Creativity and Productivity, Writing/Rewriting

Prize-Winning Dandelions and the Best Time to Write: What I Learned in 2014

Last year was one of the busiest I’ve had in a long time. Here is some of what I learned:

1. Teaching is much harder than it looks. After teaching intro composition at a college last year, I have a profound appreciation and admiration for teachers. The work is hard, it is intense, it is close to never-ending. If you want to know what teachers go through for those tiny glimmers of satisfaction when they’ve reached just one student or you want to understand why our education system is struggling, try teaching.

Failing that, read Sarah Blaine’s excellent piece on the Washington Post blog: “You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.” 

A slice of my overgrown vegetable garden in late September. It took days to clear it and taught me a valuable lesson about being proactive.
A slice of my overgrown vegetable garden in late September. It took days to clear it and taught me a valuable lesson about being proactive.

2. Relocating is even more disruptive than you think. Years ago, a friend told me about a study that measured test subjects’ ability to estimate how long it would take to do a specific task. The researchers were looking for what defined under- vs. over-estimators. Since then, I have concluded that I am a chronic under-estimator, especially when it comes to complex projects (I have learned to pad the schedules I develop for my job.)

I figured moving several hundred miles up the East Coast and embracing a rural lifestyle would be time-consuming, but I didn’t anticipate the energy I’d have to expend on things as mundane as finding a dentist or hairdresser. And when did adopting a dog become so complicated?

Six months later, most of my books are still packed away in boxes (awaiting new bookshelves), and to my deep regret, my pottery wheel sits unused. Other tasks and work have taken precedence, like switching car titles and driver’s licenses to a new state and updating my address and phone number for umpteen credit cards, bank accounts and subscriptions — not to mention stacking firewood, putting up electric fences, and pulling some of the largest dandelions and other weeds I’ve ever seen from the neglected vegetable plot (see #3 below). If the state fair had a category for biggest dandelion, I’d win hands-down, as long as I could keep our geese from eating them all.

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Creativity and Productivity, Writing/Rewriting

Writing When You Only Have Moments to Spare

To follow up on my earlier post about “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.,” the DVD version features a fascinating conversation among the show’s writers, who came together to talk about the experience of creating 27 episodes in one season.

They described a “war-like environment” and some pretty insane deadlines — perhaps best summed up by what David Simkins, who had previously only written films, said he learned from the veteran writers:

Features shoot whenever; television shoots on Tuesdays.


Many of the writers were just starting out, but they all went on to be “showrunners” in their own right and worked on the likes of “Lost,” “Charmed” and “Hell on Wheels.”

They told funny stories of learning that an off-hand, poetic comment on a script, such as “He shoots up from the water like a Polaris missile,” can prompt a frenzied response from the producers and crew as they try to figure out how to create that effect on screen.

But what really grabbed my attention was John Wirth saying Tom Chehak taught him to never turn his computer off:

Whatever we were doing, whenever Tom would do a fly-by past his desk, he would sit down and he would write another line of the script, or two lines, or a scene or whatever. Whenever he had a moment, he was getting back to that script, and that’s how his scripts got written.

That discipline and that ability to keep at something when he only had moments to spare meant Chehak was heading home for dinner when the rest of the writers were just getting started on their scripts.

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Creativity and Productivity, Writing/Rewriting

The Art of Revision — And Why You Should Love It

Writing, like just about any creative pursuit, is a process. That process begins with exploring ideas, writing a first draft (which is where many people romantically think writing ends) and then revising, revising, revising.

Writers who are now in the throes of National Novel Writing Month are in that starry-eyed first-draft stage. That is a necessary step, but it isn’t where the writing process ends.

“Red Pen” by Jenny Kaczorowski is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
“Red Pen” by Jenny Kaczorowski is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

When I taught intro composition at a community college last spring, the students didn’t bat an eye when in the very first class, I asked them to write about their experiences with writing and what they wanted to learn. They were used to doing that sort of free writing in high school, and most of them liked it. After all, it was the easy part.

