Polar Vortex and Sacred Time

Polar Vortex and Sacred Time

The past couple of weeks have been tricky at my house. Shortly after Thanksgiving, one kid came down with a cold. I counted off the days of the incubation period before the next family member fell to the virus. Three days, and it was me. It was a bad time to run out of tea, but thank goodness, the Internet is so good at providing, and before the stuffiness was finished with me, tea arrived at my doorstep.

Three days later, the second kid got the cold, too. Little Dude hasn’t had much experience with microscopic invaders wreaking havoc on his immune system, and it showed. He dissolved into a puddle of clingy toddler. Fortunately, I have lots of practice cooking with one hand while holding a squirmy kid with the other. Anything that requires two hands must be done with wailing in the background, or just has to wait.

I have this deal with myself that I will write consistently. I aim for a little bit every day, rather than a lot of writing every once in a while. Nothing puts this vow to the test more than a kid with a cold. I tried plopping him in front of Finding Dory, but even fish on epic adventures in Moro Bay couldn’t distract him from “Mama, Mama, Mama.” I pulled my best evasive maneuvers, but any attempt to detach from the tiny cling-on were in vain.

Like Frodo in Rivendell, I realized that I would have to be the one to carry the Ring of Power to Mordor. Only in this version, my sacrifice would be sitting on the couch watching movies with a dribbly-nosed one-year-old.

It seemed more epic at the time than it does now.

Really, though, what sounds like a perfect opportunity to chill out gets old after the second day. Dishes piled up, the family was going to mutiny if we had pasta for dinner one more time, and my fingers itched. My draft was almost done. It was so close that I could feel it. But Little Dude kept snagging my pen and thwarting those last few pages.

Then, when I started to think my patience couldn’t wear any thinner, the polar vortex hit us. Little Dude had just started feeling better, and the weather turned so bitterly cold that we still found ourselves trapped inside. I needed a walk. The kids needed a trip to the library or some time in the backyard to reset. Mother Nature didn’t have much sympathy for my troubles.

iced-in-frozen-leaves
Iced in.

I carved out the time, eventually. Some days my husband entertained the kids while I cooked, and between chopping and throwing stuff in the oven, I scribbled in my notebook on the counter. Little Dude started to sleep again, and I managed a few pages between his bedtime and mine.

Before I knew it, the draft was done. Two years of work finished while the world outside froze and my kids battled colds within.

It’s been a couple of days. The colds are now a memory, and the ice is melted. I’m back to fairly normal levels of personal time: not much, but enough to work with, enough to pursue my own hobbies and passions. My quick flash of pride at finishing the draft has been swallowed in the grind of revising my first novel.

Time jerks in stilted, uneven ways when kids are little. One day, I’ll find myself walking around the house, twiddling my thumbs while Little Dude and Little Miss play peacefully together. The next, I’m buried in a deluge of needs that no one can fulfill but me. It’s a strange life to inhabit as a writer, as anyone who needs to carve out some consistent time in the day. It’s taken me years of practice to learn how to judge those days when the writing will just need to wait. My inclination is to fight for every sentence, but there are times when that’s an exercise in frustration. I set my notebook to the side, knowing that I can come back, that it won’t gather dust for long.

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It always melts eventually.

The most important skill is returning to the writing when the time flows back. Old patterns must be reestablished, and no time wasted thinking that progress has been lost.

Eventually, the weather turns and the noses dry, and when they do, I’m always waiting there with my pen and my paper. New ideas, and a more flexible attitude.

How do you set your priorities, and then get back to those things that are important to you when things go back to a more normal rhythm? I’d love to hear what your challenges are, and how you get through them.

As for me, I’m grateful to have my sacred writing time back.

 

 

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Around the Sun

I’ve been on top of a few mountains. Well, and one volcano, but that totally counts. Getting up there is never easy. There are rocks to scramble over, steep trails to climb, and weather. The weather on top of mountains is often cold, always unpredictable. Sometimes the skies are clear for miles around, and all that climbing is rewarded with views of incredible landscapes. Sometimes clouds obscure everything. Sometimes it drizzles or snows and the views are even less expansive. Those days, the reward in the climb is not in a spectacular vista, but in all the small, unique sights of the mountain itself.

