Tag Archives: beginning

Mile Markers and Check Points

If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons” (based on her book of the same name), it’s an inspiring listen. Ms Gilbert speaks to creative folks who are struggling to start or re-start their work. As these fledgling artists speak to Ms Gilbert about their fears, she generously bolsters them with her experience and encouragement. She gives them assignments and deadlines. Then, she utters the six most powerful words any artist can hear: “I’ll check in with you later.”

Bringing an idea from the realm of the formless and vague into the physical world is the type of work that’s best done with some sense of urgency. A sweater stitched one meager row at at time, for example, would be deemed a useless enterprise, and discarded before it even had a second sleeve. Urgency creates momentum, powering the maker through the inevitable tedium and the challenges.

Sometimes the urgency comes from the idea itself, the sheer excitement of it, the friction as it rubs against the inside of the mind. But, other times, urgency and motivation come from those kind people who make the artist feel accountable, the ones who’ll ask questions, or say, “I’ll check in with you later. I want to see how this is going for you.”

For years, I was a Secret Writer. Only my husband and a couple of my closest friends knew that I was working on a book. And so, I worked on it in fits and starts, often losing the thread of meaning and struggling to find it again. The work never quite felt as though it mattered. In fact, it didn’t, because no one knew about it. It was like a ghost, or an imaginary friend that others were always accidentally sitting on.

The more I began to go public with my work – to share it with friends, read it to writing groups, and discuss my goals – the more it became a real part of my life. I had to get comfortable with the supremely uncomfortable act of talking about my writing. The secret was out. People were going to ask, “How’s the writing going these days?” And so, I had to have something to tell them.

Thank goodness for these people, without whom my efforts might have fizzled out completely. Now I use these folks strategically and on purpose, announcing my goals to my writing group and my friends, and asking them to please keep me honest. My goals are humble, sometimes embarrassingly so, but these mile markers along the way keep me trudging forward when I’d often like to stop. And, by the way, these folks use me, too, and our mutual encouragement makes us all feel a little less alone at our desks.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert and the other professional artists who keep sharing their own experiences to inspire and motivate others. Most of all, I’m ever so grateful to my own personal cheerleaders, all the people who care enough to ask, “How’s your writing going these days?” Thank you for making room at the table for my imaginary friend.

This isn’t the first time Elizabeth Gilbert has inspired me. Also see my post about her wonderful Ted talk about creativity, and my thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love. And, if you are interested in creativity, her book Big Magic is… well, magical.

Commitments

I never knew that a political election could leave me feeling bereft, as if someone precious to me had died. Over the past several days, the loss has washed over me many times, and I feel devastated each time. What died last Tuesday was hope. I, and many others, thought our country was on the cusp of something beautiful.

This wound is a deep and hard for me to talk about. Many people have already articulated this shared pain and disappointment. I won’t talk more about that.

Here’s what I want to talk about: how to stay positive and move on, how to learn from this, and how to fight harder for the great potential of this diverse country.

To that end, I’m making some commitments.

I commit to doing what I can to protect the vulnerable. I have never been more aware of my own privilege. My race, class, and sexual orientation shield me from the President-elect’s hateful and dangerous proposals. Now is the time for those of us buffered by privilege to lift up, listen to, and stand with our fellow citizens, especially immigrant, minority, gay, and transgender communities. I will make sure that “stronger together” is more than a campaign slogan in my life. Compassion and optimism did not end on November 8th. We need them now more than ever.

I commit to full participation in the democratic process. Hillary’s campaign for the White House was my first foray into activism and political volunteerism. Perhaps that’s part of why this defeat is such a crushing blow, because being involved made me more invested. We should all be so invested. Democracy only represents us when we speak up. I’ve always been a voter. I’ll do more to forward the causes that matter to me. More donations, more phone calls, more talking, more listening.

I commit to loving our world and the people in it. We live in the same enormous, fragile, amazing universe we did last Monday. We are the same bright souls we were last Tuesday morning. Let’s look up from our phones and look each other in the eyes. Let’s smile at each other. Let’s hold hands. Let’s make love and make art.

We thought this country was on the cusp of something beautiful. And we can still make it so.

Now we know that there are more hurdles on this path than we thought. The fight will be harder than we thought. But we continue.

Where we are broken, there are the opportunities to knit together and be stronger.

“My friends, let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do.” – Hillary Clinton, November 9th 2016

Meditations

I’m not good at meditating. The balance between mental focus and emptiness eludes me. My mind races toward distractions with a quickness that is almost eager, as if any escape hatch is preferable to simply being alone and quiet with itself.

