Resistance as Writer’s Aide

Swiss flag, 1

As part of my writerly reading, I began a book that I think will be important: Victoria Nelson’s On Writer’s Block: A New Approach to Creativity.

From the beginning, Ms. Nelson presents resistance as a positive thing, to be explored for what it wants to tells us: [The] inability to write means that the unconscious self is vetoing the program demanded by the conscious ego.” [italics hers]

I remember participating in NaNoWriMo in 2012 in order to finish a full draft of my historical middle grade novel. (The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to write 50,000 words of a novel during the thirty days of November. This time (I’d participated in the challenge once before), I decided to advance my work-in-progress rather than write something new. Who says you can’t adjust rules to suit real needs?)

I’d written a chunk of my novel already, and knew a lot about the plot and what I still had to write. But I didn’t know the ending. I plunged in anyway, figuring that the end would grow clearer as I approached it. I’d lay track right before the train got there, as it were.

So I wrote my 50,000 November words. Things went so well—my story advanced, my train moved along—that I continued “laying track” well into December. Then story and train came to an absolute halt. It wasn’t that the holidays derailed me. I just still didn’t know my story’s resolution.

This is what Victoria Nelson says about the resistance I experienced then, the resistance that most writers, most creators, likely will experience at times:

“Trying to muscle our way past resistance doesn’t work either. Picture the unconscious as being a bit like Switzerland, a tough little country with well-defined frontiers and apparently unlimited fiscal reserves. Invasions, coups, don’t get past the border. Responding correctly to a writer’s block means not forcing an entry but opening civilized diplomatic relations with an autonomous state that has clearly demonstrated it can’t be coerced. This is a painstaking process of human negotiation that may take a long, long time.”

It did for me. My novel sat there for more than a year, though I poked it now and then. Things got moving again when I took up another challenge, participating in a novel-revision workshop for which I needed to have a finished novel. Oh, it was hard. At times the train inched up steep, narrow inclines. At times it wanted to fall off wide curves. But the train made it into the station. The difference? In the meantime, iron ore had been mined, smelted, molded. I now knew the story’s end. Getting the train there took work, but the long, previous resistance had prepared the way for it.

What about you? Where are you stuck, and what do you think the resistance wants to tell you? Or what valuable lessons have you learned, as you opened civilized diplomatic relations with yourself during past resistances?

train arriving in station

This Reader’s Bookshelf – 1

stacked shelves

“So many books, so little time,” defines me.

Here’s a list of my in-progress and intended reading, right now. It’s not everything waiting on my shelves, by any means, or even everything I have checked out from the library. Just what’s by my bed right now…

Selected Poems, W. H. Auden
Selected Poems of Ezra Pound

Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed the World – William Ryan & Walter Pittman
God’s Universe – Owen Gingerich

A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning & Life – Nancy Peacock
Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distractions, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life – Bonnie Friedman
[I just found a few writing books, including these, in a thrift shop]

Your Knight in Shining Armor – P. B. Wilson [for a class through my church]
Lessons of Lifelong Intimacy – Michael Gurian [I’m not married, but live in hope]

My Neighbors, the Billy Grahams – Betty Frist
Footprints of a Pilgrim – Ruth Bell Graham

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport
Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love – David Sturt

My stacks, and HOPE, are high. But where to find TIME for them all?



Edna St. Vincent Millay vs. Early to bed

Millay candle, drips

This is the last day of National Poetry Month. It’s been great to read a different poet daily for the last nine days. Going forward, I plan to continue getting my recommended daily allowance of poetry.

Today, as I dipped into a collection of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, I remembered the well-known poem that describes my usual modus operandi:

“My candle burns at both ends,
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,
It gives a lovely light.”

Then there is the famous saying, “Early to bed and early to rise…”

Years back, I sang in a choir that performed two pithy pieces by Norman Luboff. His amusing collection, “Much More Ado About Nothings,” includes his take on the “Early to bed” proverb.

Luboff’s version goes:

“Early to bed, early to rise,
makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,
and dull,
and a terrible bore.”

Ouch. More like Millay’s point, actually.

Still, tonight, I’m opting for an early night and dullness. More lively brilliance to come next week!


Danger: Life-Changing Reading Ahead!

signposts, past - future

Maybe, after most of what you read, of novels or poems, you walk away unchanged. Sure, great scenes or lovely lines may stay in your mind, but overall, the reading was just a pleasant diversion.

