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Well my snow dreams have come true and last week a foot of snow fell on our area. And it’s still here. An unusual circumstance in the Willamette Valley, though I’m now living further east in the valley and closer to the Cascades. It was a snowfall to delight children, wet and heavy, perfect for forming snowmen and lovely enough to delight anyone who appreciates beauty that comes wrapped in winter. I walked as it came down in a white whisper, rose before dawn to be alone outdoors in the hush as it continued to frost branches and bushes, and later stepped out at night to witness pearly moonlight streaming down on the laden trees and glimmering ground. And then it turned to ice.
So I’ve been sequestered indoors a lot. I finished editing a client’s manuscript, I’ve puttered, made soups and one-pot meals, I dreamt so vividly of living in Victorian times that when I awoke in the 21st Century I was truly startled, and I’ve thought a lot about how I want to be involved in politics this year and what I’m going to write and accomplish.I’m especially thrilled to look ahead because 2016 was hectic and hellish.
For me, writing goals and plans are all accomplished by a routine. A routine that nourishes, centers, and gives me what a friend calls the ‘sacred space’ to fall into words and stories. This routine is anchored by early rising, but also allows for late-night inspirations and writing scraps in notebooks. It involves reading widely, listening closely, noticing what needs to be noticed, jotting random notes and impressions, and focusing once I’m at a computer. It begins with making a cup of Earl Grey tea,recalling dreams, and opening a document. I don’t pause or warm up or freeze, I just start in.
It was wasn’t always this easy to just sit down and begin. In years past there was fidgeting and avoidance and doubts. Now, I still fidget, pace, and doubt at times. But not before I start. And the writing gets done anyway. I keep moving forward no matter my state of mind or aches and grievances. Something happened to me 20-plus years ago when I finished writing a novel. I never sold this story though I came close, but I learned so much in accomplishing it and somehow I mysteriously crossed a chasm that had defeated me for years with its yawning vastness. And I wrote that story while working three jobs, in my attic apartment at a scarred wooden desk that overlooked treetops. I wrote it as dawn arrived and although I drove a crappy car and worried about scraping together the rent and didn’t know what the future held. I finished it because a routine gave me backbone when I needed it. Then I got six books published.
Alas, I don’t have a magic formula for your routine, although I do believe in writing first thing as the day dawns. It needs to be aligned with your rhythms, schedule and desires. Maybe you hate mornings or your kids are early risers. Maybe you can only write in coffee shops.
No matter. I know with great certainty that you need a fixed and reliable routine. A daily or near-daily immersion in the world of words. I guarantee that routine trumps fits and starts, waiting and longing and making excuses. Writing is not a waiting game. It’s a push-yourself-no-matter what, roll-up-your-sleeves game.
I will go out on a limb, however, and suggest it’s likely that you don’t need to scrap everything you’re doing now and carve out a whole new routine. Few of us have the luxury of scrapping our lives and starting over. Many of you probably need to tweak and adjust and go to bed earlier. Watch less television. Maybe you need to ease into writing a novel by spending some time outlining. Or maybe you can slip in small bursts or start writing during your commute. Maybe you need to create a playlist that keeps your spirits buoyant. Or two playlists, because you might want one for quiet immersion and another one for when you want to crank up the tension or suspense. I’ll bet something you’re already doing right just needs more of you. So it adds up to a routine.
A routine brings strength and purpose. A routine simplifies your days, reduces stress, and lassos time for what matters. Writing. Storytelling. Connecting. A routine brings quiet within the way snow silences the newly-white world.
I would love to hear about your writing routine. Meanwhile, keep dreaming, keep writing, have heart
We’re in the second week of January and the Portland area has come through another snow and ice storm. The southern part of Oregon has accumulated a lot more snowfall than we have although the nearby Cascades boast record snowfall levels. My Facebook friends’ photos of snowy wonderlands have left me with a bad case of snow envy even though I’ve been snowed in twice this winter. But they’ve got the real deal, the kind that sticks around. The kind that brings a permanent hush to the landscape.
Meanwhile, I’m finally falling into a routine. I so love some kind of routine to scaffold my days around, don’t you? You see my routine vanished last year to be replaced by bizzarro world, starting over, and a lot of anxiety, loss, and sadness.
Because I’ve been absent so much from this space I feel like I owe an explanation. Are you familiar with the lists that depict all the possible life stressors that can set a person over the edge? I experienced most of them in 2016. Since my mother died in 2015 and my dad is doing fine, I cannot claim I hit the jackpot and slogged through every major change. Mostly because I didn’t end up in prison.