***

The thing about being an adult is that birthdays are not so super exciting, not least because it’s a lot harder to get all of your best friends over to your house. Mine, especially, are all over the United States. A birthday without an all-night Star Wars marathon just feels like it’s missing something, and Moscow Mules don’t quite make up for it.

Then there’s my inclination to overthink everything. I tend to get caught up in the ideas of what I should have achieved at this point in my life. What would my eighteen-year-old self think if she knew I hadn’t even published a novel by my early thirties? I had so many expectations for this point in my life that definitely haven’t been met yet.

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But there are all the things that have happened in my life that I wasn’t expecting. For three years I lived in the Pacific Northwest, which it turns out is the most amazing place on the planet, as long as you don’t mind clouds. I’ve made amazing friends in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Maryland. And my family is way bigger and cooler and quirkier than I could ever have imagined.

When I got out of bed on my birthday, I determined that I was going to have a good day. And In spite of the usual life-related chaos, I did. The family and I went to an aquarium, a bookstore, and then to lunch. I got a pastry, and later I got to listen to my daughter and my husband argue over how to sing “Happy Birthday”. It’s the simple things, really.

One thing that I hope I’ve learned in my thirty-one trips around the sun is the danger of “should”. It would have been easy to think, “I should be a published author by now.” Or, “I should be able to hang with my friends and eat half a cookie cake and watch Lord of the Rings on my birthday.” Or, “I should be able to sleep nine hours a night.”

“Should” is a guaranteed path to disappointment. It’s a rejection of the way things are, a certainty that they ought to be something else. A conviction that somewhere, out there, is a perfect life just waiting for you to step in and inhabit it, and it’s full of perfect people who follow all the rules. Drivers pay attention to Yield signs, kids understand the meaning of “No”, people who work hard achieve their goals. It’s a simple, beautiful world.

Of course, life is messy. Drivers back up without looking, kids dump Cheerios on the floor then step on them, and sometimes success takes some luck in addition to all that hard work and talent.

“Should” is no good for dealing with all that chaos. What does is a willingness to be flexible about the crazy, strange turns life takes.

***

About six years ago I went to the top of Mount Rainier, which is one of the most incredible sights in the Pacific Northwest. In the middle of October, rain is also a primary feature of the PNW. Of course, the top of the volcano was shrouded in clouds, and all the sights that people usually travel to the top of the volcano for were completely obscured. It could have been a disappointing end to a long drive.

But that day, the little things were beautiful. The shrubs were all a brilliant scarlet. The waterfalls were swollen with rain and melted glacial water. And best of all, the less-than-ideal weather meant my companions and I were the only people on the mountainside. There, in one of America’s busiest National Parks, we had solitude. It was a rare day. My fingers nearly froze, but it was so worth it.

***

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life obsessing over the way things should be. And sure, there are unjust things happening in the world all the time, and it would be great if those things didn’t happen. Yet they do, and I’m betting (barring some kind of future society in which robots determine the outcome of our every interaction) that they always will.

Maybe, though, there’s nothing wrong with getting to the top of the mountain and discovering that you aren’t going to see anything further than a hundred feet away. And that along with the limited view, you’re going to get drenched in freezing cold rain. Sometimes when everything happens the way it shouldn’t, the best things about the trip are the most obvious.

Writing Time

Writing Time

I’m the stay-at-home mom of two kids: a preschooler and a toddler. If you know anything about the stay-at-home parent gig, then you might be wondering how in the world I find the time to scratch my nose, let alone write anything. Between diaper changes, meals for kids who digest food at an unnaturally rapid rate, playground visits, cleaning, book readings, playdates, disaster management, and sorry attempts to teach the alphabet, there is really not much time in the day.

So – how do I make it happen?

Honestly, sometimes I don’t. I definitely don’t get to write as much as I would like. But I decided a long time ago that writing was an important part of my life, and something I needed to make space for. Getting words on paper is how I process the world. Without writing, I start to feel unmoored, uncertain of what I think or how I feel.

For a year after my oldest was born, I didn’t write at all. Instead, I tried to relax by watching TV and roaming around on the internet. These were dark times.

I learned.