And that’s alright. Most of my own “literary” (as opposed to “practical”) reading has been like that too. But then there are the oeuvres which, if only in some small way, changed the course of my life.

My great love of travel was born partly by reading Jules Verne novels as a child.

In high school, after reading Ayn Rand’s We the Living, I went to the Art and Music Department of the Beverly Hills Public Library, where I worked, to learn if Kira’s “Song of Broken Glass” really existed. This was before the Internet became prevalent, and we didn’t find it. But that search was a small part in that librarian’s eventually becoming my friend Stefan.

At Bryn Mawr College, I chose to take Physics for my lab science requirement—and not Geology, which most English majors took—not just to be contrarian,  but also influenced by a character in Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s novel Greensleeves.

And then there was William Butler Yeats. Starting my last year of high school, I read his poem, “A Deep Sworn Vow:”

“Others, because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow, have been friends of mine:
Yet always, when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.”

It was love at first read. I was smitten. I continued to read Yeats, and a bit of other Irish poetry. Because I fell in love with Yeats’ poetry, I spent the summer before starting at Bryn Mawr in Ireland. There, in Galway, sometime during the June Bank Holiday weekend, I became a Christian for myself. I knew about God from having grown up in a Christian family. So maybe, possibly, I’d have taken this big step elsewhere, at another time. But I always remember that I made the most important decision of my life in Ireland. And what prompted my being there in the first place was a small poem by Yeats.

It’s your turn. What’s something you read—poem, novel, or play—that affected the course of your life?


Nosy Writers and Other People’s Routines

Nosey Parker parrot

Mind your own business

I have a relative who often asks people how much they paid for something. To me, these questions seem inappropriate. When they’re addressed to me, I usually choose not to answer. But one evening, when this relative asked me how much I’d paid for my cookstove, I promptly, and gladly, gave him the information.

Why was I willing to dish?

This time, my relative’s question wasn’t idle nosiness. He himself was in the market for a new stove. He now was collecting information about the kind of stove he might want, and how much he’d have to pay for it.

What operates in us when we want to know about other people’s work routines? Nosiness, or legitimate interest?

Sure, we’re curious. How do they do life in that household? What is their normal?

But I think we writers, and creative people of all stripes, want to know about other people’s creating routines to learn. To be inspired. To have questions raised whose answering might transform our own lives, our work.

Many of us know Mason Currey’s wonderful book, Daily Rituals, which took off from his blog, Daily Routines. Both document the creating habits of 161 writers, artists, philosophers, composers, scientists. The other day I came across a related website, My Morning Routine. Here, people who create (artists, businesspeople, writers, parents, designers, etc.) answer a series of interview questions.

I look forward to learning much as I read and ponder others’ answers, as well as the questions themselves. These include,

“What time do you go to sleep?”
“Do you do anything before going to bed to make your morning easier?”
“How soon after waking up do you have breakfast, and what do you typically have?”
“Do you have a morning workout routine?”
“What are your most important tasks in the morning?”

These  questions (especially the last!) prompt me to consider changes I may want to make to my life.

So what’s something you recently considered—or, better yet, that transformed your daily pattern—after learning of someone else’s routine?


Don’t Try. DO.

A killer whale jumping out of the water.
A killer whale jumping out of the water.

Through my library and Overdrive, I’m reading Amy Sutherland‘s book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. Don’t freak out. As I see it, Amy Sutherland’s point is to acknowledge and reinforce the things we appreciate in others and ignore the things we don’t. Enjoy the positives, stop focusing on the negatives. Wouldn’t this make most relationships better?

From her book, I’m also learning something that applies to my writing and other tasks in my life. Don’t try. DO. This is what Amy writes when she observed a trainer and the beluga whale who almost got on a scale:

“The beluga had given it a shot, but the trainer’s whistle [part of the whale’s reward] was silent. Not a single fish was tossed. To a trainer, trying does not count–only doing.

Why not? Because the trainer wanted the whale on the scale. That’s, as a trainer would say, the criterion. If the trainer had tooted and pitched the beluga a herring in the pool, he would reinforce the whale’s trying to get on the scale. It doesn’t matter if the whale tried in earnest or made a lazy, half-hearted attempt. Either way it’s still just trying.” [bold emphasis mine]

So what does this mean for me? Don’t INTEND to write, but let it be crowded out by everything that shows up in my day. Don’t ALMOST finish a blog post. Soldier on, finish and post it, even if it takes more time than I’d expected, or I have to leave some priceless pearl for another time. Don’t do NOTHING towards organizing my room, just because there’s so much to do. Do something, because little somethings add up.

