Encouragement for the Overwhelmed Writer

Keep going. Don’t give up.

inch worm

 

An inch, a word at a time, will do.

Big things begin with small efforts.

 

 

 

 

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”                                                                                 Earnest Hemingway

 

 

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Cultivate one true thought and write it down.

Then do it again.

And again…

 

 

 

 

…until you have a story.

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Information Gluttony and Lack of Creativity Go Together

Recently, I’ve been struggling to write. I had the seed of a story that wouldn’t sprout. I brainstormed and jotted down some notes, but in the end, my setting was boring, my characters were clichéd, and my premise was just dumb.

I was stuck.

So I did what I usually do when I need inspiration: I scoured the web. I turned to my favorite writing blogs and podcasts — rich sources of encouragement and instruction over the last five years. I watched videos. I opened the newsletter emails I subscribe to. I pulled out my favorite books on crafting fiction and ordered new ones.

The muse was silent.

I doubled my efforts. Every spare minute, I read another article or listened to more of my favorite writing podcasts until I was steeped in information, as if I expected to fix my writing by osmosis.

But my mind was waterlogged by other writers’ advice. I was inadvertently drowning out my own voice.

Don’t misunderstand me: it’s helpful to draw from the well of others’ experiences; we all need teachers. I’m grateful for authors and editors who share their knowledge. What would I have done without them?

But if we rely too heavily on outside sources, if we never trust our own instincts, we may become stunted.

“We are most original when we are most ourselves.” Rebecca McClanahan

It’s harder to be myself when various voices are shouting the rules in my head — when I’ve consumed too much advice, too many rules, too many instructions.

At some point, I must stop procrastinating because I have enough information. I HAVE ENOUGH.

For me, creativity blooms with white space. Mental white space. So instead of taking in another brilliant podcast about plotting, I should take a walk instead. Or sit on the rock in front of my pond and let my imagination wonder.20150908_231813959_iOS

Even bite-size tweets and Pinterest memes add clutter to my mind like salty French fries add pounds. Too many articles and blog posts and podcasts lead to information gluttony. The resulting bloat doesn’t feed my creativity. It stifles it.

I need a mental environment where creativity can grow. Here are a few things that seem to help:

  • Information fasting. Limiting outside voices (podcasts, emails, blogs, articles, news).
  • “Brain-dumping” on 750words.com. When problems mount and anxiety overwhelms, it’s hard to concentrate. Pouring out my worries (often as prayers) helps unload these burdens.
  • Stay home. Take on fewer activities. Accept fewer invitations. Run fewer errands. Stilling my body stills my mind.
  • Solitude. This might mean waking early before anyone else (sometimes insomnia is a good thing). Or taking a long walk, which, yes, is not being still, but it feels like “cleansing movement.”
  • Knitting.More cleansing movement. When my hands are busy, my mind can rest.
  • Focusing on small things.

Nigel sitting up (Daniel's)

Like watching my tuxedo cat bathe himself. Nigel licks his paw and draws it over his face starting at his eyes, reaching further with each stroke until he has cleaned behind his ears. His sandpaper-tongue catches my skin as he considers my hand an extension of his body.

Focusing on one small action is the opposite of multi-tasking. It’s a luxury. It calms and clears the mind.

 

Photo by Daniel McLendon

I hope these practical suggestions will help someone else, too. In the last week I’ve realized how much my mindset also smothers my creativity, but that’s a post for another day.

 

Life as an HSP

What is Wrong with Me?

I stand before the metal door and grit my teeth. A woman’s scream comes from the other side. Then an explosion. I take a deep breath and release it slowly. I can do this, I tell myself. I’ve come armed.
I reach into my jacket pocket and pull out my gummy, orange earplugs, stick them in my ears, and open the door. . .

If you’ve ever taken earplugs to a movie theatre, you also might be an HSP–a Highly Sensitive Person.

