Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Writing (3500 miles) outside my comfort zone

So, I’ve traded my writing desk in the Annex, Toronto for the seaside town of Brighton, in the southeast of the U.K. Greetings from the sunny (yes, sunny!), and mild, British seaside. Outside the window, the fields spread out for miles and miles, with sheep and horses grazing on green, lush grass. Someone just walked by in shorts.

Since I’ve only just committed to my daily writing routine, and it has been going fairly well, I have to admit I’m a bit worried about what might happen while I’m here. To my writing routine, that is. I’m 72 hours in to my vacation, and this posting is the extent of my writing.

When I consider the gym routines, vegan eating plans, weekly Economist reading goals, and other commitments I have made in the past (only to abandon 2 months later), my 3-week-old writing routine is in serious jeopardy.

I must say, though, that while the last 72 hours have not fared well for my keyboard, I’ve spent some real quality time with my camera. Which is now rammed with scenes that spoke to me on some creative level. If you ever visit the U.K., you will suddenly see how A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and Harry Potter came to be. Bricks that have weathered centuries, the structured gardens, the wind whipping through alleyways…for me, the U.K. was put on earth to inspire story-telling.

If Toronto has such story-inspiring hot spots, I’ve never stumbled upon them. Toronto has oh so many wonderful things it can boast about, but mysterious passageways, underground cities, drafty stairways, and medieval lore, are not among them.

So, I am feeling very inspired. I just need this inspiration to lead to some actual creation. Which…isn’t happening.

Number of words written towards my novel? 0. Number of ideas dreamed up neither related to my novel, nor fleshed out or outlined in any useful way? ~ 100. So, it would seem I am better able to lose myself in my own imagination this side of the Atlantic, but focus and put word to e-paper I am not.

So maybe the point of the next two weeks is to note-take without discipline – harvest my inner story dreamer-upper…take it all in while I can. And write at least 2 paragraphs a day – even if they are complete rubbish. Perhaps a break in my routine is exactly what the editor doctor called for.

So, how can you break your routine this week?

Monday, November 21, 2011

I want to write better, so I read more.

When asked for writing tips, Chuck Palahniuk advises: write the book you want to read. Sounds straight forward enough. But for those of us (like me), who enjoy literary fiction typically shortlisted for awards, this advice has the power to paralyze.

But, now heard, I knew this was advice I would be incapable of brushing aside. So, I’ve been mulling it over. And it occurred to me: now that I’m falling quite comfortably into my writing routine (an hour or so before bed, an hour or so at sunrise) and meeting my “other job” commitments from 8:30-6:30, I am spending virtually all of my time in front of one computer or another.

To make this schedule possible, something had to give. The stunned and helpless victim? My bookshelf.

Some people need a minimum balance in their bank account to feel calm…me? I need at least 10 unread books on my shelf. Otherwise anxiety kicks in. When I stood before her (er, my bookshelf) the other day, there they were: the same 10 unread books that were there three weeks ago. My newly empowered inner writer had a few choice words for them: I don’t have time for you, sweet alluring titles. I’m busy upstairs trying to write a book I want to read.

It was then I had to stop her. If I am really to take Chuck’s advice to heart, then reading needs to be as much a part of my writing routine as, well, writing. As I’m reading, as I'm losing myself in the pages, I need to be asking myself: what sentences stop me dead in my reading tracks? And why do they jolt me so?

So, I picked up 2 of the 10 on the shelf: Irma Voth and The History of Love. And, of course, I found myself jolted on virtually every page. These are two talented authors, and great books. You land upon sentences like these, and you can’t help but reflect on your own life:

“That to truly know happiness is to know the fleeting nature of everything, joy, pain, safety, and happiness itself.” (Irma Voth by Miriam Toews)

“She [Alma] was gone, and all that was left was the space where you’d grown around her…for a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.” (History of Love by Nicole Krauss)

I read these sentences (and, honestly, anything Miriam Toews writes), and I feel both inspired and hopeless. Inspired because I am reminded of the power of words; hopeless because, really, can my words ever find such strength?

I choose to feel inspired. So, now, when I’m sitting in front of the screen, it is these sentences that I strive to create. I may never get there, but with the greatest of bars set, I hope I’ll create the very best I am capable of.

So, which authors set the bar for you?

Monday, November 14, 2011

I can't write until I have my perfect writing desk! Essential, indulgent or just an excuse?

