Finding Time To Write: Reflections On My First Residency

I just spent the last month in a writer’s heaven.

 

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The Vermont Studio Center is the largest artist residency in the United States. Each month, 50 selected writers and visual artists from across the country and globe are offered unrestricted time for creative work.

I got to be one of them!

VSC provides private studios, room and board, conferencing with Visiting Artists, readings, craft talks, and presentation nights—all on its beautiful historic campus.

The first week, I was pinching myself.

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Maverick Writing Studios

Amazing things happen when you get the chance to step out of your everyday life and write in a calm environment designed to limit distractions and obligations.

I learned a lot about myself as a writer.

I tested my mental stamina. I had time to just sit with the mess of words and ideas and try to shape it into something coherent and interesting. I learned how long it can take to write one decent paragraph, only to delete it the next day.  I had the time and space to immerse myself in a fictional world. 

Sometimes it was magical.

Other times, anxiety-provoking…What if it’s no good? Am I wasting my time?

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My studio overlooking the river.

I met with Visiting Writing, Noy Holland, to discuss my short story in the revision stage. I got to spend time with other kindred spirits talking about the artistic process,  rejection, failure, inspiration, and epiphanies.  We shared stories, laughter, and tears.

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Resident Photos by Howard H. Romera

 

 

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Reading a new essay, “The Geometry of Grief”, at Presentation Night.

 

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Image Source: Busy Building Things

Finding time to pursue your passion amidst the demands of your present life is likely your number one challenge…or complaint.

But sometimes it serves as an excuse.

Saying, “My dream is to write a novel, but I simply don’t have the time right now,” is likely untrue, although it may feel that way.

As E.B. White once said:   “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

While there are definitely periods in our lives when we feel especially stretched, finding time to write is possible if you make it so.

I’ve been writing and publishing since my late teens. That means I’ve written through college, graduate school, teaching career, raising 3 kids, homeschooling, and helping elderly parents.Developing Reading and Writing Through Author Awareness: Grades 4-8

There were times I was insanely busy, stressed out, or depressed. There were dry spells—sometimes long ones.  There were also stretches of times conducive to creativity that resulted in publishable work.

Still…I wish I had accomplished more. (That’s Miss Perfectionist talking, so you can just ignore her.)

We all have the same 24 hours in a day.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”  ~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Here are my tips for carving out time for writing:

Be a Time Sleuth

The first step to making time for writing is to scrutinize your daily/weekly schedule. 

Can you wake up earlier before work or getting the kids off to school?

If early morning doesn’t don’t work for you, try writing in the evenings or late night hours.

If you commute by public transportation, consider that time. Keep a notebook with you for ideas and brainstorming.

Can you make time on the weekends?

Look for time suckers you can give up (or cut back on): The biggest one is the Internet Blackhole. Scrolling Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Endless newsfeeds. YouTube pet videos. Binge watching TV. Really.

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Schedule your writing.

This next step is key. Once you find the times when you can write, mark it on your calendar.  That’s right: you’re making an appointment with your muse. Begin with 15-minute blocks. That’s not long enough, you say? Believe me, the minutes add up. Consistency, more than quantity, matters at this stage.

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Think of writing like exercise. You need to show up at the gym or class—whether you feel like it or not— in order to make progress. You can’t show up once a month and build muscle.  Consistency leads to making a habit. The writing habit will help you achieve your goals. Show up, or as Stephen King said, “Butt in the chair.”

Designate a Writing Place

The great thing about writing is that it’s portable. I write in my home office, on the family room couch, in libraries and coffee shops. I’ve written in airports and on long bus rides. The place depends on my mood, what I’m writing, time of day, and schedule. Having a designated place to write, however, can help you build the habit. By associating a specific place for writing, your train your brain to switch into writing mode. Doesn’t matter if your place is a closet, office, or shed. Claim your space. Make it look and feel nice.

                               Sunny corner table of library = novel writing.

 

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…Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. ~Patti Smith, Devotion

Set Goals & Deadlines

The process of trying to produce a piece of writing can be—no, make that will be—frustrating and discouraging.  To stay on track you need to:

Define goals

Making a plan

Tracking progress

Set deadlines

Reward yourself

Again, the exercise analogy.  If you just say, “I’m going to get in great shape”, you’ll likely to give up before you run the first race. You must make a plan with incremental milestones along the way. 

Same idea for writing a novel. You start with the end goal in mind, then work backward. Name the date you want to finish by (I know, that’s really scary). Then break down the big goal into several small steps. Approximate when you’ll reach each step. Anticipate obstacles. Reward yourself when you arrive. Yes, you’ll likely have to adjust the steps and deadlines. The important thing is having a roadmap. (Thank you Kendra Levin for this advice.)

“Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.” ~ Danie Shapiro, Still Writing

Plan a Writing Retreat

Once you’ve made time to write, limiting distraction is the key to producing. A writing retreat can be a great way to jumpstart, revive, or finish a project.  Some writers occasionally cloister themselves in a hotel room for a few days to binge write. I know two women who designed their own retreat by renting a cabin in New Hampshire. Poets & Writers Magazine has several classifieds ads for rentals in beautiful settings that cater to writers.

If you think you’re the right point in your life or career to pursue a writing residency, here’s a has a comprehensive listing.

How do you make time for writing or other creative pursuits?

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Nighttime at VSC

Do You Need An Accountability Partner?

 

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Do you have something big you want to accomplish but haven’t?  Do you have trouble sticking to a long-term goal?

Last month, I wrote about finding inspiration when you are creatively stuck. One reader wrote me that she has no problem finding inspiration. “I’m filled with creative visions.  My problem is always follow-through, especially when the going gets rough.”    

As a writer, I relate to this predicament. Ideas come easily to me. The beginning stage of writing a novel is kind of like falling in love—everything is new and exciting.  Possibilities abound.  But sticking with it through the long haul inevitably means experiencing frustration, disappointment, and dry spells. And yes, sometimes loneliness and despair.

Whether you’re trying to write your first book, save for retirement, lose 20 pounds, or train for a marathon, staying on track is the hardest part.  Meeting any long-term goal requires continual motivation, discipline, and fortitude. Let’s be honest–who has an abundant supply of these traits?

If you recognize yourself here, then you may benefit from an accountability partner. An AP is a trusted individual who holds you responsible for achieving your goals. In working with an accountability partner, you identify goals, then come up with a short-term plan of action. You then report your progress through regular checkpoints via email, phone, Skype, or in-person.

An accountability partner can also offer:

-Advice and perspective

-Ideas and resources

-A listening ear

–Support and motivation

–Brainstorming

Sometimes, an AP is just a kind soul who volunteers 15 minutes a week to keep you on track. Then there’s the reciprocal partnership in which you serve as each other’s AP. Psychological research backs up its effectiveness. Just finding a partner with whom to share your goals increases the likelihood that you will achieve them. It’s  a lot more fun to take a daily power walk with a friend than go at it alone for 45 minutes. Knowing you must check in with your weight-loss buddy each week makes it easier to pass up that chocolate donut. Reporting your daily word count to a fellow writer keeps you glued to your laptop (and off Facebook). 

By working with an AP, you are harnessing the power of positive peer pressure to motivate change.

Tips for finding an Accountability Partner:

Look to a trusted friend, neighbor, co-worker, classmate, or family member. If you’re a writer, try posting a request on a writer’s forum. Check out local writer’s groups. Network at a writing conference.  

Tips for Making it Work:

—Know what you want to get out of the partnership.

—Find a partner who is looking for similar goals/results.

—Find a partner who is in a similar place of experience.

—Decide on the method and frequency of communication.

—Be honest.

—Be willing to invest equally in the relationship.

 I recently found my AP—or I should say, she found me.  Connie and I live 800 miles apart.  We email and talk on the phone. We share goals and next action steps. We identify challenges and offer each other feedback. Why is it always easier to help someone else with her problem areas? Though we are working on different types of writing projects, the process is similar.  We both must make time for our writing and avoid distraction. We both need to track our word/page count. We both must troubleshoot and problem-solve. 

Since I have a lot more writing and publishing experience than Connie, I’ve had to identify the areas in which she can best help me. I won’t be looking to her for critique—I’ve already found someone for that.  Rather, it’s the act of stating my goals out loud to another human and reporting my progress that matters.  If I don’t complete my stated goals, Connie helps me figure out why. Her coaching background offers me techniques for deciding which projects I should invest my time in. In turn, I suggested that we each track our time and keep a Got Done list.  Already, I’ve noticed an uptick in my productivity.

This new relationship is a work-in-progress.  The only challenge so far is that Connie and I really enjoy talking to each other, so phone meetings go off in many directions. Maybe this just means that, in addition to finding an AP,  I’ve made a new friend.

Have you worked with an accountability partner? If so, what were the results?

Finding Inspiration in 2018

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“There were so many frightful times when I was totally “unilluminated” and feared that I could never write again.”   

                     ~Carson McCullers, Illumination and Night Glare

 

Where do you find inspiration when the well is dry, the light dim?  How do you engage in creative work amidst the onslaught of headlines of terror attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters, and White House insanity?  As you attend to the relentless demands of everyday life, how do you carve space for illumination?

Here are some of my ideas and those gleaned from other writers and artists.

l.  Start the day with beauty.