And yet, I keep trying. I’ll admit, part of my motivation to meditate has to do with the widely held belief that it is “good for you.” Meditation is the kale of the creative world. But it’s a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes, when I realize that my mind is coming up with new combinations for pizza toppings rather than focusing on my breathing or the space between my eyes, I want to stop the timer, turn it back, and start it over again. But, I don’t. My theory about meditation is that it is precisely this coming back to stillness after wandering away, that makes it so valuable. My goal when I meditate is not to have consecutive minutes of perfection; my goal is to notice when I’ve gone astray, and to keep bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

And as I was engaged in this practice of self-correction, and trying not feel too bad about it, I realized that it’s not just in meditation that I feel the urge to go back in time. I long for do-overs when I spend twenty minutes browsing celebrity pictures on the computer, or when I feel sick after my second helping of ice cream.

The do-over that I most yearn for has to do with my writing.

When I was younger, at the age when I was told I should decide what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been a writer, in practice. But when it came time to “go public” with my career choice, I chickened out. I told myself that there was no way that I would ever be published, not with all the aspiring writers out there. I believed myself, too, and laid my dreams aside with hardly a word of protest.

I’m thirty-seven years old, and I’ve finally allowed myself to say these words: I’m a writer. I’ve finally allowed myself to carve out and protect the time and space I need to work. I’ve finally articulated (publicly) my wish to be published.

Writers much younger than I are published many times over. They’re winning awards and gaining readers for their work. And there are so many days that I just want to cry with longing to turn back the clock and start this career when I am just eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. I want to go back and convince my younger self to stop insisting that the writing is a hobby, just something I do “for myself.” I would encourage myself to put my writing out into the world as soon as possible. But in life – as in meditation, as in anything – do-overs aren’t possible. We can’t erase what’s come before, no matter how much we regret our actions (or lack thereof). All we can do is gently bring ourselves back to the path, and move on.

Does part of me fear that it’s near impossible to get published? Yes. Does part of me think I don’t deserve to get published, since I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue my dream? Uh-huh. But, the timer is still going, and each moment rises before me and provides me with an opportunity to do the thing I love. So, I pull myself back, gently, but firmly, to the writer’s path, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as saying to the path of my life. And I’ll do the only thing that I can, which is to start now.

Begin Again (Again)

So, here I am. Beginning again (again) on this blog. Beginning again (again) a new book. The draft of my YA novel, along with all the notes and scribbles and doodles, is tucked away in a basket under my desk. It feels good to get away from it, as I’m sure it will feel exciting to get back to it in a few months, so I can look at it again with fresh eyes.

Even though the novel is not in its final stage, the draft is done. Done. Finishing a project has never been my strong suit, and I couldn’t be happier that I reached that goal. I’d rather finish something terrible than write something mediocre or even great that languishes, unfinished, in a notebook or a laptop.

One way I’m forcing myself to finish work is by forcing myself to share it, by submitting short works of fiction at least once every quarter. In the first quarter of this year, I submitted two pieces, both to print publications. There are also some amazing online fiction journals that I’ve been reading. I’d never realized before how much quality work is being printed exclusively online! It’s inspiring and humbling. If you’re interested in reading and writing fiction, here’s a list of some of the best sites for reading and submitting.

Finishing work, sharing work, submitting work. Beginning work. That’s the kind of writer I hope to be going forward. The kind that begins again, and again, and again.

The Jacket Copy Assignment

Last Saturday was the first class in a 2-month long novel writing course at Portland Literary Arts, taught by author Emily Chenoweth. Other than those two facts, I know very little about what to expect from this experience. That’s part of what makes it so exciting. Before heading out, I had the usual first day of school nervousness: Will they like me? Will I like them? What should I wear? Where is the bathroom?

I haven’t done something like this – something completely new, completely on my own – in quite a long time. It’s exhilarating.

Emily sent the class an assignment to complete before our first class. She asked us to read examples of jacket copy from any novels we had close at hand, then write copy for the jacket of our own book. It was an interesting experience, writing jacket copy for a book that’s not yet written. I re-read my first attempt, and realized that I was still focused completely on the concept, rather than on what actually happens in the story. Understandable, given the fact that I haven’t written the story, and have very little idea of what will happen.

So, I started again. As I was writing, I realized: Emily’s tricking me into writing an outline! In the past, I’ve written scenes more or less at random, figuring out later how to string them all together. The problem with this, of course, is that I find myself with large gaps, and no ide how to fill them, or I write myself into a corner and end up having to throw out large amounts of writing. I know that throwing out work is always part of the process of creating. But, I wonder if better planning might help me to throw out less. As I wrote my jacket copy, I found myself making decisions, changing my mind, rewriting. And since I was only working with three paragraphs, rather than three pages – or three hundred pages! – the process of playing around with the story felt fun rather than painful, doable rather than overwhelming.

The jacket copy assignment is helpful for those of us reticent about outlining, but hoping to get a little clarity about an idea for a novel. It might even change my mind about planning in general.

Here’s what I ended up with for my work-in-progress, titled Nana’s Bikini.

