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
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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?

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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.

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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?

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Timers to Boost Your Focus

focus-arrow

It’s always a treat to get together with Stefania, my beautiful, interesting, big-hearted friend who founded the Blue Heron Foundation to help Romania’s abandoned children (and now those of the Republic of Moldova) attend university.

Our conversation always ranges widely across our full lives, including our creative endeavors. Months ago, stuck, I mentioned having a hard time either finding the time for, or getting back into, writing flow. Stefania encouraged me with a strategy she was using to translate her book into English: “Take just 30 minutes to work on it daily. 30 minutes on the clock.” Of course. 30 minutes is short enough so that it’s not overwhelming, and almost anyone can find that much time. Yet 30 minutes daily, over time, will advance many an important project.

Though I could have used my phone or a clock, sometime around then, I saw a mention of Focus Booster. The app has fancy bells and whistles to help with productivity tracking. For a monthly fee, you can create labels, clients, timesheets, reports. Or you could download the Starter plan for free.

I chose the latter, and used Focus Booster’s default on-screen countdown timer: 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off, with a ticking sound that starts each session (you could choose to have ticking throughout, and adjust the length of the working/break sessions, etc., even with the Starter plan). When I’d see the green background that starts off each session (the colors change as time ticks away), my brain indeed went into focus mode. Oftentimes, I started second, third, or even more sessions, as my focused brain now wanted to keep writing.

Recently, Focus Booster has changed its free plan to allow only 20 sessions a month. This limiting, and the new requirement for users to login, is sending me back to my phone timer. Still, I’m grateful to them for that green screen that so often had taken me into “the zone.” And even more grateful to Stefania for her small, doable, effective suggestion.

So what tool(s) do you use to keep yourself focused when you write?

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