Fishing for Creativity

12033034_10207897902913517_7496019220559347527_nI have been searching for something in my writing, even in my life, since they inform each other to an absurd degree only other obsessed writers can understand. And yet, focusing just on writing at the expense of a larger life is limiting. As Julia Cameron says, you can’t spend your entire life fishing in the same pond or eventually it will empty. Creativity needs to be replenished and sometimes that happens in unexpected ways.

Yesterday I did something I always dread. I went into the marketplace and sold my books to real people. This was not a safe writerly enclave of a conference or a workshop but a retail store that sells furniture, candy, and candles. Also gloves and purses and paintings. It used to be a roller skating rink. Something about the charm of Leon & Lulu’s (the young woman who served the writers coffee came to collect our mugs on roller skates) inspired me in ways I was not expecting. It really had nothing to do with selling my books, although I did that too.

There is a sort of electricity in the air when a group of writers comes together, especially when we are placed in an unfamiliar setting. For once, our animation comes off the page and greets other people face to face. We exchange stories and snap photos and, perhaps inadvertently, reveal secrets. Insatiable curiosity about people and the meaning of life is what keeps me writing, and while someone once said a writer has all the experiences she needs by the time she graduates high school, it’s just not true for me. I need to replenish that fishing hole.

12046618_10207899150264700_8182935963705540632_n

And that’s what unexpectedly happened yesterday. Maybe it was the way the shop scattered the writers over the vignettes that make up the store. I was against a wall with a large abstract painting above a sofa, a nicely upholstered chair to the side, and a huge coffee table full of my books. Other writers were just as creativity enfolded into the setting as I was. The store fed us hot dogs and popcorn from the original machines used in the old rink and later came around offering wine for a job well done.

10329209_10207900610301200_2263357214927493793_n

In fact, it was less than work and more like a social occasion as so many of my friends came to see me. Some of them even bought my book. I struck up a friendship with the guy across the aisle and he introduced me to his friend, the star of the show who sold probably as many books as the rest of us put together. His was the fertile story that grabbed me and started an avalanche of ideas bubbling up from my suddenly overflowing imagination.

12118667_10207900643462029_7757218332838575994_n

This star-of-the-day author wrote four books before he hit upon the idea to set one of his mystery novels in Detroit…in Greektown, a popular destination for metro Detroiters. The books prior to the Greektown series didn’t sell like the new books. Not even close. One smart marketing move was using the word Greektown in the titles. I lost count of how many people I saw carrying those books around. Maybe it helped that his was the first display as you entered the front door, but I have a feeling people just gravitate to the familiar and fun.

Which got me thinking about my own books, sales, marketing and more. I started thinking about my life in general, about how I have been coasting as if on roller skates since I retired. I still write, but after a lifetime of fitting writing in I’m finding it hard to transition into just writing, only writing. I need to do more with my life. I wasn’t sure what that could be until this morning when I woke up brimming with ideas like a freshly stocked fish pond. It will take me some time to sort out all of this stuff. I want to carefully consider my next move before I plunge into it, and plus, the holidays are coming!

Still, I’m very happy I ignored my introverted dread of the marketplace and just went ahead and splashed right into the middle of it.

IMG_2013

More Writer’s Block Fixes

Life is like a novel: full of unexpected twists and irony. For example, several years ago, I wrote a series of posts on writer’s block. Through 45 years of writing,  I’d never had writer’s block, so Ten Fixes For Writer’s Block could have been arrogant nonsense. But as a creative writing teacher, I had come across so many kinds of writer’s block in my students that I felt compelled to write about ways to fix it. After all, it was my job to help young writers.

Little did I know when I was writing those fixes that one day I would need my own advice. A surprise: my younger self knew things my older self forgot. Because, yes, I have been struggling with writer’s block for a few months now. I’m not completely blocked. Obviously, writing this post proves that. Which is a relief because I really don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t write, having no other hobbies except binge watching Longmire on Netflix.