If perfume gives you a headache, if those bright fluorescent lights in the grocery store make you squint, if flashing images and crowds drain you, you might be an HSP.pexels-photo-196652.jpeg

Why Am I Different?

Since I was a child, I’ve known I was more sensitive to external stimuli than most people. My mother says that even when I was a baby, she couldn’t take me out to restaurants or stores because I would cry inconsolably.
Now, I manage to buy my groceries without weeping, though I avoid busy shopping times. And I love to eat out, though I prefer quiet restaurants.
I still can’t keep up with my amazing friends who work full-time, run marathons, chair committees, volunteer, all while rearing five children. This used to bother me. Actually, it depressed me. I felt like I was “less than,” or “not enough.” Deficient. Why was I so tired and overwhelmed when I did half the activities of my energetic friends?

A Revelation

Then, when I was thirty-something, I read Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person, and the light dawned: I had Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
Now I know that as I go through my day, I am more affected by the noise and lights and crowds than the majority of people. I am well aware of a change in the weather, which, unfortunately, gives me a migraine.
On the flip side, I pick up on micro expressions and slight gestures. I can often read friends’ and strangers’ moods. I’m the first to smell smoke when green beans are burning on the stove.
I notice the beauty of small things.IMG_1132 (1)
Any other HSP’s out there? How has it affected your life? What little (or big) changes have you made to cope?

Tips for Fast Writing

In my last post, I talked about my dream of writing a novel and the greatest challenge I faced: finding the time to do it. To calculate how long it would take me, I used the equation

Story = Speed x Time.

I figured that if I wrote 500 words in an hour each day, it would take 160 days. But Time is only one variable in the equation—Speed is the other.dripping faucet

Five hundred words per hour is a lot for this tortoise writer. I deliberate over every word, then second-guess, strike out, and rewrite. (While I’ve been working on this post, I’ve deleted my beginning at least four times!) On some days, words drip one at a time, like a slow leak.

Speed is not about “fast and furious” writing that lacks cohesion, logic, and emotional impact. It’s about flow. A steady stream of words that spring up from a well of abundant ideas.

flowing water

Finding the Flow

1. Prepare by brainstorming.

This fills the well. I think about plot, characters, and setting details in advance. Since my time is short, I usually hatch ideas while doing other things. (Most of my thoughts for this blog post came while I was driving, fixing sandwiches, and doing laundry.) I like to collect my ideas in a Word document separated by category using the “Headings” feature. The categories I use are Plot, Characters, Setting, Themes, Dialogue, and Humor.

2. Work from an outline.

Ugh! The pantser in me doesn’t want to plan. I want my fingers to dance unshackled across the keyboard as they serve the whims of inspiration.

A Pantser’s definition of outline

[out-lahyn]    1. an unnecessary restraint designed to crush your imagination and suck all life from your story.

Example of outline used in a sentence: “The editor’s eyes gleamed with evil pleasure as he said, “Your story lacks consistency because you did not use an outline.”

Outlining is akin to eating your vegetables before you get dessert. It helps if you have cheese sauce to pour over your broccoli, and the sauce that makes outlining palatable is to think of it as drawing—like an artist would sketch a figure before painting. (That’s not quite a mixed metaphor, is it?) It’s a part of the creative process. And an outline need not be detailed. A broad brush will do. One or two sentences per scene.

I’ll be honest. I usually write out a rough outline for my story, but then I change it as I go. I don’t believe I’ve ever stuck with an outline. Still, the outline helps me write faster because I’m not stalled by indecision, and I avoid tangential rabbit holes that make no sense for the story.

3. Free write.

This is the opposite of outlining–not so helpful for plotting, but very useful for overcoming blocks, laziness, and bumps in your story. Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Write as fast as you can without stopping to edit. Write anything. Write nonsense. Be repetitive. Free writing obeys no rules. It breaks the inner editor’s suffocating grip and liberates you to write whatever comes to mind without worrying about grammar, spelling, or diction. You can do this in a document or try 750words.com. The site provides a free, private, blank page for daily writing. When you reach your word count for the day, it congratulates you. It even tracks your progress for the month.