I quickly learned that though many of them knew how to write, they knew almost nothing about rewriting. They were dubious and some looked panic-stricken when I explained that revision was a necessary step that typically takes much longer than it does to write a first draft.

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Creativity and Productivity, Researching Historical Fiction

The Pleasures of Stacking Firewood

Since I moved (see previous post), my life is busy in different ways. Here are some of my new distractions: caring for the three geese and one duck we inherited from the previous owners, maintaining an amazing series of gardens, and hauling and stacking firewood for our furnace.

Wood is cheaper to burn than any other fuel in these parts, and there is something about the smell of charred wood that is almost primal. It lingers in the garage, where the furnace is, and on humid days, I often catch a whiff of it. It is a smell of warmth and comfort, and it brings back fond memories of camping trips. Continue reading

Creativity and Productivity, Writing/Rewriting

Why I Haven’t Been Blogging: Part 2

My teaching gig ended in May, and in June, I packed up and moved several hundred miles up the East Coast. More dramatically, I moved from bustling suburban sprawl (and a townhouse whose tiny yard was little bigger than the back deck) to five beautiful acres on the outskirts of a small New England town.

Nothing like a wholesale lifestyle change to knock you out of your routine.

anemone and chicken coopMy life now involves less time stuck in traffic (I still have my day job, but I do it all remotely) and more time to enjoy nature and simply slow down. Will the change be good for my writing life? There are two schools of thought on that.

Continue reading

Creativity and Productivity, Women in the West, Writing/Rewriting

Why I Haven’t Been Blogging: Part 1

It’s been a while since my last post, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve been busy in unexpected ways.

I was making some good progress on restructuring my novel when I got an offer to teach intro composition at the local community college. I had some concerns about maintaining my writing schedule, but I naively thought I could do it all.

I was in for a rude awakening. Teaching is the hardest work I’ve ever done. Nothing could have prepared me for standing in front of 26 students twice a week with a range of skill levels (and ages) and trying to inspire them to love writing. Fortunately, some of them already did and the others, for the most part, saw the value of it to their careers. And then there were a few who used to like writing. Those were the ones I really wanted to reach.

Blanche LaMont and her students pose in front of their schoolhouse in Hecla, Montana, in 1893.
Blanche LaMont and her students pose in front of their schoolhouse in Hecla, Montana, in 1893.

Beyond the time involved in preparing a syllabus for an entire semester and preparing for each individual class, there were assignments to grade and emails to respond to and various administrative tasks. But the biggest challenge was the time we spent together.

As someone recently described it to me, you have to be present when you’re teaching. You can’t show up unprepared and daydream your way through class (especially if you don’t want your students to do the same). We aren’t used to maintaining that sort of mindfulness in our daily lives. We’re always multitasking, easily distracted, thinking about the next task we have to tackle before we’ve even finished the current one.

Being present and open at that level also requires giving up some control and acknowledging that things just might not go the way you had planned. Some lessons move more quickly than you anticipated, and something you threw together at the last minute ends up catching their attention and inspiring a half-hour discussion. Getting the students to open up and start talking was a surprisingly difficult process, and once I got them going, I had the equally hard work of keeping them on topic.

It’s not unlike the writing process. You sit down to write a scene or a chapter with the thing all pictured in your head, and then a minor character pipes up demanding attention and something else needs exploring — or, conversely, something you thought would be complicated to express turns out to be easy. And always there’s the need to keep everyone heading in the same general direction.

So unfortunately, my novel fell by the wayside and my blog along with it. But I learned a lot about writing by teaching others how to do it. I also learned that the more we try to impose our will and plow ahead without stopping to listen, the harder we make our jobs — as writers and as teachers.

Historical footnote: I’ve always been fond of the photo of Blanche and her students, but in tracking down a version I could use online, I was saddened to learn that she was murdered in San Francisco two years after the photo was taken. Her sometime boyfriend Theo Durrant was convicted of killing her and another woman in a sensational trial.

