Not all sentences end up in novels and stories. But novels and stories consist of nothing but. Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social. Sentences establish tone, and set the pace. One in front of the other marks the way. ~ Jhumpa Lahiri
It’s the third week in February, the moon is pearly and full, spring is awakening, and days are stretching longer. Across the globe people are falling asleep, waking up, being born, dying, making love and plotting wars, cooking, dreaming and taking a wobbly first step. Writers are penning romances and thrillers and memoirs, poems and lyrics, fake news and investigative journalism. Actors are owning the stage, singers are crooning and blasting out tunes, orchestras are tuning up, and designers are putting in the finishing touches and flourishes. Pundits are pontificating, preachers are preaching, weathermen are predicting. Parents are tucking children into bed, reading them stories, spooning soft food into babies’ mouths, holding hands with a kindergartner on the way to school. Their backs bent, workers are picking avocados, strawberries, and lettuce. This teeming planet is the stage for billions wandering and marching and running and plodding.
Some days the planetary noise, the joy and movement, the grief and laughter, and just daily getting by is deafening. At the same time, the energy and inventiveness and potency of humanity is inspiring. I don’t know about you, but I’m tapping in to all the creative energy because I’m in the midst of a reboot, a do-over, a reordering of priorities.
These days I’m brainstorming, creating plans, and filling a notebook with jottings and possibilities. It’s equal parts daunting, fun, and scary. It also means I’m stepping away from the noise and spending more time at my desk. More time quieting myself and trying to ignore the happenings in Washington. It means I’m analyzing partially-completed manuscripts, evaluating ideas, and planning new courses and workshops. I’m discovering how much I missed teaching after taking time away from it and how my typing fingers are sometimes cranky. Or maybe the word is creaky. No matter, I’m at it.
I want to tell you about a small habit that I believe is useful for writers: Every year I choose a word that amplifies how I’m going to focus my energies for the year ahead. My word for 2017 is RESOLUTE.
Resolute means moving forward with unwavering determination and focus. It also refers to backbone, stamina, digging in and not surrendering. Unwavering attention even when the effort feels like a weight too heavy. Resolute means unfaltering and unshakable. It’s a mindset that still leaves room for creativity and inspiration. Resolute means digging into specifics. Handling the details. Creating systems. Planting seeds and tenderly thinning them, watering and protecting the tender shoots.
For me resolute means defining all the parts of a process including the mop-up; making lists, and crossing off action items. Resolute means squared shoulders and sometimes late nights. Unflinching . It means your game plan is nonnegotiable. However, it also means your game plan can be tweaked and improved on. Resolute means hanging on. Because some days it’s all you can manage.
Resolute is my plan, my backbone, the doorway I’m humping through. It’s an approach that melds badassery and my inner warrior. Resolute is whole-souled and obstinate and clear-eyed. Diligent as a long-ago monk bent over a manuscript in a scriptorium. It’s my strategy against political worries, difficulty, and inner resistance.
Throughout this year you’ll find me studying the playbooks of authors who take risks, who succeed against wildly-discouraging odds. I avoid play- it-safers. No interest. Bring on the intrepid. The mountain climbers of the literary world. The authors who rip off scabs and write about their griefs and scars. The critical thinkers who clarify complicated issues. The political columnists who set things straight. The fantasy inventors who bring us wonder. The Dystopian world builders who scare us.
Steadfast is another beautiful, full-throated word. Kin to resolute, it’s a quality I value in friends and partners. Steadfast people are everywhere. The single mother up late folding laundry and making lunches. The teacher spending her free time grading papers and lesson planning. The waitress with the warm and genuine smile who makes your day better. The immigrants plucking up their courage and leaving their homelands. The lonely hearts risking at love. The full-time employee who carves out time to volunteer, sing in a choir, pursue a passion, write a novel.
How do you define resolute in your daily life? What is your North Star? What traits do you already possess that can help you remain steadfast in the months ahead? Can you muster your resources and courage? Choose goals that are attainable? Set up systems?How will you track your progress? How will you fuel your imagination while you’re focused and the word count grows? How will you use the quieter winter months for mapping your course or progressing on your current project? How will you remain loyal to yourself? Choose yourself?
Keep it lit
According to The Guardian sales of George Orwell’s 1984, published 67 years ago, are now soaring. The novel warns about government propaganda, an authoritarian culture and historical revisionism, now jarringly resonant. It’s where the term Orwellian comes from.But you probably already know that.
The New York Times is also weighing in on this phenomena. The Atlantic is reporting that books by Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and Hannah Arenldt have also had a spike in interest over the past year. Isn’t that heartening? I’ve been predicting that books sales will rise, especially dystopian tales. Dystopian novels are “chiming with people” Jess Harrison a London-based editor at Penguin said. She added that The Man in The High Castle by Philip Dick, an alternative history in which the Nazis defeated America to win World War II, is also selling well, according to the Times. Huxley’s Brave New World is also selling like proverbial hotcakes.
Books are better than hotcakes or any sort of cake. Books offer respite, companionship, and insights into human nature. Reading most anything increases your ability to focus. A research study at the University of Sussex reveals that reading is the most effective way to overcome stress, better than other methods like listening to music or taking a walk. People who read regularly sleep better, have lower stress levels, and lower levels of depression compared to non-readers. Even reading for a short period, such as 6 or 7 minutes lowers your heart rate. Other research shows that reading increases your vocabulary and helps with memory. Reading also develops empathy,and enhances brain connectivity and imagination,
Meanwhile, I’ve finished reading Chuck Wendig’s Invasive. It’s a bio thriller about genetically-modified insects. The book is out in hardcover and the publisher scattered illustrations of ants crawling across the pages. Every aspect of the story contributes to a hellscape and the protagonist Hannah Stander, a futurist consultant for the FBI, has a complicated backstory since her parents are wacky survivalists. Reading it I learned a lot about ant societies and their work ethic for lack of a better term. Reading it I felt my skin crawl at times. Reading it I forgot my worries about our government and this worried world.
I started reading The Best American Mystery Stories of 2016 as I do every January. It’s a delicious compilation of crime fiction, psychological puzzles, and literary fiction. This year the collection is edited by Elizabeth George. Her Introduction and Otto Penzler’s Foreword are elucidating and thoughtful. Another aspect of this anthology that I really appreciate is the Contributors’ Notes section where the authors explain their inspirations and writing process.
Reading is good for our brains and makes us better writers. Novels show us how it’s done by teaching structure and plotting. Reading enhances our vocabularies. Savor and take notes as you turn the pages. What are you reading these days?
Keep writing, keep reading, have heart
“Writing is…. being able to take something whole and fiercely alive that exists inside you in some unknowable combination of thought, feeling, physicality, and spirit, and to then store it like a genie in tense, tiny black symbols on a calm white page. If the wrong reader comes across the words, they will remain just words. But for the right readers, your vision blooms off the page and is absorbed into their minds like smoke, where it will re-form, whole and alive, fully adapted to its new environment. ” ~ Mary Gaitskill
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.