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Do you start the day with the news report? Is your phone screen the first image your eyes take in?  This is a hard habit to break but doing so can do wonders for your mood and muse. I know it’s hard to think about beauty when you’re getting ready for work or trying to get the kids off to school. But taking a moment to notice beauty, rather than the news headlines, can lift your spirit.

Instead of checking your Twitter feed, try feeding your soul.  Take in scenes of nature.  Research studies have demonstrated that just looking at nature scenes can reduce stress and increase pleasant feelings. This alone may open the door to inspiration. 

The beauty of language soothes and inspires me. Every morning at breakfast, I try to read a poem. This warms up my brain for creative work which, for me, is usually done early in the day. 

2.  Take A Walk

Walking has long been considered a way to open the mind. Naturalist, writer, and avid walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal,  “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”  Walking is especially helpful for me when I’m about to begin a new writing project. Walking engages our senses, clears our mind of clutter, and gets the blood flowing—all helpful for finding that creative spark. (If you’re interested in learning more about the cognitive benefits of walking, check out Why Walking Helps Us Think, New Yorker, 9/3/14.) 

3.  Create a Playlist

It goes without saying that music can inspire.  Music can also serve as an anchor to a specific time in your life and take you right back to the associated emotions and memories. I’ve created mood playlists—melancholy, tense, romantic, happy—to help me get into a specific scene. Some writers use a specific playlist while working on a novel. Young adult author Rainbow Rowell’s main characters bond over 1980’s music. The author listened to these songs while drafting her novel, Eleanor & Park. (Rainbow shared the playlist with her fans on Spotify and YouTube.) 

4.  Learn from the Masters

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All art is about craft, so learn your craft. Read wisdom from the masters–Virginia Wolfe, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Chekov, Ursula Le Guin, John Gardner. Take solace that even the greats lose their muse (and sometimes their minds).  The successful artists you admire all doubt themselves, muddle through the middle, give up on manuscripts, have dry spells, and get rejected—just like you!   I keep several craft books near my desk. One of my favorites is Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.  When I sit down to write, I open one book to a random page and absorb the lesson at hand.  I also turn to my collection of inspiring quotes from writers and other creative thinkers.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and give to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

  ~William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

5.  Try Pen and Paper

If you always plan, outline, and compose on a computer, try paper and pen for a change. This not only removes the distraction of the internet, but also the delete button. (How many times have you deleted a sentence or idea 5 seconds after typing it?) Writing by hand forces you to slow down, to more closely consider your thoughts and feelings. And just by engaging a different process for creative inspiration, your brain is primed for novelty. You’re ready to brainstorm. Jot down every idea, question, and connection that pops into your head. Don’t censor. Explore all possibilities.

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7.  Stay Curious

 Keep asking questions. Ask: What If? Read widely. Wonder. Talk to people who are very different from you. Jot down snippets of interesting conversation. Visit new places. Collect things. I like buying old postcards and photographs in antique shops and then imagining the stories behind them. 

7.  Show Up

Sometimes its best to just get started. Make art a daily companion, not an occasional visitor. Instead of saying “someday”, choose someday—like today.  Or as Stephen King bluntly states: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” 

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.      ~Jane Yolen

8.  Trust the process.

If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you know how the anxiety of waiting for sleep and worrying that it won’t come actually delays its arrival. I think the same can be true for inspiration.  Instead of fretting that you don’t have the idea, the words, the vision, the melody—you may just need to surrender. Be patient. Wait a while. Some ideas arrive banging on your door, others gestate for years. Keep listening.

 “The statue in the stone. How does the artist find that, see it, before it’s visible?”

                     ~Ursula K. Le Guin

And sometimes in order to go forward, you have to first meet the place where you are stuck and grapple with it on the blank page.

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 When my father was killed, I felt a part of me die with him. Afterward, I could barely speak, let alone write. Inspiration eluded me. Only after braving the demon, could I begin to create again. I didn’t want to write about the experience; I needed to.  Inspiration isn’t always rosy and warm. Inspiration can come from a place of darkness. And by entering this place with courage and vulnerability, you can create something that illuminates.

My latest writing is published in the December issue of Hippocampus Magazine.  It’s the hardest essay I’ve ever written.

How do you capture inspiration?

National Novel Writing Month–Yay or Nay?

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When I became a mother, I couldn’t wait for all the things I would teach my kids.

I wanted to introduce them to music, dance, and art. I wanted them to have happy associations with Jewish observance. I wanted to inspire them to be lifelong learners and book lovers.

What I didn’t expect was how much my kids would teach and inspire me. My oldest daughter encouraged me to write a children’s novel which resulted in an award-winning book.

My son continues to inspire me to not “sweat the small stuff” and to stay positive.