Hotel Rwanda DVD
Creativity and Productivity, Writing/Rewriting

Writing inspiration from Don Cheadle

Hotel Rwanda DVDWhen I was driving the other day, I caught an interview with actor Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Traitor,” “House of Lies”) on NPR. He struck me as a thoughtful, open, honest man.

He was asked what advice he would give to actors trying to break into the business. He said it’s more difficult now than when he started out nearly 30 years ago because even TV shows have big-name actors. Then he said something surprising:

I always encourage people to, if they want to really work on getting into this business, to be writers first. Don’t worry about being an actor first, be a writer. Create something. Own it and then…the world is yours. You can really dictate the terms of how that will happen and that’s only going to happen because unique, creative, interesting voices and stories are coming up, you know. Don’t try to run down the same lane that people have done before. Create your own lane.

He was underscoring the notion that even in this age of entertainment saturation, writers have power, and the stories we create from our own quirky, individual perspectives have value. People are hungry for them. (I think the popularity of “Breaking Bad” is a testament to that hunger.)

Don Cheadle’s words were my affirmation for the day and proof that, once in a great while, there is an upside to getting stuck in traffic.

Creativity and Productivity

The value of play

I’ve been trying another technique Roseanne Bane recommends in “Around the Writer’s Block” — something she calls Process and I call playtime.

Japanese printIt’s about doing something fun that puts you in the creative flow. Her argument is that by engaging in creative play for play’s sake, you increase your ability to draw on your creative power when you sit down to write.

It’s another aspect of brain science. The left hemisphere of the brain — the analytical and detail-oriented side — compares and judges everything. It values efficiency and getting things done. For the left brain, time is measurable and sequential.

For the right hemisphere, time is fluid or even unimportant. It lives in the present moment and processes information slowly. Playtime is right brain activity. It’s about forgetting boundaries and time constraints. And it’s about opening yourself up to possibilities that the left brain can then whip into shape.

Bane’s list of suggestions for playtime includes many activities I already engage in, which further piqued my interest:

  • Journaling
  • Coloring
  • Sketching and/or painting
  • Playing with clay
  • Taking photos
  • Knitting

Bane advises doing 15 to 30 minutes of playtime a day, five to six days a week, and before you even get started, she warns you to be prepared to ignore your left brain’s protests that you’re wasting valuable time. She recommends scheduling playtime first thing in the morning. Because my writing sessions are typically in the morning and because I am slow to get focused anyway, I decided to start with 10 to 15 minutes of playtime.

I was skeptical at first, but now I am a believer.

I bought a book of Japanese prints at the craft store and pulled out my colored pencils. The first time I tried it, I lost myself in the pleasure of painting with color. The time flew by and I was disappointed when my trusty timer went off. All that chatter in my head about chores and deadlines that would have been so distracting if I was trying to write just fell away. And when I sat down at my desk to write, I felt looser.

Now I look forward to playtime and try to do it at the beginning of all my writing sessions. It clears my head and redirects my brain. It calms me, and I am more productive afterward.

Give playtime a try. Keep it fun and light, and as with all things writing related, start with small commitments you can honor. And let me know which playtime activity works for you.

Creativity and Productivity

Using a timer to break down resistance

timerAmong the tricks in Roseanne Bane’s “Around the Writer’s Block” is one I’ve heard elsewhere: using a timer to get yourself to sit still long enough to focus. I recently gave it a try and now I’m hooked.

I often spin my wheels and take a long time to settle down during a writing session, but if I set the timer for 30 minutes and tell myself I just have to stay at my desk for that long, I can more easily resist the urge to jump up and do one more little (unrelated) thing before I start writing.

I use the timer function on my Android tablet. I close the cover and start working. I can check the time I have left, but that involves “waking” the tablet and logging in. I usually just keep going, trusting the alarm to go off when the time is up. And that’s the magical thing: I calm down and dive right in and before I know it, the 30 minutes are up. If I’m in the flow, I punch in another 20 or 30 minutes and sail on.