(Photo credit: A&E)

For so long, I was absolutely sure that I would write until I died. I couldn’t imagine a time when I would not wake up in the morning with my current novel perking in my neocortex. That is just the way it has been for so long, I thought it would always be true. Especially when I retired from teaching. I couldn’t wait to write full time. How productive I would be! How prolific! Instead, I struggled to write and I struggled to understand why I was having to struggle. Finally I remembered a series of posts I compiled way back when I thought I’d never have a serious problem with writer’s block. Maybe I should look that up, I thought. I might learn something from myself.

Today, I checked over the list. It seems I have ALL of the ten reasons I listed. Maybe what I missed when I was busy being prolific is that writer’s block is complex and involves many moving parts, not just one thing you can tick off and be done with. I also read my advice on how to “fix” these problems and it’s solid. I should take my own advice, but first I am trying an additional experiment given to me by my awesome therapist, Dr. B.

Last session, I brought up my growing worry that I was done writing novels. In the past couple of months I had started and stopped two novels. I lacked the passion, the intrinsic motivation, the drive. It just dried up on me and I wasn’t sure why. Dr B suggested an experiment: go two weeks without working on a novel. She said something so wise “If you find yourself missing it, that will tell you something. If you find you don’t miss it, that will tell you something, too. Either way, you have more information.”

Isn’t she a genius? Because I have come to believe that there may be a time when I stop writing novels. I’m not sure when, but I can see now that day might come. That’s what the next two weeks will tell me. In the three days since Dr. B gave me this advice, I have learned one thing: I am not ready to stop writing books yet. I want to finish those two novels I started. I want to write more novels after those, too. The question remains: do I want it enough?

Here’s the irony: I found my younger self’s answer to that question embedded in the original post. I called it a “Reality Check” and went on to say “People can become blocked because they dread the time and effort involved to really make their writing shine. In that case, your writer’s block is telling you something important. You might have a bit of talent for writing, but you don’t have the passion it takes to bring that talent to the next level. And that’s okay. It’s good to know exactly why you’re blocked, what your options are, and whether you might be happier doing something else with your creative energy.”

I felt this bit of advice like a slap in the face. One thing age teaches you is that vital chemicals (hormones) deplete as you grow older. This is why older folks suffer from insomnia: their melatonin levels are low. Women in menopause lack powerful hormones that impact many areas of joyful living. Men lose testosterone. And bones become brittle because the calcium is not there anymore. What if passion is also finite? What if mine is gone forever?

I don’t really believe this. Passion is a feeling, not a hormone or a vitamin. There are ways to restore passion for writing, and I’ve found a few. There’s Dr. B’s advice, which I think could work for anyone. Julia Cameron suggests Artist Dates. Writing prompts can be can be useful. Deadlines too. NaNoWriMo is coming up in November. That’s always inspiring. Lists help. For example, I got the idea for writing this post from Molly Greene’s terrific list of 101 Fabulous Blog Topic Ideas.

I have not given up hope. I plan to rekindle my passion, and I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Meanwhile, if you are now going through a dry spell, or if you’ve had writer’s block in the past and broke through it, I’d love to hear your story.

Filling the Well Redux

photo-2

For ten days, I unplugged from the electronic world. It is one of the best ways I know to “fill the well” — everyone gets depleted, and that includes creative types who love their work. Sometimes I just need to stop the normal routine and do something completely new. I came back with a fresh perspective and within hours accomplished more than I had the previous month. Yes! The book is going to galleys, finally:)

There I am on Puget Sound, 2000 miles from home, taking in the new and releasing the old. That was a week ago. Today I found the following post from 2003 (!) and thought it expressed just what I wanted to write about today. Circumstances have changed, but the idea remains the same:

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is one of my favorite all-time writing books. I use her suggestions and ideas constantly in my own writing life. One of the most convenient is the notion of “filling the well.” Until I heard Cameron explain it, I never realized that creativity was something to be nurtured, something that needed care and cultivation. I simply assumed that there was a never ending supply and that when I started to feel uninspired and cranky it was because my muse was pissed off about something I’d written.

She was pissed all right, but not in the way I believed. In truth, she wanted a break. She needed to fill the well. Happily, my muse fills the well by doing the sort of fun things I like to do when I’m not writing. She likes going on vacation, getting away from the four walls of the writing room. She likes a shake up in the routine, which should always include wild dancing and fine wine. Also friends, lovers, artist dates, good food, many laughs.