But then again, my hellfire list is impressive. Major illness, check. Car accident and multiple injuries, check, check. Lots of doctor visits and physical therapies, check, check. Dissolution of a long-term relationship, check. Long, maddening search for a place to live in a crazily-expensive housing market, check. Moving out of our beautiful shared home, check. Leaving behind my garden, check. Remodeling a ‘fixer upper’, check. Remodeling horrors from plumbing to foundation to electrical, check. Resulting money problems from recovery times and fixer upper horrors, check. Surgery, check, check. Recovery from surgeries and the accompanying exhaustion, check, check. My favorite person moving to the other side of the country, check.
In January when my year began with Norovirus while visiting Vegas it probably was an inkling of what was to come. I’m not a Vegas-visitor type anyway, but I still haven’t forgotten the audacity of the stomach cramps when they hit. Or the hallucinatory juxtaposition of the garish Vegas strip and an I-wish-I-was-home illness.
So when the new roof I paid too much for leaked in November amid record downpours and the ceiling needed to be torn out, and the contractor who is licensed in the neighboring state won’t fix the problem, I wasn’t all that surprised. Just like I wasn’t all that shocked when I went flying down the stairs in August landing in a twisted heap and injuring my back (yet again) so that my left leg and foot still buckle from time to time and pains keep me awake at night. In fact, after the sudden flight, knotted and twisted in a crumpled, awkward heap, I wondered if locusts or frogs would next plague me. And laughed out loud.
Nor was I surprised when the second recent surgery was so much more painful than bargained for; the recovery so much longer. Which explained the largest bottle of Percocets a doctor ever prescribed to me.
And yet here we are, another circle round the sun. A new year beckoning with promise and dread, but let’s leave politics out of this. Right now my living room is festooned with about 10 Chinese-red Rubbermaid tubs filled with my Christmas decorations. That’s right, I just took down my dried out, but formerly glorious tree yesterday. Partly I couldn’t bear to see it go and say good by to my favorite season and partly because I didn’t decorate it until the eve of the Solstice.
Which brings us to ritual. You see, I am still moving. If you can avoid moving for the rest of your life, do stay put. I visit my former home several times a week and pack my turquoise Nissan full of boxes and detritus of my former self and haul them here, vainly hoping somehow I’ll fit my belongings into rapidly-filling nooks and crannies. My office is stacked with boxes so there is a wiggly, narrow path to my desk. I ran out of book cases, the windows leak, my first electric bill was astronomical, and the roof is still not completed.
Ritual. A way to mark a special day or transition; a behavior or activity that stamps a moment into memory. A passed-down custom. A pause amid the ordinary passage of time. A rite, a ceremony, a tradition.For years I celebrated the Solstice by hosting an open house, but over the years with granddaughters arriving, Christmas celebrations and traditions took over the end of the year.
However, each Solstice and Equinox feels special with an almost mystical link to people throughout time, throughout the world who have celebrated the changing seasons. The shortest day and longest night seem especially potent and need rituals to mark them.
Without really planning to, I fell into ritual on December 21st. I had lit candles and was listening to carols when I strung lights on the Noble fir and then hung my first ornament. The ornament was a little gold bird with the banner HOPE in its beak. It was given to me my niece Naomi. The moment it nestled among the branches it was as if a spell had been cast. I felt a peace descend that I hadn’t felt in all the previous year. A sense of connection and rightness that’s difficult to describe.
And as I hung ornaments and festooned strings of gold stars, the feeling remained and never completely vanished throughout the cookie baking, music, present wrapping, gathering, and generosity that was Christmas.
I believe in ritual. Especially for writers and artists. Small acts and remembrances that help transport us to a place of attention, inspiration, and openness. And the fun part: each of us gets to invent our own rituals, our own means to reach that focused engagement. What does your writing ritual look like? Do you make a pot of coffee before you sit down? Clear off your desk? Light a candle? What small act can bring you into the writing mindset?
Writing gives us purpose.
Onward. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
This is what January looked like when I was a kid and it’s how my father’s yard looks in northern Wisconsin. Still. Cold that bites. Dusk arriving early. In the northern hemisphere it’s the perfect time to write. And read, of course. Write down your plans. Make them specific. Dream large. Use the quiet of the season to focus and take stock and slow down. It’s writing season.