It sounds counterintuitive, but starting that timer somehow liberates me. By breaking up a session into chunks and forcing myself to take a short break in between (I even time the breaks), I can work longer and I’m more productive.

The timer also frees me from the distraction of constantly checking the clock out of fear that I’ll lose track of time and wind up late for work (it has happened).

Pick an amount of time that works for you. And any kind of timer will do, as long as it’s not the kind that ticks. Hearing the seconds clicking away is an even bigger, more paralyzing distraction you don’t need!

Creativity and Productivity, Resources and Events for Writers

The science behind writer’s block

Around-the-Writers-BlockWe’ve all experienced it, that feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach when you sit down to write. When all the negative feedback you’ve ever gotten and the prospect of the hard work ahead of you is overwhelming to the point that you’d rather do anything — vacuum, alphabetize your book collection, clean out the garage — than write.

There is frustration inherent in any artistic pursuit, but it seems to be especially pronounced in writers. Hundreds of books and articles are written about writer’s block, but you don’t see the same attention paid to painter’s or sculptor’s or basket weaver’s block.

I suspect it has something to do with the verbal nature of our work. (And maybe writers are a little more neurotic than other artists, but that’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum.) I recently found myself having a harder time than usual sitting down to write, so I picked up “Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance” by Rosanne Bane looking for some useful strategies. Bane has a wealth of them, and I was fascinated by her explanation of how our brains work.

She says resistance is part of the writing life, and it reveals itself as:

  • Freezing — the most obvious form of writer’s block, when our minds go blank and we start to panic.
  • Fighting — including self-criticism and refusing to hear others’ suggestions for revision (who hasn’t been there?).
  • Fleeing — giving in to distractions, overscheduling or overcommitting to other priorities, procrastination in all its forms.

When you’re writing, you rely on your cerebral cortex, which handles problem-solving, language and numbers. It’s what allows you to create and motivate yourself. In other words, it’s the part of your brain that cares about writing and has the tools necessary to do it.

You have to be relaxed for the cerebral cortex to be in charge. As soon as you feel that first prickle of anxiety about writing, the limbic system (your fight-or-flight response) takes over and engages the amygdala, which releases stress hormones. The limbic system is solely focused on the need to stay alive and safe, so it naturally sees creativity as a waste of time and energy.

Unfortunately, the cortex is not good at knowing when the limbic system has taken control — and the latter system lacks speech. Think about that: The part of the brain that’s in charge is incapable of putting anything into words. It’s the worst possible situation for a writer.

In its frustration, the cortex tries to explain your inability to write in those circumstances, and it comes up with: “I’m lazy. I’m undisciplined. I’m afraid of failure (or success). I don’t really want to write.” Sound familiar?

The good news is that you can overcome writer’s block. Bane offers lots of concrete techniques and strategies for outwitting resistance, some of which I have already put to good use. More on that next time.

Creativity and Productivity

How to log more writing time

The most useful piece of writing advice I have ever read—and followed—is Gregory Martin’s treadmill journal technique.

Martin, who teaches at the University of New Mexico, cuts through the romanticism of only writing when you’re inspired and said students who believe writing should be fun and spontaneous “become highly accomplished at writing unpublishable first drafts.”

Instead, he emphasizes the importance of discipline—and keeping track of your progress. He calls his daily writing journal a treadmill journal because

it’s hard to romanticize a treadmill. But you can’t get in shape if you jog two miles every few weeks, and trying to write a meaningful piece of literature is like training for a marathon.

Click here for a PDF of Martin’s article in The Writer magazine.

Recent entries in my treadmill journal
Recent entries in my treadmill journal

Here is his method, with my variations.

In a small notebook, I devote one page to each writing session. On each page, I write:

1. The date.

2. What time I am starting to write and when I expect to stop. Most often, I am writing on weekday mornings and have to be at my job at a specific time. I rarely have the luxury of open-ended writing sessions.

3. What I will work on. I am as specific as possible about which scene, which plot problem, which piece of dialogue I will tackle.

