Tag Archives: creativity

Going back to my dog-earred copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

It’s been nearly three weeks since I turned my manuscript into my editor.  Honestly, I still feel very unsettled.  Creatively, I’m tapped out.  No projects are jumping up and down waiting to be loved on.  I don’t want to read the paper or books or watch TV or movies or even have serious conversations.  I don’t want to do anything that requires much mental effort.

Under normal working circumstances, I think I lead a balanced artistic life.  I’m enough in tune with my own rhythms to know that when I’m “on,” I put my shoulder to it and usually accomplish a great deal.  I also know that when I’m not in the flow of the work, it’s better for me to stop, go running, do something else.  I trust the ebb and flow of my productivity.  Listening to what I need and responding appropriately always leads to good, solid work.

Deadlines completely screwed with that plan.  Instead of stepping back, I pushed through.  Instead of taking a break, I plowed forward.  And that’s fine.  Books need to get finished on time, and I can do just about anything for six weeks.  However, I’m coming to realize how depleted I am.

I was talking about this with another writer friend, and she asked if I was doing morning pages a la Julia Cameron.  No, I wasn’t.  The thought of writing three pages a day made me a little squirmy, but when my friend left, I pulled out my tattered copy of The Artist’s Way and started reading from the beginning.  In addition to morning pages, Cameron recommends a weekly date with your inner artist.  She suggests going by yourself to some place or activity to fills you with fun or inspiration.  For Cameron, this is a way to “fill the creative well.”


Just the answer I was looking for.  It’s time to focus on filling the well.

…  and doing morning pages!


When the @^&$ hits the fan… What I worry about as I write

I’ll be honest.  I’m complicated.  I worry about a lot of things.  I over-analyze.  I dissect.  (Nod your head sympathetically toward my husband.  He’ll appreciate the gesture.)

Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a whole universe jammed inside my skin.  I’m stretched tight like a sausage with all the stuff I think about.  (Bonus points if you know why I selected that image.)

I’m not going to tell you what I worry about.  Mostly it’s boring, cliche, or embarrassing.  But I will tell you that the worrying is analogous to my writing process.  In the same way I might  fret about my kids’ future, I turn the elements of my story around and around.  I twist and tangle and ultimately untangle the narrative threads.  Because I’m complicated, I write complex characters in shifting universes.  I like to think that the personal anxiety has a purpose that is made manifest in the writing.

But the curious thing (and the point of this post) is that I never feel anxious about writing the book.  Isn’t that weird?  I worry about all these things, but there’s a deep down secure knowledge that I can write the book.  I will serve the story.  And I’m always learning how to do it better.  Cool, huh?


When writing inflicts collateral damage on real life

Garth Nix gave a fabulous speech a few years back about how writers take kernels of reality — images, emotions, events, people — and spin them into fiction.  No longer recognizable (usually) because they are  both more vivid and raw than reality was and also deeply interwoven into the narrative, these kernels take on a life of their own.  But they retain the smells and sounds of truth and that is what enables a skilled writer to evoke an emotional response in a reader.

An example:  Last week I worked on a fight scene that is built around a fight I narrowly avoided when I tried to intervene in a domestic dispute between two strangers.  There were lots of reasons I should have walked away from that situation, but I didn’t partly because I wanted to help and partly because I was an angry young woman with something to prove. I drew on those feelings to write the scene, and I hope that it makes the reader believe in my character’s reasons for getting involved.  I want them to feel like her choices were inevitable and if they had been in her shoes, they would have done the same things.

Cool, right?

What’s not so cool is when there is blow-back.

Sometimes the fiction bleeds back into real life.  Last year, I was working on a young adult novel that centers around the unlikely friendship of a fifteen-year-old boy and an eleven-year-old girl brought together by shared tragedy.  Their tragedy is one I’ve lived.  When I showed the first chapters to my critique group, Nicole asked me if I was really ready to write that book.  Was I ready, she pushed, to feel what I would have to feel?  Could I take going back to that place of broken-ness day after day after day?  What about critique on something so dear and so raw?  Would I be able to handle it?  Ultimately I decided that I was ready for it, but I definitely spent much of the year draped in a touch of depression.