I learned how important it was to prioritize writing. I learned just how much I needed it in my life. And I learned how to wedge it in to my very full days. Not just every now and then when I had a lot of time to commit to it. Every day.

My nest of writing supplies.
My nest of writing supplies.

One: The Importance of Accessibility

I started keeping my notebook out on the kitchen counter, or a bookshelf in the living room. When I had a spare moment, I could jot down a few words. Admittedly, this took a huge mental shift. Before kids, it took me a while to settle in and work, develop a rhythm. I thought that it wasn’t worth it to write unless I had an hour or more to commit to it. Now I focus on getting words on paper. Any words to move the story I’m telling forward. I don’t wring my hands anymore over getting that first draft just right, because half of it is going to be viciously chopped out when I edit, anyway.

I write during pauses in meal preparation. I write while the kids are playing together. I write in dentist offices, waiting rooms, and coffee shops. I write when I’m inspired and when I’m not.

Sometimes this means there’s a mess. I have several notebooks, a laptop, and reference books out on the kitchen counter almost every day. To me, it’s worth it, and my family has learned to tolerate my nest of writing materials.

 

Two: Pantser Reformed

Then I made an outline of the manuscript I was working on. This was not easy. I’ve always considered it part of my process to let a story unfold as I go along. I was a deeply entrenched pantser. But when I began editing my first book, I discovered that I had wandered far and wide from the core of the story. I had to cut away and rewrite so much that it took me a year just to put everything back together in a way that made sense.

Now I have a chapter-by-chapter outline, which not only keeps my story on track, it also helps me figure out where I am if I have to walk away from my writing for a while. I can pull out my outline, glance at it to see what I need to accomplish, what state of mind my characters are in, even what the antagonists are up to. I thought that having a guide like this would leave me feeling restricted, but really it holds the chaos at bay, because I can get off course so quickly.

What outlining method do I use? After looking at and dismissing many methods, I stumbled across a photo of JK Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. That chart made so much sense to me. I immediately opened up a new spreadsheet, and I filled in all the events in the piece I was working on, and then I bridged the gaps. For the first time I had an overhead view of my plot and all the characters’ machinations, and instead of feeling like I’d lost the organic feeling of the story, I felt inspired.

The image of JK Rowling’s outline that inspired my own method, from this website.

 

Three: The Heartless Editor

I rely heavily on editing to make my work better once I’ve written it. Because I have about as much time to edit as I do to write, I’ve learned to be vicious about what stays and what goes.

An awkward sentence? Gone. Stilted dialogue? Rewritten. A beautiful scene that doesn’t contribute to the plot? Snip, snip.

I combine characters, change names, take out paragraphs, and criticize dialogue relentlessly. At first this approach was disheartening. I watched entire scenes drop out of my first novel at an alarming rate, and then I had to stitch it all back together. But the manuscript I have now is so much stronger, and something I feel really proud of. If I had stuck to my original vision, believed every word was perfect, and refused to make those painful cuts, I wouldn’t have made room for the infinitely better ideas to come.

Other writers have a lot to say about this process. I love this quote from Shannon Hale, which aptly summarizes first drafts and the work that comes after them: “. . . I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

I don’t get too attached to my ideas. If something isn’t working, I don’t waste time, I let it go.

My editing setup, during nap time.
My editing setup, during nap time.

 

Four: All Big Things are Made of Many Little Things

The one-hundred-foot-long great blue whale is a monumental creature. It seems impossible that something so large can even exist. It’s even more incredible to remember that a whale, and everything else for that matter, is built out of minuscule atoms.

I try to look at my writing the same way, and this gives me the motivation to keep going. My progress might be painfully slow. I might have hours, days, even weeks between opportunities to write. And yet each page, each paragraph, each sentence, each word that does make it onto paper is contributing to the whole.

 

 

There, four of my most essential keys to writing even when I don’t have time to write. There are many, many more, which I hope to cover later, but these are some of the core ideas that get me in front of the paper or the keyboard, putting words to paper. The most important thing about all of these is that they are adaptable no matter what’s going on around me. I have many more specific tactics that I would love to talk about in a later post.

So, how do you write even when life is busy? I’d love to hear about your ways of making time for the things you like to do.