4. Walk.

Something about the blood pulsing through my body jumpstarts my brain. If I’m perplexed about how to continue with plot or dialogue, fifteen minutes of walking usually gives me a solution. And moving to music, especially soundtracks such as this one from Home Fires, revs up my imagination.

5. Take a nap.

This might seem counterproductive, but it saves time in the long run. My output slows to a trickle when I’m tired or drowsy. After a short snooze, I’m twice as productive.

A Word about Dictation

Though I have not successfully used dictation, other writers claim it has accelerated their writing process. Author Joanna Penn talks about it here. My own attempts have been frustrating. I tried to dictate into a Word document using my smartphone, but I have to press the little microphone tab every thirty seconds or so. Mostly I produced gobbledygook.

I may purchase a recording device and some transcription software. If anyone has experience with this, I’d love to hear from you before I make that investment. Also, do you have any tricks for writing faster? Have you done the math? How many words per hour (wph) can you write?

 

Story = Speed x Time

When I turned fifty, I realized more than half my life was over, and I still hadn’t pursued my childhood dream of writing a book. I’d buried this desire deep under a pile of worthwhile obligations, self-doubt, and busyness—much of which amounted to mere people-pleasing. I put everything ahead of the dream.

But when I celebrated that milestone birthday, I felt a sense of urgency. I didn’t want to reach the end of my life never having tried. So I made writing a priority.

The Plan

If I really wanted to publish a book, I had to find the time to do it. It came down to numbers:

500 words x 160 hours = 80,000 word novel

If I can write 500 words an hour, I told myself, I’ll finish my first draft in 160 hours. Writing an hour each day, that’s 160 days.

Or maybe, I thought, I can dash off a thousand words an hour and finish twice as fast.

1000 words x 80 hours = 80,000 word novel

At this rate I would complete the rough draft in less than three months. I liked that plan.

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The Problem

After an enthusiastic and naïve launch, I nose-dived into reality: most days I didn’t have an hour of quiet leisure to write.

I had read all the advice to

write first thing in the morning,

guard your writing time,

find a quiet place.

But for me, these wise recommendations became excuses for not starting each day. The reasonable voice of Resistance* would tell me, “It’s noisy in the house. And you only have fifteen minutes before you have to cook supper. Might as well check Twitter instead.”

A few months ago, after I failed to write for several days and the frustration mounted, it hit me: finding enough time is less about changing my circumstances and more about changing my thinking. Finding enough time starts in my mind.

Don’t Despise the Day of Small Things: Snatching Bits of Time

My insistence on perfect conditions was keeping me from using what time I had. I’d made a few erroneous assumptions:

1)      I need solitude.

Of course, it’s easier if I’m alone and the room is quiet and no one is interrupting. Yes, it’s less efficient to write while surrounded by distractions, but maximum efficiency is a luxury. Perfectionist thinking told me I couldn’t be creative unless I had seclusion. This is false.

2)      I need a large block of time.

Nope. I can do things in spurts. Ten minutes here. Five minutes there. An hour-long session would be the bee’s knees, but I’m amazed by how much I can accomplish piecemeal. Again, I had to drop the all-or-nothing thinking.

3)      I need a designated place and hour, i.e. my easy chair in the morning with the cat by my side.

Now I snatch moments in various places. I write on the go. I have Microsoft Word on my phone, and if I’m sitting in the waiting room at the ophthalmologist’s office, I compose a few sentences or jot down a few notes.

If, like me, you can’t follow the recommended practices of other authors, don’t despair. Find what works for you. If you can take activities off your schedule, do it. If you can delegate tasks, do it. If, instead of cooking, you can order Chinese takeout, make that call. Then, after you’ve cut the deadwood from your to-do list and your calendar, find a way to write with your life as it is, not as you wish it could be.

