Communing with Jane

I’m sick, the kids are sick, and Carl (also sick) is working a 12-14 hour day. Not our finest hours, for sure.

We are not entirely without consolation however. The June weather has been GORGEOUS here. Our backyard has smelled amazing for weeks on ends (full credit to lilacs, honeysuckle, and now the peonies). Iris finally hit her sicky sleep wall and has spent most of her morning so far snoozing peacefully on the couch. I went on a Disney DVD classics buying binge, and it’s been (mostly) fun to re/discover the magical world of Disney together. (I say mostly because Iris, totally cool with the Huns, was besides herself over the matchmaker in Mulan, shrieking “MEAN MEAN MEAN” literally 50 times straight until I finally turned the movie off which resulted, of course, in an even bigger meltdown. So… can’t win them all?).

And I am rereading all of Jane Austen’s novels. It’s my new summer goal (along with “CRUNCHES EVERY DAY IN JUNE,” affectionately known as “HAHAHA. SURE”).

I thought I was just going to do a refreshed on Emma about six weeks ago before diving into some contemporary literary fiction this summer. If you don’t know me in real life, I am always just on the cusp of diving into a contemporary fiction course of reading that will leave me well-read, knowledgable, and awesome. I never actually do it, naturally.

This time = business as usual. I read Emma, which resulted in a convo with my friend Michele about how we should reread P&P together (we did), which then turned into a texting book club with Michele and another friend as we all read through S&S, and now I’m in withdrawal from finishing that so Mansfield Park it is.

Ok and in my spare time I may also be writing S&S fan fiction—BUT I CAN EXPLAIN. It’s actually awesome and also I am only one healthy week away from transitioning Oliver out of our room and into the nursery, which means massive sleep deprivation ON THE OTHER SIDE OF WHICH I will again be able to think about a real writing schedule.

Writing fan fic is like my workout before the game, right?

Like the crunches I am totally not doing.


Creativity and Setting Limits

IMG_3508 copyExcited about mixed-media; discovering new magazines; Tinkerbell movies and playing with pixie dust; sap flow; maple syrup; spring; home renovation projects; memoir; writing; art; life; catching a miserable, horrible cold.

These were all things rocketing around my brain as I watched the kids get sleepy, just on the cusp of a nap, my mind already wandering ahead to my wordcatch of the day.

Things I wanted to write about. Ideas I wanted to express, capture, craft.

Limit-setting isn’t something we often think about in discussions of creativity, but for those of us hoping to make a career out of it, the two are mostly just flip sides of the same coin. There are the obvious connections, of course. If you’re not very good at limiting that Netflix habit, it’s awfully hard to pound out a 400 page novel.

But there are more subtle traps too.

I, for example, have grown a fat and disorderly desktop of half-finished art pieces since starting my Project 52. Having good ideas hasn’t been a problem. I’ve started watercolor illustrations for this book I also haven’t written, gotten half way through a zentangle inspired trio of north woods animals, played with geometrical shape paintings, and fallen in love with mixed media. (You guys, you get to include JOURNALING!!)

There is nothing wrong with any of these ideas.

But, hard truth alert: You can be the most creative person in the world and still have nothing to show for it at the end of the day.

Here are some of things I’ve been learning about setting limits lately:

1. Think of them as separate activities (and stay organized): this is classic advice, right? Any writer out there will tell you for the love of all that’s publishable not to waste your writing time looking up that one street name or researching 18th century surgical instruments. That’s solid advice, but I’ve also gotten swamped by coming up with too many interesting themes/characters/etc for one book, and then it turns into a saga, and before you know it you’ve landed in a diffuse trilogy. Just don’t. If you’re organized enough, you don’t even have to think about it. Set aside times to let your mind go crazy generating ideas and times for dedicated work. Whittle ideas down to the salient bones and then file accordingly. Characters; incidents; settings that made your mind explode with possibility.