My youngest daughter taught me to trust that she is learning, even though she is not in a traditional school.  Lately, she has been a beacon of light as I crawl through the tunnel of discouragement regarding my second novel  attempt. She understands my battle with perfectionism and, fortunately, does not seem to suffer from that condition.

“You need to try NaNoWriMo” she told me.

She was referring to National Novel Writing Month. Every November thousands of aspiring writers sign on to the project website. Their goal: write a quick first draft of a novel–in a month. That’s 50,000 words in 30 days!  Of course, not everyone succeeds, but the process itself is valuable–so they say.

“It’s all about silencing your inner critic. At least for a month,” Audrey tells me, fully aware of my nemesis.

Audrey has participated in the Youth Division for the past few years. She enjoyed the pep talks, the writing forums, and the rush of seeing her word count rise.

While I enthusiastically supported her participation, NaNoWriMo sounded like torture to me. I had several reasons for not signing on.

l.  I’ve already written a novel.

2. I’m not a fast writer.

3. I hate writing a big long mess.

4. November is a very busy month.

5. I have other writing contests to work on.

6.  I could never win.

7.  Did I mention that I could never write 50,000 words in a month?

You get the idea.

Of course, Audrey has a counter argument for each of my arguments.  “What have you go to lose?” she finally huffed, after I stubbornly clung to my excuses.

I was reminded of my father. Growing up, I suffered from a lot of worry.  Whether is was speaking in front of the class or trying something new, my anxiety would get in the way.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” my father would ask.

Which, today, inspired me to ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen by committing myself to NaNoWriMo? 

Answer: 1.  I write a bunch of garbage.  2. I don’t reach the goal.

Hmm. Not the end of the world by any means.

Then I suddenly thought of another question.  What’s the best thing that might happen? 

Answer. 1. I get back on track with the story I want to write. Even better: 2. I get in the flow and churn out a rough draft that gives me something to work on.

I hesitated to the last minute. I thought about being a role model for my writing workshop students (whom I encouraged to enter the Young Writers NaNoWriMo).

So I took the plunge and registered. This is my public announcement.

“Oy, “I’ll never write 50,000 words,” I said to Audrey immediately afterward.

“Mom!”

“Okay. I take it back.”

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The next day I got the first NaNoWriMo pep talk in my inbox. It was from award-winning YA author, Rainbow Rowell.

Wow, she was describing my every thought regarding National Novel Writing Month. Here’s an excerpt from her most excellent post.

Dear Writer,

I was very skeptical about NaNoWriMo at first.

It seemed like something that amateur writers would do. Or young writers. People who needed to be tricked into finishing     their books. I’d already written two books by October 2011, and sold them to publishers, and I couldn’t imagine writing either of them—or anything good—in a month.

That’s not writing, I thought, that’s just piling up words. But then I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a pile of 50,000 words… 

And guess what? Ms. Rowell’s NaNoWriMo first draft ended up becoming her recently published novel, Fangirl.

Her words hit my motivation button. Time to get writing.  Fast!

How do your children inspire you? Are you a NaNoWriMo participant?

New Year’s Resolution Check-up–Are you still there?

March 8thWe are 67 days into the new year.  So how are your resolutions going?

Have you  made progress on the goals you drafted?  Or have you opted out already? If so, you have plenty of company. Researchers estimate between 40-50% of those who make them, fail.

Just after my wrote my last blog post, I noticed that everyone seemed to be writing, talking,or  tweeting about setting goals and resolutions.Turns out, it ain’t easy to form new habits and stick to our goals.  Why?

Human nature and our brains.

I found this research so fascinating that I’ve decided to pursue my Ph.D. (Productivity and Habit Development.) During the upcoming months, I’ll be reading several books and articles on the topic of productivity, habits, and goals. Then I’ll recap my findings here just for you. I’ll try out some of the recommendations, too, and share my results.

The first book I recommend is Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Dr. Heidi Grant HalvorsonSucceed cover Dr. Halvorson is a speaker, psychologist, author, and expert on motivation.  She uses brain and social science to explain why some people succeed and some don’t at achieving goals in every day life. Dr. Halvorson writes in an engaging style and uses examples from her own life. She’s funny, too.

What I really liked about this book is that the author shows how conventional thinking about goals can sometimes be counterproductive.  For example, we hear a lot about the importance of visualizing–think Oprah–making dream boards, thinking positively, imagining our success.  The problem with this strategy, according to Dr. Halvorson, is that we don’t have a realistic picture of the steps we will take or the obstacles we’ll encounter along the way.  We don’t visualize how hard achieving our goal will be!

This certainly resonates with me as I think about the unfinished draft of my new novel that I thought I’d complete last summer.

I invite you to join my in my 2013 Ph.D program.  Please share your ideas, experiences and recommendations.