What about you? Where will you DO something, rather than just trying, today? We can. Let’s root for each other.



Stand Often for Health

1914 Pegasus & Bellerophon

You know that advice, to get up from your work regularly and stretch?

But in deepest flow, the body’s needs become immaterial. The night might have grown quiet as you catch your third wind, your bladder be near bursting, food something you meant to have hours ago… Yet you keep working. The one thing that matters is the present vision, the scene unrolling before you. Your mind is beyond clear. The pen skips on the page, fingers dance on keys.

You’d stand up if the angel’s trump sounded the end of time. But to stretch? Fuggedaboudit. When things fall into place, who cares about well-being?

I’m all for flow. When Pegasus shows up, I too ride him as long as I can. I limp back to my body, attend to it as to an importuning acquaintance, only when the Muses’ friend departs.

And yet. And yet…

On normal days, getting up, moving often, is something I want to start doing more. Recently I dipped into Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain Through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom, by Henry Emmons, MD, and David Alter, PhD. The authors reference Dr. Joan Vernikos, at one time Director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, charged with keeping astronauts healthy.

Here’s what they say on page 71:

“We need to constantly interact with gravity and engage our large postural muscles to maintain healthy functional movement, muscle tone, and flexibility. The simplest way to do that is to stand up from a sitting position. That’s really all there is to it—just stand up! You don’t need to keep standing. You just need to stand up frequently.

The key is not how MANY TIMES you stand up, but rather how OFTEN you stand up over the whole course of your day. It is far more beneficial, Dr. Vernikos says, to stand once every few minutes throughout the day than it is to stand up many times in quick succession. Doing thirty squats in a row may seem more worthwhile because it feels like EXERCISE, but you get far more benefit by standing up thirty times spread out over the course of the day.” [bold emphasis mine]

Isn’t that fascinating? There’s an argument for having my drinking water, or papers I need, away from my desk, and finding more reasons to periodically stand up.

And maybe, over time, I can even train the Muses’ friend to continue beating his wings while I stand, now and again, for the well-being of that pesky friend, my body.


Circling Around, Settling Down

circling around, with clouds

Years ago, I watched a master stone mason build a fireplace mantel and surround. He was a family friend, a warm, gracious man. But that morning, he said a brief hello and no more. The design had been agreed on, the materials and tools were ready.  He set to work immediately, assisted by my uncle. Within a few hours, the beautifully crafted design came into being and the woodstove could be set in place. I learned something about focus that day.

I think too of Liz Rusch, a talented, prolific children’s writer in my Portland critique group, Viva Scriva. At writing retreats, Liz was probably the first one down in the mornings. She grabbed a quick breakfast, sat down, and began working in a focused way for two or three hours before going on her pre-lunch run.

I wished I could be like her. Instead, I’d get a second serving of Baked Oatmeal… Chat with other Scrivas as they emerged into the common area to eat… Journal before writing… My project finally had me in its arms just about the time Liz left hers to go run.

But then I think of a former boss, entertainment lawyer Irwin Spiegel Osher. He’d represented many famous musicians and artists through the years, including Sonny and Cher, back in the day, and Neil Young, when I worked for him. No sloucher he. Still, as I came to know him, I learned some things about his working style in these later years of his career. Sometimes he’d immediately do what he’d planned for himself. Other times, he’d first circle around.

One mid-afternoon, my mom called. By now I knew a bit about Irwin’s rhythms, and told her, “Soon, he’s either going to settle down and finally write his brief, or he’s going to leave and maybe send me home early.”

He settled down. I carried on with whatever I was doing.  A couple of hours later, Irwin emerged with a sheaf of pages for me to type up in the morning.

So not everyone is the same. Oftentimes I, too, need to circle around before settling down to work.

Which is your style? Have you made peace with it? And what helps you launch into your work right away? Or to settle into your work sooner, after first circling around it?


The 100 Day Project: Jump Right In!

“You can still start,” I told my painter and writer friend Margaret.

Yes, I was talking again about The 100 Day Project.

Last year, when I first participated, I was telling EVERYONE about it, inviting them in: people I knew, like my younger sister, a talented but ambivalent painter; and random people I met, like the owner of Sellers Books & Fine Arts, a wonderful bookshop in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, when visiting friends there before my college reunion.