2. Respect your creative energy (you only get so much of it). I was floored when I realized a few months ago that my output as a mom is about 50-75% what it was when I was writing full time. So, to rephrase: 8 hours of golden silence a day vs. two kids in two years, a variable sleep deficit, and 12-14 hour days 7 days a week. My productivity, it seems, has very little to do with having major responsibilities and a whole lot to do with focus and a drama-free lifestyle. I wasted a lot of time in those first couple of years feeling insecure about myself and my abilities, obsessing over family dramas and working to get clean from the codependency drama I grew up with. Having kids actually made life a lot simpler. I don’t have time for this, is basically my feeling about all interpersonal drama, and whatever it was that used to Hamlet it up in my brain about existential purpose has apparently died because I just don’t hear it anymore. I make no excuses for prioritizing peace. The fewer holes in my bucket, the more water I have when I get home. It really is that simple.

3. Focus on the things you’re gaining (clarity! complexity!). Setting limits often feel sad. There’s no way around that. If your crime-solving, hunchbacked ginger with PTSD and a penchant for donuts doesn’t ALSO play classical guitar and turn out to be his own nemesis in a denouement involved trap doors it can be sad. You’re allowed to mourn. On the other hand, think of what you’re gaining. Clarity is a hard-won gem, and clarity comes from restraint. One of my saddest days as a writer was the day I realized my novel would never work as it was because I’d written one of my supporting characters into a second protagonist. Can there be two protags? Of course, but not the way I’d set this book up. Since I loved both of them, the only nonbandaid solution was to rip the story in half and develop two separate books. Clunky and time-consuming. I’ll probably get around to it eventually, but the wind, as they say, is still knocked out of those sails. The other thing worth gaining is the possibility for complexity. Complexity isn’t just a lot of random, entry-level crap pasted together. There are a lot of great thrillers and epics out there, but for most of us wanting to write a rich, complex novel we’re probably going to have to write about something a little more specific than THE CIVIL WAR. You know?

I can not believe the kids are still sleeping. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go work on my oceanic mixed media project. BECAUSE I SWEAR I’M FINISHING THIS ONE BEFORE I START ANYTHING ELSE.

(Disclosure: I totally have a list in my journal of all the other great ideas I keep having).


My Own Personal Gandalf

IMG_3458One of the ripple effects of not being protected as a kid is a lingering skepticism and distrust of adults and authority figures. Looking back, I don’t think it’s surprising I found my most rewarding jobs caring for the elderly in nursing homes and psychiatric settings. I found the fragility of their bones and minds and spirits incredibly motivating, knowing that they needed me to eat, drink, wash, dress, not be alone in the unsettled landscape of their minds.

Old people. Children. Animals.

I’m less sure what to do with the self-possessed, the put-together, the women with blowouts and enviable work/life balance. If you’re still doing a lot of healing work, there can be something pretty shaming about people who have it together. And, admittedly, sometimes people who have it together could stand to work on their presentation skills (you’ve seen the “hot Facebook mom” post and backlash, right?).

So yeah. I’ve spent a lot of my life gravitating toward the less threatening types. Peers, people I can help.

There are benefits to this (like it’s awesome and low stress), but as I’ve gotten older I’ve also started to feel the down sides. The beautiful thing about two year olds is that they want to do everything for themselves. And truly: it’s a great way to learn. I am all about puzzles, for example, and I fully support letting kids dig through anything in the house that isn’t dangerous or fragile+sentimental. But there are other times—like getting out the door by 8:45—where it would be really awesome if your toddler would take your word for it when you explain how a shoe works.

I need some mentors in my life too.

Some wise women. Some grown ups. Some people who can tell me when I’m making amateur mistakes and how to save my energy for the real work of life.

The most obvious obstacle (ok, besides hating the phone and having no time for lunch) is that the world seems to be short on flinty-eyed, ambitious hacks who were also once stay-at-home moms with toddlers and a domestic streak. I would LOVE to find the complete package, but even small pieces would be awesome.

Basically Gandalf with a typewriter.

I feel like there has to be such a wealth of experience and insight and support out there. I’m just not sure how to find it. I’ve tried joining writers’ groups and participating in writerly things, but serious writers are hard to find. One surmises they are probably at home. Actually writing.

I’m keeping my eyes peeled, but in the spirit of Oprah, I am also putting my intention out there into the universe.

2014 would be a magnificent year for mentors.

The Slow Churn

The builder renovating our basement is the father of two sisters who have been my best friends since I was a kid. Like I don’t remember a time we weren’t up in each other’s kool aid, and we are two for two weddings as bridesmaids (but no pressure, Melanie. I kind of see you eloping in Turkmenistan on a whim anyway).