4. A few notes at the end of the session describing how things went. It’s a chance to pat myself on the back for accomplishing what I set out to do, or simply acknowledge that I showed up for my writing session even if I don’t have much to show for it. It helps reinforce the habit of writing.

Then I fill out 1 and 2 on the next page of the journal, so in essence, I’m scheduling my next session. I typically address #3 as well by noting where I want to pick up next time.

Martin recommends writing 18 hours a week—three hours a day, six days a week. I block out my available writing hours a week or even a month ahead of time. My ability to hit that 18-hour target varies wildly, but I would never come close or even log 20 or 25 hours on an especially good week if I didn’t have a treadmill journal. And it’s invaluable for helping me remember what I need to do next.

It has changed my life as a writer. And it’s such a simple thing. Give it a try! And let me know how it goes.

American Civil War, Creativity and Productivity, Researching Historical Fiction

A pawn’s-eye view of the Second Battle of Manassas

I know there are people who go to battlefields to get a sense of the grand, strategic sweep of the thing, to study tactics and imagine armies arrayed like chess pieces across the fields and hills. But I am much more interested in the individual soldier’s experience.

The guides at Manassas National Battlefield Park are adept at telling both types of stories. I’ve been hooked ever since I listened in on part of a tour of the first battle of Manassas, when a park ranger quoted from a soldier’s letter that described the cornstalks soaked with blood.

I was lucky enough to have a personal introduction to the sprawling second battle of Manassas when I went to the battlefield last week and no one else showed up for the scheduled tour.

The tour started at Brawner Farm, site of the opening clash of the battle. Confederate and Union troops faced each other across a distance that was only 80 yards apart in places. (I believe it was the largest standup infantry fight of the war.) As darkness fell and the stars came out, soldiers aimed at the opposing troops’ muzzle flashes. In two hours of brutal fighting, 2,300 of the 7,000 men who’d fought lay dead or wounded.

The guide said the wounded were left to fend for themselves. When Union troops returned later to bury the dead, they were chased off by Confederate cavalry. When I asked what options those wounded soldiers had, the guide said many of them would have been tended by Confederate doctors (and likely imprisoned) if they couldn’t make their way to a Union field hospital. But one officer with a head wound dragged himself into the woods and died six days later — of pneumonia.

Looking southwest toward the fence marking part of the line of fighting on the opening evening of the Second Battle of Manassas. One in every three men who fought became casualties on that first night.
Looking southwest toward the fence marking part of the line of fighting on the opening evening of the Second Battle of Manassas. One in every three men who fought became casualties on that first night.

The notion of leaving the wounded behind distracted me so much that it didn’t occur to me until later to ask how historians knew how and when the man had died. Did he keep a diary that was miraculously found intact? Did someone come upon him just before he died? Or was he captured or rescued?

I was thinking about a character in my novel who is wounded in the war. Standing on that battlefield and hearing the stories really brought home how harrowing it would have been to be grievously wounded in battle and unable to get to safety and medical care.

Here are the other tidbits that caught my attention: The four Union brigade commanders in Brig. Gen. Rufus King’s division disliked one another to the point of refusing to go into battle even when another brigade was losing badly. Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell went looking for Maj. Gen. John Pope before the battle started and got lost in the woods for 12 hours. King was not able to command because he had suffered an epileptic seizure. And one of the generals (I’ve forgotten which one) lost his voice and had to whisper orders to his adjutant to shout to the soldiers in the heat of battle.

And that was just the first evening of the battle. There were two full days yet to come.

The view from Battery Heights at Manassas battlefield. The shade of this lovely old tree would have been a restful spot to read a book on a hot day when the chores are done.
The view from Battery Heights at Manassas battlefield. The shade of this lovely old tree would have been a restful spot to read a book on a hot day when the chores are done.

After my tour last week, I wandered around the battlefield for a couple hours. It was a warm, sunny day and I had the place to myself — just me and the grasshoppers and bluebirds and turkey vultures soaring overhead and the grasses swaying in the breeze. I was in heaven.