December 9, 2009

Subject: Going forward, looking back

I might have mentioned feeling, oh, weary last week. This week is better. I feel really good about my decision to set my novel aside for a while. It’s been a relief, and I’m actually excited about what I might work on next.

How did I shift from weary despair about the present to excitement about the future? By looking back, to the past, of course.

You know how sometimes different things happen at the same time—a series of coincidences? Well, in the midst of wondering why I ever started writing this novel, I flipped through my old notebooks, trying to find when the story sparked and what enchanted me about it. What had I been trying to achieve in the story?

Then, I saw a link to Linda Urban’s blog post about spine. She talks about your Big Why: “your reason for doing what you do.” I had seen the post several months ago, and it inspired me to read Twyla Tharp’s book on creativity. Why was I writing in general?

I also received my weekly email from Author, the online magazine from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association. It had an article by Bob Mayer that encouraged writers to set up strategic writing and career goals. Where, he asked, do you want to be in five years?

I needed a personal mission statement. Fortunately, I had already written one of those, a year ago when I was applying to Hamline’s MFA program. Here’s what I said I wanted to achieve:
I want to write entertaining and suspenseful middle grade and young adult novels about coming of age, finding inner strength, and the excitement of discovery and knowledge. I want to write about vivid characters who show readers the sense of possibility, the essence of hope and the truth of being human. I want to write novels that feature a strong connection to place, with beautiful language, striking details, and multiple layers. In other words, I want to write the kind of book that you can’t put down on a first read, but that you’d enjoy reading a second or third time for new details and deeper meaning.
It’s a little long for a mission statement. I’ll have to sharpen it. Still, it gives me a clearer picture of what I’m working to achieve.

December 2, 2009

Subject: A Season of (writing with) Joy

You know how the turkey carcass looks after Thanksgiving dinner? Empty and picked-over? That’s how I felt last weekend. And it was more than normal post-holiday blues. I felt weary, weighed down, blank. I suddenly realized that my work-in-progress is at a dead end. I’ve worked on it so long that the joy has disappeared.

My usual recourse in times of stress is to dig into a good book or visit a bookstore. I love to lose myself within a story, following great characters on adventure. And I find solace in bookstores, among the shelves. But somehow during the last few weeks of November, my desire to read also dwindled away.

No reading? No trip to the bookstore? Anyone who knows me can attest to the seriousness of my situation.

In fact, as the weekend progressed, I fantasized about scenarios that involved some kind of sabbatical from all writing and printed material. It would be like those monastery retreats, where you agree not to speak for two weeks, only I wouldn’t read or write. Maybe even for more than two weeks. Maybe for two months.

Of course, as soon as I thought about going cold turkey, I panicked. What would I do if I didn’t write? What would I do with that stack of books to read? How would I survive the holidays without visiting a bookstore?

Julia Cameron says that artists have an “inner well” or “artistic reservoir” that she likens to a “well-stocked trout pond.”

Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well. Overtapping the well, like overfishing the pond, leaves us with diminished resources…. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them—to restock the trout pond, so to speak (The Artist’s Way).

My pond, to use Julia’s terminology, was empty.

First order of business (that is, after a wonderful talk with my husband), I reconnected with friends. Writing is so solitary. Sometimes I feel completely isolated in my office, tapping away at my computer. My friend Susan reminded me that we all struggle with writing at times. She told me she planned to follow Anne Lamott’s advice to “put the squeaking mouse in the jar and close the lid shut so I don't hear it anymore.” My friend Allyson supported my desire to spend more time on fun creative projects. And Liz reminded me to do what brings me joy.

I felt so much better. I am grateful for the support of my family and friends.

My goal for the coming year is to write with a sense of fun and joy. I will set my India novel aside so I can explore new characters, short stories and chapter books. I want to write books that are fun to read, and the only way I can do that, I think, is by writing with joy.

December 1, 2009

Subject: Join Story Sleuths for A Season of Gifts

This month I'll be guest blogging at Story Sleuths with Allyson Valentine Schrier. Starting next week, we'll be posting about writing tips gleaned from Richard Peck's new book, A Season of Gifts.

If you're unfamiliar with Story Sleuths, please click on over. Allyson and her blogging partner Meg Lippert, who teaches Writing for Children at the University of Washington, read and analyze respected new children's books as writers, searching for tips and ideas about how to improve their own writing. I think of their blog as a combination book club for writers (comments are welcome) and master workshop on writing. In the last two months, they featured Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Rebecca Stead's novel When You Reach Me.
During the first week of December, Meg and Allyson will look at two picture books, Snow Day by Komako Sakai and A Penguin's Story by Antoinette Portis. Then Allyson and I will finish out the month with A Season of Gifts. Next month, they'll be taking a look at a new anthology of YA short stories, Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castelluci, and featuring John Green, Libba Bray and M.T. Anderson.