This morning, cajoling Iris out of her cocoa-stained pjs around nine-thirty and bouncing Oliver to sleep to the intermittent drilling of drywall, it occurred to me that even with her thirty years familiarity with me and hours upon hours of personality analysis over coffee and wine (but not at the same time because: gross)—even with living a mile away and getting together every week or two for Kardashian binges, Jennifer doesn’t really know the pacing of my days—or the construction quality of my home’s bones—in the same way her dad or any other type of in-home professional could just by doing the job at hand.

Different ways of knowing, different ways of viewing a life.

Of course, in the real world people are too busy living their own lives to pay much attention to other people. But because I’m writing a murder mystery, my brain is not exactly in the world of rational behavior.

Possibility is what interests me.

And I find it sort of fascinating to think about how two different people could have very different pictures of the same person—a sort of factual dailiness vs. analysis over coffee—and I wonder which would be more accurate in a crime scenario? More able to predict behavior? More insightful?

Not much, you know, but maybe the germ of something…

The Creative Life


All things considered, I’m calling the mole a success.

And after repeatedly watching my mother-in-law whip up homemade tortillas like it’s child’s play, I decided to give those a try too. My safety net was having Carl pick up a hot rotisserie chicken from the grocery store on his way home from work. Two new skills I can try, but let’s not be foolish. We wanted a good meal by the end of it, not an A for effort.

I went all Food Network and used Paula Deen’s recipe for the mole and Alton Brown’s for the tortillas. The only things I changed were a) not cooking the chicken IN the mole (a nice helping on the side, sort of soaking into the rice and chicken was delicious and allowed better control for the heat in the mole), and b) subbing veg shortening for the lard in the tortillas. Recipes are suggestions, right?

Of course, then we had extra tortilla dough in the fridge and had to buy chorizo so we could have a scrambled eggs and chorizo breakfast, scooped up with pieces of hot tortilla. “Did you use your fork?” I asked, as I was clearing the table later (we have no dishwasher, so every unused utensil is a small victory). Answer from the next room: “Forks are for rich white Americans.”

Ha. Well, I did walk into that one.

But what I MEANT to write about when I sat down this morning (and it was technically morning when I started musing on all this) was creativity. How much it permeates everything I most enjoy about life. How much I need it to be happy.

I actually think I’m only beginning to be comfortable with the idea of being a “creative person.” The term always seemed a bit loaded to me. Like you’re trying too hard, you know? Like those teenaged girls who will not shut up about how “weird” they are, because it’s vitally important to all be unique together. I never really thought of myself as a creative person, because I tended to live in a very performance/discipline oriented environment. So I didn’t think I was creative. I thought I was sort of lazy.

Well, I can also be sort of lazy, but that’s a different thing.

There’s good and bad to having a disciplined side. I’m still trying to sort out the interplay of creativity and discipline. Get too rigid with your word count per day or your deadlines and you can run the well dry. On the other hand, if you only work when the moon is full and your creative muse strikes… you never get anything done.

Coming off a six week stint of writer’s block, I know a lot of it had to do with expectations, repeated rejection, failure to manage and feed my creativity. There were other reasons too, but I think those topped the list.

It’s interesting watching it all come back: getting excited about new recipes, wanting to scrapbook during our lazy Sunday afternoon, churning out my 1,000 words per day, starting to tinker with ideas for a fantasy story on the side.

All forms of creativity are connected.

And thanks to a judicial amount of sunshine, I’m starting to feel good about it all again. I wish I understood it better, but I think there will always be ebb and flow in creative processes. That’s ok too.

All I know is I’ve got two solid writing days under my belt—where expectations were met without drama or suffering—and I’m looking at a third today. I’m still not feeling especially inspired about the novel, but at least I’m getting good work done. And when I check off my goals for the day, I’m letting myself work on a fantasy premise that’s been niggling at the back of my brain.

There’s an alluring outlaw element to creativity. A grass is greener thing. I always want to write MOST when I’m supposed to be doing something else. Work and school were my spurs in the past. Now my book is the “work” half,  the thing I can’t wait to finish so I can “play” with world-building in my other project.

Such is life.

I’m just glad to be getting my hands dirty again.