Now I’m writing an impulsive, reckless, limit-pushing heroine.  To get Mara right, I’m drawing on what good, responsible kids would call their “gap” year between high school and college.  For me, it was twelve transgression-filled months, which I’m damn lucky to have survived at all.  (Not getting my ass-kicked in the aforementioned fight being one example of many dangerous situations I landed myself in.)

Now I’ve grown up and made good and am generally a respectable citizen, but writing Mara means digging up the dirt and drawing on it.  I’ve abandoned the indie folk rock I usually listen to and have switched to much more hard-charging, punk inspired music.  I’m reading edgier fiction and watching edgier movies.  It’s all supposed to make my writing better and more real, but Mara’s impulsiveness is rubbing off on me.  I’m pushing more limits than I usually would.  I’m taking more risks.

So far, there’s been no serious collateral damage…  except the blue hair.  Thanks, Mara!

Why writers need empty spaces

For those of you who follow me on Twitter or are my Facebook friends, I know I’ve been annoying you with pictures and pithy quips from the sandy, sunny beaches of Hawaii.  I’m back to the doom and gloom of a Portland winter so I’ll stop being an irritant.  However, I hope you’ll bear with me for one parting thought about my vacation.

Vacations are important and amazing for all the normal reasons. We don’t work or clean our houses or do our laundry.  We don’t set alarm clocks or exercise or make grocery lists.  We play.  And there was lots of serious play on my trip to Hawaii, but there was also something else–EMPTY SPACE.

During the last week, I had chunks of time with nothing to do.  I didn’t reach for a book or a pen and paper.  I didn’t even let my mind turn toward the next scenes I need to write in the Angel Punk novel.  Honestly, I didn’t think about writing at all.

Instead, I watched people.  I got lost in movements, gestures, voices.  I stared at the sea and sky and sand and twisted lava.  I got drunk on textures and swooping lines, the way stillness and motion merge at the horizon.  I dove into my senses: the feel of wind and blowing sand, the scent of wet earth and papaya.

A whole universe was born inside a 1987 Westphalia Pop-Up.  My family of four lived for a week in the lovely Hula Wahini, cruising the islands and inventing new phrases for our own personal family dialect.  “Going Pahoa” and “Ghetto Wahini” and “Happy Camper” will forever be part of our shared story.  I rolled around in the new-oldness of my little team.  I revisited myself (because she’s been too busy to even grab coffee lately.)

Evolutionary biologists like to say that “Nature abhors a vacuum.”  (Variously attributed to Aristotle, Spinoza, and Parmenides, but I’m too lazy to track down the real source.  Sorry.)  What we mean is that any empty ecological niche will eventually be filled by the adaptation of some species.  There are no empty places because life is cramped and crowded on this planet and any chance of freedom from competition will be exploited.

My mind is often a cramped and crowded planet.  It’s jammed with to-do lists and calendars and works-in-progress and family needs.  We keep a wicked pace.

Yet, empty spaces enveloped me last week.   And, as the philosophers promised, the empty spaces proffered by Hawaii were filled–and filled with riches that I’ll draw on for a long time.  Now if I can just remember to go Pahoa, I’ll be fine.


Never doubt that your story matters. It maintains the past AND creates the future.

This morning I stumbled from my bed to the coffee maker, turning on NPR along the way.

The first story to penetrate my brain was about President Obama’s upcoming trip to Asia.  The reporter began, “The narrative President Obama is going tell…”  He went on to describe how the future of the US economy lies in Asia rather than Europe.  So our president is going to tell a story that he hopes will create the future for the US that he desires.  You understand me?  Stories can create the future.

The second piece was from Story Corp, a project beloved by me because it collects and values the stories of everyday Americans.  In this segment, Frank Curre, a Pearl Harbor survivor, tells the story of that attack.  He describes helping with the rescue efforts and concludes by saying,

I still have the nightmares, never got over the nightmares. And with God as my witness, I read my paper this morning — and right now, I can’t tell you what I read. I can’t remember.But what happened on that day is tattooed on your soul. There’s no way I can forget that. I wish to God I could.

