitterbug: A Fanciful Animal Alphabet, was published in 2016 (JALG, Ink).  Her current projects are a children’s board book entitled What Hairdo Does Your Hair Do?, and the children’s poetry collection Poem Seeds & Fine Messes.  Jen lives in Encinitas, California with her husband and three young daughters. She shares her books, poems, and message that there’s genius in each and every one of us, with school groups throughout California.  Jen’s poetic heroes? W. Shakespeare, S. Silverstein, and T. Shakur.  Connect with Jen on Facebook or on her website, Just A Genius, Ink.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1721918/ and Jen Laffler