It’s here: the final days to finish your NaNoWriMo novel and hit your word count. Your rewards are within reach. You can do this. The weekend is sprawling before you with time and space and granting permission to write.
In case your story is stalling or thin here are a few idea for you:
Introduce a new character: every new character enters the story with a mystery attached to him or her. Because readers don’t know a darn thing about them.
Add a Plot Point: A plot point spins the story in a new direction, often forcing the protagonist to act or decide or react. After it happens there is no going back to the way things were. An example of a major plot point from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is when the son-in-law Carlos sets up Sonny, the oldest Corleone son for an assassination. Once Sonny is dead it’s clear that the Five Families must find a way to stop the war, end the bloodshed. Vito Corleone calls for a major meeting where terms are put into place.
Add a twist: This can be a complication or even a solution readers didn’t see coming, but shifts the situation in a new direction. In The Hunger Games sponsors back in the Capitol can send gifts–food, medicine, tools, supplies to the tributes while they’re fighting it out in the Arena. The gift can be life saving. This factor was foreshadowed earlier when Katniss and Peeta were training for the fray. “Some water, a knife or even matches can mean the difference between life and death. And those things only come from sponsors. And to get sponsors, you have to make people like you.“―Haymitch Abernathy
Speaking of Foreshadowing: Can you add a payoff at this point for something you foreshadowed earlier in the story? Foreshadowing is such a primo literary device, don’t overlook it in your repertoire. I lean toward subtle methods rather than Chekov’s gun in Act 1.
“The term “Chekhov’s gun” comes from a bit of advice Chekhov shared with other writers. In an 1889 letter to playwright Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev, Chekhov wrote:
One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it….
Chekhov is warning against extraneous detail. A gun is a looming image. It’s full of meaning; it has the potential for danger and death. To give it attention is a signal to readers that they should pay attention. If nothing comes of it, readers can feel duped. Every detail must have purpose. If you give something significance early in the story, follow through on it.” from Gotham Writers
Return to your outline: What scenes or ideas are you leaving out or can you flesh out? Your outline should lay out:
- Who the story is about.
- Where it takes place.
- What is at stake/the central conflict.
- What obstacles will thwart your protagonist.
- How it will all turn out.
Aim hard for that ending. At a good clip, but not a gallop. Make a quick list of questions that need answering, problems that need to be resolved. All the consequences of what has come before are in play now. Are all the main characters going to survive? Will there be a comeuppance, a hard lesson, a battle royale?
Caffeine. Lots of it.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.
“November – with uncanny witchery in its changed trees. With murky red sunsets flaming in smoky crimson behind the westering hills. With dear days when the austere woods were beautiful and gracious in a dignified serenity of folded hands and closed eyes – days full of a fine, pale sunshine that sifted through the late, leafless gold of the juniper-trees and glimmered among the grey beeches, lighting up evergreen banks of moss and washing the colonnades of the pines. Days with a high-sprung sky of flawless turquoise. Days when an exquisite melancholy seemed to hang over the landscape and dream about the lake. But days, too, of the wild blackness of great autumn storms, followed by dank, wet, streaming nights when there was witch-laughter in the pines and fitful moans among the mainland trees.”
– Lucy Maud Montgomery
If you’re scared or angry or feeling disenfranchised, write. If you are choking on grief, write. If you’re worried about future Supreme Court nominees, write. If you’re worried about our political system in the largest possible terms, write.
Create stories like our lives depend on them because they do. Create stories because storytelling is generous, important, and uniting. Write to prove we cannot be cowed or terrorized or mocked. Write to feel less alone. Write to protest and howl so the sound of your soul ache reaches the farthest star.
Writing will bring you back to your body. Writing will help you notice what is immutable, beautiful, and true all around you. This noticing will help you break through fear. Write and your heart will begin to stitch back together.
Make art and stories because they heal and are an expression of your soul. Make art because art prevails through the ages and brings meaning to a sometimes disheartening reality. Make art because we need beauty.
Step up. Or perhaps I should say sit. Get quiet in your writing space or studio. Now is the time.
Unstoppable. Machete-toting. Sounds good doesn’t it? And if you don’t make your word count one day do not panic. Just keep plugging away. Live that story in your head while you’re walking the dog or microwaving dinner. As you and Rufus the Border Collie head to the park, stride or swagger the way your protagonist would. Become your detective or woman on the run–and not just when you’re imagining scenes at your computer. Roll over your next scenes in your imagination before you fall asleep at night. Live the story.