Given that creative writing is not my full time job, I have very limited windows of time that I can dedicate to my novel. Saturday mornings are usually when I accomplish the most. But as we head into holiday season, I know that my weekend writing time will be eaten into. Also, now that I am really getting serious about my book, writing one morning a week just isn’t enough.

So, last week, I committed to add weeknights to my writing “routine” – spending an hour a night (8:00-9:00pm) with my keyboard and creative self. I made a deal with myself…if my inner writer and I were getting along, I would extend the writing time past 9pm. If we fought, I would walk out on her right at 9.

Turns out, we didn’t fight. But I really struggled to give her my full attention. My focus was constantly being interrupted by a series of whines: this couch is uncomfortable; it’s too dark at the kitchen table; this chair is too stiff; I need a window; hmmm…isn’t House Hunters International on? Then the dog would walk over and nudge my leg. Or I’d suddenly feel thirsty and grab some juice. The hour passed quickly and two sentences were all I had to show for it. And they weren’t even critical sentences to the story.

I got angry with myself. Told myself I was making excuses. Who needs a special writing chair and desk to write successfully? Am I just not creative on weeknights? Needing a specific creative space…it’s just so…pretentious, indulgent, precious…isn’t it? So I did some research.

I stumbled upon an interesting posting from Chapter and Verse, and it confirmed the experience I have been living (http://www.chapterandverse.ca/worth-reading/380-the-importance-of-routine-for-writers.html). A routine signals to our mind that it is now time to focus. Which explains my issues writing at my dining table, or on my couch. When on the couch, my brain is getting the signal to watch tv. Suddenly House Hunters is all I can think about. At the dining room table, I am suddenly getting signals that I am thirsty, hungry. Those items of furniture – couch, dining table - already have routines and signals attached to them.

So, I needed a space that signalled nothing but creativity and writing.

After some almost back-breaking work, I managed to transform my old dining table (which I have been trying to get rid of on Kijiji forever; now I know why it wasn’t meant to sell) into a writing surface, and hauled it – by myself - up my winding staircase to my second floor den. It fits perfectly in the corner, in front of the window, right next to an electrical outlet. Go figure.

And then, I sat down at this new table, looked out the window, and wrote non-stop for 2 straight hours. 10 sentences finished. All critical ones. And I'm excited to go back to it tonight.

So…what’s critical to your writing routine?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Enable that inner writer who is begging for your attention

I know I am not the first aspiring novelist to have a non fiction-writing-friendly day job. Until making millions off a best-selling first novel, a corporate day job is necessary. Yes, I dream of writing novels for a living, but for now, my day job is a very necessary - and decent - taker of my creativity.

But - for anyone who has a writer lurking inside them - what I am about to say will ring true. You can have the most creative of day jobs but, if you aren't putting pen to paper (or finger to keypad) and getting your own original thoughts down on paper, you aren't fulfilled.

Now, I've trained my inner writer to accept a less fulfilling life than she would choose. I have reasoned with her, patiently explaining that until she jolts me awake with a fresh, ready-to-unfold story for the masses, that she'll just have to keep quiet from 8am-6pm every day, and allow me to earn the money needed to keep her in the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed (afterall, moleskine notebooks, apple macbooks, soy lattes, and writing desks don't grow on trees).

While she is far from thrilled with this arrangement, I must say, she hides it quite well. I have yet to sit in front of a blank page and suffer. The words always come (though I'll admit, some days the words form better sentences than others). And the story ideas do, at times, jolt me awake. However, they come into my mind far from ready-to-unfold.

And unfold they must. This is when she starts to get demanding. I've given you the words, she reminds me, AND the high level plot outline. All I ask is that you sit yourself down and take care of the unfolding. A few nuances, some bridges, and BAM! you'd have your book. YOU'D HAVE YOUR BOOK!

For all of us who have a book inside us...this is what we face. That inner writer begging for a bit of our attention. A few more hours a day, or even a few more hours a week. To pay attention to our words. To put our original thoughts down on paper. Unfold our story.

This week, I commit to sitting down with her from 8-9pm every night - with a glass of red wine. That's right, she'll get an hour of my time, every night this week. If the sparks are flying, I may even add a second hour (and a second glass). If we end up fighting, I'm walking out on her at 9.

How can you appease your inner writer this week?

Happy writing!
Steph :)