All of which I am happy to oblige her with…

This weekend, I had a fabulous couple of days with two dear friends, Kris and Ann. Ann’s lovely sister lent us her cottage on an island in the middle of Lake Erie. Since it’s pre-season, the island was only pleasantly populated with boaters out for a good time instead of it’s high summer packed party people atmosphere. We brought plenty of wine and chocolate and ate our meals out. We talked until all hours as the candles flickered down. We slept late and read our novels over coffee in the morning. On Saturday, we danced the afternoon away to an awesome cover band called New Decade. All weekend we were wild and free and my muse was in alt.

It’s always good to get home, however. Rusty missed me and Al has vacation all this week. He’s got projects around the house and I’ve offered to help with painting the garage. In the meantime, we’ve been hanging out, listening to music, sleeping late, having our own fun. Yesterday I talked him into going out to lunch, and then for dinner we fired up the barbecue. The weather’s been so fine here in Michigan. My daffodils are in bloom. Life is so very good. All of this as a way of saying I won’t be doing much writing this week. I’ll be too busy accomodating my muse by filling the well.

How to be a Better Writer

For Jamie: What I learned when I dipped into the excellently delicious Outliers.

Malcolm Gladwell is such an engaging writer and his subject here–extraordinary people who are markedly different, more successful, way smarter–is fascinating. Gladwell investigates the variety of circumstances that separate the super-successful from average folk like me. Along the way, he piles on the cool facts. For example, I learned that to become a world-class expert in just about any field a person needs to put in ten years of really really hard work. They need to work three times as hard as the average person.

Another way to calculate those ten years is in hours. About 10,000 hours will yield “mastery associated with anything” including writing. Which got me thinking. How many hours have I put into writing over the years? From about age 23, when I wrote my first novel, to 33, I didn’t rack up a whole lot of hours writing. I had two babies and a house to keep. Then I had a divorce to get through and a remarriage to negotiate. I also started college. I figure those 10 years yielded probably 500 hours of writing. Pretty simple to see why I was not a success at my dream career.

From 33 to 43, I did a little better. My kids were older, my marriage was settling down into a stable union, and I wrote a lot for college. After I started teaching, I also wrote a novella every summer. I’d say those ten years likely yielded 1000 hours. Still way below the “New York is calling with a contract offer” limit.

So the first 20 years of my writing life, even though I loved writing and was passionate about wanting to be a writer, I had only accumulated 1500 hours of writing time. Not enough to be called a master by any stretch. In retrospect, I realize that I was just too busy living my family life and figuring out how to be a good teacher.

Then something wonderful happened. I found a window of time, five years exactly, when I was able to write every day for three hours a day. By this time my kids were out of college and on their own. My husband has always been low maintenance. We were in a good financial position, and I felt so ready. With Al’s blessing, I took a break from teaching and totally devoted myself to writing. I wrote several novels during this time, started my blog, reviewed on average 10 books a month for Romantic Times. I treated writing like a real job and many, many days I clocked well over three hours at my computer. I’m averaging it out, because I know some days I only worked an hour or two. That five year period gave me 5500 writing hours.

Believe me, I saw my ability jump. I could actually tell that I was getting better. A lot better. Still, at 7,000 writing hours clocked, I wasn’t anywhere near the 10,000 hours I needed to become an “expert.” And a few years ago, the economy started to shift, and I went back to work. But an amazing thing happened when I returned to teaching. I kept up my three hours a day output. It was a habit I loved, and I made time for it. Again, some days I’d work eight hours straight and others I’d work one or two, but on average I added another 4500 hours, to put me at 11500 hours, well over the 10,000 mark.

When I figured this out last night I was so amazed I immediately subtracted two weeks vacation for nine years. Still at 10,000 hours. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll get a great publishing contract or a promotion at Publishers Weekly. It doesn’t even mean anybody will want to read my blog. It just means I put in the time it takes to master my craft. Sure, it took me thirty years instead of ten, but every single hour has been a total pleasure.

*Reprinted from a 2008 blog post. Betcha I’ve got another several thousand words under my belt by now. Also a publisher!