 

Ginny had been looking forward to her trip to Italy for months. She planned on two weeks of sunning, eating gelato, and making out with boys named Fabio. She certainly didn’t plan on going to Italy with her dour, old Nana.

Now, Ginny’s dream trip is more like a nightmare. Nana walks for miles a day, barely needs to stop for food, and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for stained glass! All Ginny can think about is how to ditch her grandmother and have a real vacation.

It’s not until the travelers get on a train going the wrong direction that the trip starts going right.  In crumbling hotels and beach-side shacks, Ginny sees glimmers of the adventurer that Nana could be. The trouble is, she’s buried beneath layers of cardigan sweaters and sensible shoes, and Nana seems to want to keep her that way.

Nana’s Bikini is a story about mis-matched travelers, about growing up, about letting go, and about gelato. Lots and lots of gelato.

Since writing the story, I’ve tried a few different methods to help me plan Nana’s Bikini. Which does beg the question: Is planning the new procrastinating? Or, an extremely valuable use of time that will pay off in clarity and focus down the road? In writing, it’s not clear what will work, what will benefit the story, what will benefit the process. And that’s part of what I like about it. Making an outline might help. Staring at the trees might help. As I become more prolific, I’m figuring out what tends to work best for me, but writing a story is still a magical chemistry. I’m always tinkering with the balance between the ingredients: the practice of discipline and living with a wide-awake mind.

The Transplant

When I see my new house in Portland for the first time, it’s something I’ve only heard about, and viewed through pictures. It’s a familiar stranger, a storybook character come to life. My eye looks for and finds little things that are amiss, not how I imagined. For one thing, the temperature is chilly, until the heat kicks in and blows hot dry wind into my face, drying my skin and leaving my throat parched. The paint on the walls is erratic, with scuffs and mismatched colors. The electrical system is nothing short of bizarre. Lights that should all be controlled by the same switch, or, at least, by switches on the same plate, are instead controlled by switches located on opposite sides of a room. Half of the switches in the house are an old-fashioned push button style that I’ve never seen before, and the fact that each room has at least twenty outlets raises my suspicions about previous activities on these premises.

If it was just me here, I’d spend as little time as possible in this empty, depressing house, where there is not so much as a single comfortable seat in which to rest. I’d figure out the bus system, not caring how long it took, as long as I could read a book or look out the window to get familiar with the neighborhoods in my new city. But it’s not just me. There are two little ones, and the baby is waking me up at four a.m. because his strict bio-rhythm (a drill sergeant!) dictates that, despite the pitch black, this is definitely the time to rise. The rest of the day, we are all wrecked, but at least the baby goes down for naps. During these naps, Thing One and I knock around the bare, echo-y walls looking for something to do. We try to make the place a little homier. We hang Christmas lights from the porch, but I’ve never done this before and so I don’t quite have the knack. What looks inviting and warm on our neighbors’ porches looks bedraggled on ours. We make paper snowflakes and a gingerbread house. All of this is more exhausting than satisfying, but, still. It’s done.

Having heard the tales, I ready myself for the onslaught of neighbors. They will come, I’m sure, bearing casseroles and cookies. Their children will clamor for play dates with mine, and we’ll be forced to initiate the rite of suburban basement play dates. Though the intrusions will border on annoying, we’ll be glad to connect with the people around us. We will be rescued from our solitude.

As hours and then days pass, we wonder, where is everyone? Winnie wonders the same thing, aloud, and repeatedly. In Brooklyn, we had a dozen casual encounters each day, with neighbors, friends, and acquaintances whom we just happened to meet on the stoop or on the street. Here the homes look vacant, except for those movie-set-perfect lights on the porches. Days go by in which we see not a soul.

I feel like a heart that’s been transplanted to a new, foreign body. Everything about the place is strange, from the smell of the air to the cadence of the speech. At first, I feel like this new place is rejecting me. Then, little by little, glimmers of welcome shine. Strangers surprise me with their helpfulness. One, then two, neighbors knock on the door. There aren’t casseroles, but there are donuts and chocolate wine. An acquaintance makes wonderful efforts to connect, and quickly starts to becomes a friend. It’s the few people who make the most difference.

This body is not as inhospitable as I once thought, but if this transplant is to be successful, I will have to make my own adaptations. I’ll have to forge my own connections, and adjust my own rhythm. I’ll have to come out of my new, imperfect home rather than sitting inside and waiting for the knocks on my door.

I plan to make my own cookies and casseroles, and invite my neighbors to share them with me. I’ll do it, I swear. Just as soon as it stops raining.

Have a Cookie, Dear

I’ve been thinking about my last post, and it’s got me feeling a bit annoyed.  It’s no big time annoyance, like underage Chinese  gymnasts.  More like itchy sweater annoyance.