Frank Curre may wish that he could forget, but I, for one, am glad he can’t because his story maintains the past.

Finally, let me share with you a bit of science.

In THE ART OF IMMERSION (an amazing read), Frank Rose describes the research of Demis Hassabis, a game designer and PhD neuroscientist.  He studied the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory.  If memory works by assembling the bits and pieces of the experience during recall (rather like a puzzle than vs. a video tape), then he supposed the processes of memory and imagination should be linked.  He found subjects with damage to the hippocampus and put them through a series of visual suggestions (e.g. imagine yourself on a beach).

The results were amazing.  People who had damage in the memory center of their brain could not dredge up complex imaginings. In other words, the same part of Frank Curre’s brain that remembers the bombing of Pearl Harbor is also capable of creating the future.

We are hard-wired for story.  And it MATTERS!

Today on my run I saw an old car with a bleeding eye, skunk-sprayed dogs, a smashed snake and…


… a talking mud puddle, sunlight shining on moss, and barges on the river below.   Running is good for my writing, my monkey mind, and my butt.  I am lucky that I get to run in the forest on a ridgeline high above my city.  There is lots to distract me from the burn in my legs and the feeling of near-suffocation as I run.

I was inspired to starting running by my writer friend and fellow Scriva, Liz Rusch.  She described her ideal writing day as one in which she went for a run, ate a big breakfast with eggs, and then went to the Sterling Writer’s Room at the Central Library in Multnomah County to work for a solid 4-6 hour stretch.

After I got the right gear for running in our wet, cold winters, I too embraced this start to my day.  I fell off the wagon for awhile because I was busy with the horses and sheep at the barn (that was good for writing too), but I’m back to my running.  And except for the squashed snake, it was a damn good way to start the day.  I’m off to write.  Maybe you should go run!

WHEREAS, the Writer is an experienced writer of heroes, scientists and adventurers…

Rarely do legal contracts amuse, entertain, or titillate.  But the contract I signed this week did all those things.  Do you see how excited I look posing in front of my Angel Punk post-it note plot/character board?  And the title of this post, you ask?  Actual quote from the contract:

“WHEREAS, the Writer is an experienced writer of heroes, scientists, and adventurer…”

That line got me thinking about another line, the line working writers need to cross from hobby writer to professional writer.  I spent many years as what I would call a hobby writer.  I wrote when inspired.  I wrote when I got dumped.  I wrote when I felt all Zen.  Words were a way to process my internal experiences and to understand my world.

I got very lucky with my first book.  Paddle My Own Canoe was written out of grief and as a tribute after my grandmother died.  I read it at her memorial service.  The editor who published my grandmother’s memoir was in the audience.  She approached me about publishing the poem, which we did the following year.

And thus I stepped over the line…  I put aside the other professional plans that I laid out.  My husband agreed that it was time to give writing the full-time chance it deserved.  For me that meant, joining professional writing organizations, taking workshops to improve my craft, printing business cards, and writing on a regular schedule.  But perhaps the most important step was claiming the title.

“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”

And now…  with four books out and a contract for a YA novel that will be out next year, I wear that appellation pretty comfortably.  I’m ready to take it up a notch.

“WHEREAS I am an experienced writer of heroes, scientists, and adventurers.”


Hands in the dirt; head in the clouds.

The secret twin of my life as a writer is my life as a mini-farmer.  I’m not mini.  My farm is.  I tend a 40 x 40 vegetable garden (fenced to keep out the deer and elk) as well as the potatoes, artichokes, rhubarb, herbs, and asparagus (which have sprawled outside the fence because the herbivores don’t eat them.

It’s all manual labor for me out there: tilling, weeding, planting, harvesting.  And it’s work that leaves my back aching but my belly full and – here’s the writing connection – my writer’s mind loose, free, and open.

As creatives, we must make times for our minds to wander, to get lost, to be unproductive.  When I’m stuck, I’m usually trying too hard.  There’s nothing like a little pulling weeds to get me on track again.  That, and chickens.  They are delightful and so are the omelets!