Tinkering with Perspective

Am back to work for realz today—a short day, anyway. Mel is popping by for lunch, and Carl had an early shoot which means (hopefully) an early return home, but somewhere in between said events I’m hoping for a scrap of inner calm and a dollop of creativity.

At least I know what project I’m going to work on. One of the several major flaws with Execution is the first-person narrative structure—fantastic for parts of the novel (like the opener and ending), not so great for others (like when she’s in prison for well over a hundred pages… Or trying to explain what’s going on with characters she barely knows….).

I was worried my only choice was between first person and third, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and tossed the ideas around with my writerly brother, and we may have come up with a compromise: multi-character first person.

It worked for William Faulkner, Wilkie Collins, Jodi Picoult, and—still more recently—Kathryn Stockett. So there you go. A trendy solution to a common problem.

Am going to confine the majority of the narrative to my protagonist, Charlotte, as before. Going to let her open and close the book, but am also planning to include some sections from the detective’s notebook and the other female lead. Enough to round out the story without losing sight of the main dilemma.

With any luck, it will also help with the flat character thing the agent complained about. Our eyes create depth with the information from only two perspectives. Maybe the principle holds true in books too.

Wish me luck. The first task is just to figure out which perspective would be most effective for each section. And I think I may have some ideas for the detective’s voice/style, so I think that’s where I’ll start.

Could be the salvation of the book. Could be a phenomenal waste of time. In other words about par for the course in writing.

At least it’s a gray, moisty day out. A perfect day for coffee and books, right?

Rocket Science

I really wish new outlooks were as easy to come by as new days—I mean, I understand not everyone gets a new day/life is uncertain. But you have to admit that in your experience 99.a-bunch-of-nines% of the people you know continue to get their new days right on schedule.

Which is mostly a good thing. I guess you could debate.

Anyway, the week of celebrations was lovely, but here it is Tuesday morning and I’m an hour or two late to my desk, be-robed, half-fed, a little headachy, not too sure about the day’s work.

The book is foundering a little. There’s an invisible brick wall somewhere around page 100 of a first draft—when you’ve climbed just far enough to start getting scared every time you look down. Or, here, maybe a rocket is a better metaphor: if you want to do something on that kind of scale, you’re going to need multiple tanks of fuel.

  • The first hundred pages run on enthusiasm.
  • The second hundred pages run on stubbornness (occasionally despair).
  • The third hundred pages run on new ideas and empty promises (“I can fix that later. Maybe HE took the knife. Whatever. It’ll look better next time)
  • The fourth hundred pages run on giddy  relief

In other words, I’ve reached the end of my blind enthusiasm for the project—which is normal at this stage but always feels like this huge, personal loss. Like maybe the book is going to fall apart and everything is RUINED. Death of a dream stuff, you know?

It can be hard to jettison the empty tank, but as long as we keep trying to draw from an empty one we’re not all that likely to keep moving forward.

I know. Rocket science.

Success through a long project depends on our ability to tap into new fuels. Unfortunately, most of the time we get caught up in which fuel is “right” or “the best” or all the shades of secret meanings and our obsessive sense of betrayal when one tank empties.

You see people doing this with relationships all the time—older couples posing sagely to warn the enthusiastic young marrieds that Life Is Hard and your partner will disappoint you and there will be much grittage of teeth, that youthful enthusiasm and romance are foolish and will never be enough to sustain you over your life so don’t be deceived by it’s shallow blooms, etc. etc.

Obviously every marriage is different, just like every book is different, just like every long project is different—from parenting to home repair. I get that. But I wonder whether sometimes we get too focused on drawing from our favorite tanks… when the truth is we have plenty of other tanks waiting for us when this one depletes. We just have to find them.

The tank of stubbornness might not be as much fun as the tank full of enthusiasm, but it’s not better or worse, not more profound or important. Getting embroiled in those kinds of thoughts just keeps us sidetracked from the point of our project as a whole. Whether or not I feel the way I think I should feel while writing a book is never more important than the actual book.

I guess that’s all I’m trying to say. It’s hard to turn off the constant inner judgments about what it means that I’m not as enthusiastic about my book right now or feeling that maybe it’s all going to pieces and I’ll never finish and blah blah MOAN.

But all that really means is my tank is empty and I’m sad about leaving it.

I can deal with that.

Here’s to long projects and creative energy solutions! Happy working, everybody.