The thing is, I love talking about books, but the critic role doesn’t fit.  Mostly I just want to love the books I love, and I want to talk and write about loving them.  Think of me as books’ grandmother.  I just want to put their artwork on my refrigerator, bake them cookies, and brag about them to my friends.  If books fall short of my expectations, I think I’d rather ignore it.  And what’s the harm in that?   From now on, I’ll write about books I’m reading that I love, books I’ve read that I love, and books I want to read that I think I’ll love.  And I’ll leave the critiquing to a mean old mom somewhere.

I’m up to something

A blog.

I have shied away from the idea for some time. Alternatively inspired, intimidated, embarrassed, and excited by the concept of putting my thoughts and opinion on The Web for Anyone to read.

But, the idea keeps coming back, and I’ve decided it’s time to stop batting it away. So here I am. The big question, though, is what’s it about? I don’t want to be a “mommy blogger,” though there are many talented ladies who do this kind of writing with skill and humor. I am a mommy and a blogger, and I won’t ever promise not to blog about the mommy business, but part of my goal here is to carve out something for and from myself. And when I say “myself” I mean the part that thinks about more than coloring with crayons and what to make for dinner. You know, that Shannon person who loves to write and read and watch movies and listen to music and drink beer and talk to friends. I suspect she is having a pout and maybe a good cry in a corner somewhere, convinced that she’s been forgotten and abandoned. So I’m trying to find her, maybe take her out for a steak and get to know her again.

Well that’s nice and all, but it still doesn’t answer the question: What am I on about with this blogging business? Allow me to get specific. (Fingers hover over keys, frozen in a blind panic at the mere mention of the word – No! Not SPECIFICITY!! Now, now. I’m sure it won’t be as bad as all that. Just take a deep breath and go for it. And, anyway, no one’s reading so you can always take it back.)

First of all, I’m going to blog about books. Books are my escape, my joy, my comfort. I’ll blog about books that I’m reading. Mostly novels, but some children’s books, a smattering of nonfiction, and the occasional sprinkle of poetry . I’ll eventually get around to making lists of my favorite books, but that might come much later, once I figure out how to coax the chaos of my thoughts into categories.

Second of all, and here I’ll allow some vagueness to exist alongside all that scary structure and specificity, I will write about some Other Things. It’s hard to say exactly what those things will be. At the moment, it suffices to say that I’ll explore thoughts about my life – the criss-crossed chords of parenting, of writing, of striving to be true to myself, and of choosing – always there is all this choosing to do – where and how to live. I won’t write every day, but I must put some kind of goal down in black and white to keep myself honest. I’m going to start by trying to post every week. Are Mondays good for you? Okay, then.

A note here about the sub-title, “sometimes it takes a while.” You see, the “it” mainly refers to the “thinking” of the title. And, for me, thinking does often take a while, seeing as it happens between trips to the playground and the shopping and the laundry and the cooking and the bathing and so on. But it’s not just being a parent that poses a hurdle for me. Ask anyone who knows me and she’ll tell you, I’m slow. Always have been. Not slow as in, That Shannon, she’s a bit SLOW. Slow as in, That Shannon, she takes FOREVER. I blame it on my being a Libra. If you’ve never read any Linda Goodman (and you should), I’ll just briefly explain that Libras, while beautiful, social, and charming, can’t make a decision if their lives depend upon it.

Don’t make that face at me.

I’m not young anymore. I’m not old, either. But the fact is that I am all grown up, with responsibilities and everything, and I’m finally trying to be the person that I’ve secretly wanted to be. I’ve been afraid to even talk about my desires, too embarrassed and far too easily daunted. I am trying, only just now, to be a writer. More importantly, I am trying to be me. Nothing against the me I have been all along, but perhaps I could achieve a less muddled vision of myself. I’m hoping that, with a little agitation, I can separate myself away from the people and influences that surround and embrace and nurture me, much like the yolk will finally be convinced to go a separate way from that clingy white.

I wish I’d tried all this some time ago, when I was younger and a little more resilient. But.

Sometimes it takes a while.

How did I end up here?

It’s important to catch the elusive moment of inspiration when it strikes. Stephen King calls this, working when it’s almost “too hot to handle.” (I am putting quotes there because I think I have the phrasing right. However, I am definitely too lazy to go dig up the book and check it out.)

Right now, I am working feverishly to get this site up and running. I am sitting on the toilet (top down, ahem) with my feet propped on the edge of the clawfoot tub. I can hardly remember how I got here, much less why I felt the need to stay here. I should be working on the couch where it’s comfy. Or, at the desk, where there’s a straight-back chair to keep me honest.

Where I really should be is in bed so I can wake up tomorrow and not be Zombie Mommy.

But, no. I am sitting on the john, listening to the ever-present trickle of water in the tank and tinkering away with my newly minted web presence.

It’s sort of like my own version of a Zen garden in here.