I’d pull up the cool invitation on my phone screen: “WHAT COULD YOU DO WITH 100 DAYS OF MAKING?” and proceed to read as many of the inspiring ideas around it as seemed appropriate:

Create 100 patterns
Learn about 100 new typefaces
Learn 100 new techniques
Write a 100 page book
Go on 100 dates
Make a song 100 lines long
Create 100 recipes
Volunteer 100 hours
Learn 100 new things
Take 100 photos
Sing in the shower for 100 days
Make a dance video with 100 moves
Meet 100 new people
Make 100 posters
Doodle on 100 Post-its
Draw your dreams for 100 days [Elle Luna, the popularizer of The 100 Day Project, painted hers last year]

Margaret had heard of the 100 Day Project I worked on last year. I shared with her some pointers that helped me.

1) Think small. Then maybe smaller still. Remember that battle fatigue will set in as the 100 Days continue. The grand(iose) task you can do enthusiastically for a few days may quickly become overwhelming, and then be dropped. Better to do a little, faithfully and successfully, over time, instead of a lot, but for too short a stretch to make an impact.

A year ago, for example, Chizarom wanted to draw multiple animation frames a day. I wondered if it wouldn’t be wiser for her to aim to complete one frame only, and add more only if this became comfortable.

2) Post publicly for accountability. I hadn’t been on Instagram before last year’s 100 Day Project (and haven’t been much on it since). Initially, I was going to do my writing project without posting anywhere. Good thing I changed my mind! I don’t know if I’d have lasted a week if I hadn’t publicly tracked what I was doing. I had maybe five followers (friends from the Creativity church group where I’d heard about The 100 Day Project), but the daily posting helped keep me faithful.

This year, I’m blogging rather than posting on Instagram for my 100 Days. You may choose to publicly post your progress on a website, Instagram, or even your bedroom door or cubicle wall for housemates or co-workers to see. But let someone know what you’re doing, to create for yourself the beneficial expectation of a daily fresh feed.

3) Commit to dailyness. Was it M. J. Ryan in This Year I Will… ? Or Gretchen Rubin (of The Happiness Project) in one of her books?, who wrote that it can be easier to perform an activity daily than, say, three times a week. In the latter scenario, you argue with yourself about WHICH days to work, are tempted to skip some days, and may fall behind. Whereas when something is daily, you don’t waste energy negotiating with yourself about whether you’ll do it or not. You just go at it.

For myself, as this year’s project is more ambitious (writing, reading, becoming), I’m giving myself Sundays off, to have a full day to recharge. Then I’ll likely keep going a while longer to reach my 100 Days.

4) Start anytime. Don’t worry if the official start date was a few days (or weeks, or months) ago. Just start. AND,

5) Keep going. If/when you drop the ball—just bend down, pick it up, forgive yourself, and keep going. If you were overly ambitious to start with, you can scale back and redefine the project. Also, decide how you’ll handle any “drops:”

Maybe, if you miss a day, you make it up the next day.
Or you keep going extra days until you make it to the end of YOUR 100 Days.
Or (while pushing hard to keep along) you decide to be thrilled by whatever you accomplish on your project, knowing it’s more than you’d have done if you hadn’t started at all.

Either way, I cheer you along. So what WILL you do with your 100 Days of Making?


Poetry Reading and William Stafford Archive

rainy night

These last few days, I read poems by:

-Dylan Thomas (listened to some, too)
-William Stafford
-and Robert Frost (including some of his pages-long ones)

I learned that it’s a good idea to note the titles of poems I liked or otherwise want to revisit, and perhaps a pertinent line or note about why. Otherwise, given that I’m reading poems out of order, in books that aren’t even mine—how will I find again the poems that resonated with me?

I learned, too, that there is a William Stafford archive, in which you can see manuscript pages, and listen to readings, of his poems. Here’s one I liked:

Mouse Night: One of Our Games – from Stories That Could Be True

We heard thunder. Nothing great—on high
ground rain began. Who ran through
that rain? I shrank, a fieldmouse, when
the thunder came—under grass with bombs
of water scything stems. My tremendous
father cowered: “Lions rushing make
that sound,” he said; “we’ll be brain-washed
for sure if head-size chunks of water hit us.
Duck and cover! It takes a man
to be a mouse this night,” he said.