I’m curious to know if other people struggle with this. Leave me a comment if you have other thoughts or suggestions.

In the next post I’ll talk about Speed.

 

*Author Steven Pressfield talks a lot about the evil monster Resistance in his books on writing. You can find him here.

 

Bee’s Knees, and Other Swell Expressions

I woke up this morning in a contemplative mood. I was pondering grief, death, and the etymology of the phrase bee’s knees.

What in tarnation does it mean? Do bees have knees?

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I was certain this expression, which means “fantastic, supreme,” must be an Americanism from the 1920’s, a renaissance for slang.

Fiddlesticks! According to language specialist Matthew Male at Future Perfect, it isn’t American at all. The term derives from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   

” . . . that but this blow/Might be the be-all and the end-all. . . ”  (I.vii.4ff)

The phrase “be-all and end-all” became a popular saying. It was so familiar that people shortened it to “the B’s and E’s.”

“B’s and E’s.” Say that five times really fast. What does it sound like? Right ho! There you have it.

That brings me to swell. Dictionary.com says it was first used to mean “good, excellent” in 1897, much earlier than I thought:

“The riverboat was swell!” said the dapper gentleman in the white, straw hat.

Later, in 1930, it emerged as a stand-alone interjection:

Joe asked, “How was the grammar lecture?”

“Swell!” George said, beaming.

A synonym of swell, and one I’ve also wondered about, is hunky-dory. According to phrases.org.uk, the first record of this expression is from an American (with possible Irish influence) song. Again, it did not originate in the Roaring 20’s but much earlier: 1862. Here are the lyrics which I quote from the website:

Hunkey Dorey

One of the boys am I,
That always am in clover;
With spirits light and high,
‘Tis well I’m known all over.
I am always to be found,
A singing in my glory;
With your smiling faces round,
‘Tis then I’m hunkey dorey. 

And on that note, I will sign-off, hoping your day is the bee’s knees.

 

 

The Cranky Cure: My Favorite Writing Podcasts

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I’ve never been called a stellar housekeeper. No doubt this is due to my high tolerance for disorder and dirt.

But I have my limits.

When I can scrawl my name in the dust on the hall table, I know it’s time to pull out the Pledge. But as I’m dusting, I’m thinking, I wish I were writing!

On these days, when I’m frustrated with the necessity of housework and other chores, I console myself by multitasking with a podcast about writing. I feel super productive (and less grumpy) as I simultaneously clean the house and learn how to clean up a manuscript.  And washing yesterday’s dishes is infinitely more entertaining while I’m listening to Brandon Sanderson discuss limited third person point of view.

Here are my favorite writing podcasts in no particular order:

1) Writing Excuses

Hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. This is the first writing podcast I ever heard, and even in my literary ignorance, I knew I’d stumbled upon a treasure. The site has archived twelve seasons of episodes covering a slew of writing topics. And lucky for us, they continue to post a new program every Sunday.

2) The Creative Penn

Joanna Penn is the authority on self-publishing and becoming an author entrepreneur. Many of her podcasts focus on the business side of things, but a fair number also tackle creative and writing topics. I could listen to Joanna’s lovely British accent all day, and sometimes I do.

3) The Worried Writer

I found this one only a few months ago, but from the first episode, it became a favorite. Sarah Painter, aka, the Worried Writer, interviews authors about their writing processes and concerns. Her advice about overcoming fear-based procrastination and her encouraging, gentle Scottish voice have helped this anxious scribbler many times. New programs post on the first day of each month.

4) The Story Grid Podcast

Tim Grahl and editor Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, discuss various details of novel writing as Shawn guides Tim from page one of his story to “The End.”

5) The Bestseller Experiment

These guys win first prize for Zany British Humor, or rather, humour. The Two Marks–Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux–interview big-name authors about the writing process and publishing.  Highly informative and entertaining. They will make you smile.

I’d love to hear about other good writing podcasts. If you have any recommendations, let me know in the comments.