Writing in Difficult Times

A journal with paper that doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through and a roller ball pen are my tools of choice when writing by hand.

Like most of you reading this, I have been home a good deal over the last several months, in order to help keep my loved ones and other people in my circles healthy and safe. You would think that with all of this extra time at home (no commute!), I would have been writing up a storm. Alas, it seems that the same conditions that are keeping me at home also seem to be stopping up my creativity.

However, I have been writing and hanging out with writers long enough to know that creativity is not something that always strikes like lightning. Instead, thoughts and ideas come when you cultivate the right conditions for them. What are these conditions? Here are a few that I found help me create a conducive atmosphere for writing:

Noticing
A good writer notices things—the color of the sky, the sound of a dog barking in the street, the conversation in a restaurant, the way a girl skips home, the feel of a fuzzy kiwi in your hand, etc. Writers also notice the way the world works with all of its contradictions, surprises, ruts, pleasure, and pain. They then take these noticings and turn them into ideas for stories, essays, poems, and more.

Recording ideas
No matter how much noticing you do and how many ideas rise to the surface, unless you record them somehow, they could slip through your fingers and be lost. Find a good way to record your ideas and the things you notice. I use several methods to retain ideas. I have a notebook with a pen clipped to it. It’s small enough to keep with me most of the time so I can always jot down a thought as it occurs. I also use the notes app on my smart phone for the times when I don’t have my notebook handy. In a pinch (usually when I’m driving, which seems to be a great time for writing blog posts in my head), I have resorted to talking into my phone and recording my thoughts or the ideas taking shape. Then I can work with them when I get home.

Routines
A good writer develops routines. Writing only happens when you sit down in the chair on a regular basis and put something on paper. Find the time and place that works for you and make it part of your everyday life. The following quote says it all:

Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.

Ralph Keyes

Transition Rituals
Oftentimes, writing requires changing gears from your daily tasks to reaching down into your mind and soul to transform your ideas and thoughts and noticings into something new. This can be a hard transition, and oftentimes a little ritual of some sort can help. Lighting a candle, brewing a cup of something hot, putting on certain music, or picking up a favorite pen can all be signals to your brain that writing time has begun.

Planning
While some writers don’t need plans to write, others find that planning is the key to bridging the gap between ideas and words on a page. I fall into that camp. If I sit down to write without any plan at all, I sometimes will merely stare at a blank page or produce only garbage. Planning seems to be an essential part of writing for me. This is not true for every writer, but if you are having difficulty getting words on paper, try brainstorming several ideas and then sit down and work on an idea a day. Just having something in mind going into your writing session can be the difference between a blank page and a rough draft.

Tools
Choose your tools wisely. If you prefer paper and pen, choose smooth paper that feels good and a pen that doesn’t make your hand hurt or smear on the paper. If you choose digital, feel comfortable with your keyboard and make sure your computer or tablet or phone has the space to contain what you want to write. If you’re writing outdoors or off the grid, make sure your device is fully charged. Having enough light helps as does having a comfortable chair and sturdy desk or table.

Focus
Finally, good focus makes a difference. We live in an age of increasing distraction, but successful writing requires the ability to focus for substantial amounts of time, using deep thought and hard work. A book that I have found helpful in re-teaching myself how to focus well is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He doesn’t have any easy answers. Work is still work, but Newport does give you the tools and practical frameworks for learning to focus for longer and longer periods of time, which can make or break your writing routines.

I hope these ideas are helpful with inspiring you to create words and articles and books and poems. Do you have any tips for creativity? Please share them in the comments.

Using Historical Context in Writing

Girl waiting for a train – pen & ink drawing by Victor Doyle

One of my writing projects is the story of my grandparents, told through my grandfather’s artwork. One thing I’ve discovered in researching for this book is that context is essential. If you are writing any memoir set in the present or near past, most readers will have the information they need to understand the times, the culture, and the details about everyday life. However, when you are writing a historical memoir, you must include specifics about the culture and lifestyles since much, if not all, of it is alien to your reader.

For instance, in the book about Victor and Estelle, things like clothing, music, transportation, communication, and more differ greatly from our experience today. Women were occasionally wearing trousers, but rarely. They wore hats and gloves and always looked “smart” when they left the house. Men wore suits, ties, and hats more often than not. Music was jazz, big band, and classical. Rock music hadn’t been invented yet.

Radio and newspapers were the main forms of communication. Long-distance phone calls were pricey, so people generally used telephones for local calls. Television sets had been invented but were not commercially available until the late 1930s; most people had a radio in their home for news and entertainment. Since email did not yet exist, letters were the main form of personal communication, both locally and long distance.

In the early 1930s, almost half of American households owned cars, and the highway system was being developed. However, for long-distance travel, trains were most often used. Air travel was still rare.

As you can see, much has changed in America since the 1930s. I have had to delve into history books from that time period to recall what life was like back then. Including those facts and connecting them to the pictures in the envelopes as well as our experience today will help make the stories more appealing and relevant.

Historical research is a key component to writing any historic piece, whether that be historical narrative, memoir, or historical fiction. As a result, you will want to develop your skills as a researcher to frame your story well.

A Room of My Own

For many years, my bedroom was the room where I did much of my study, reading, writing, and thinking. Morning is when I read, meditate, pray, reflect, and work on my current study project. With children in the house and a busy schedule, there was no other time and place to work on my own studies and cultivate my devotional life.

Now that my children are grown and mostly gone, I am working every day outside the home so I still don’t have a lot of time. However I still write and read in the morning, and I now have a place for my studies. When we moved into our house, my husband decided that since I was the only woman in a house full of men, it would be a good thing for me to have a room I could call my own. He had our contractor take the back porch and turn it into a room off the back of the house.

It’s a jewel of a room. The pale green walls reflect the sunlight that pours in like liquid gold throughout the day. The dark wood floor is covered with an oriental carpet with rich, deep colors, which my father gave me. Family heirlooms dot the room and the wingback chairs are both elegant and comfortable. And, of course, there is a full wall of bookshelves, covered in books of all kinds, so that I have novels to sink into and bits of information right at my fingertips.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, that for a woman to write fiction, [she] must have money and a room of her own…. She did not just mean a physical place, but also that one must have leisure as well as mental and emotional space in order to pour out her thoughts onto a page.

While I believe that anyone can write in the middle of a busy, crowded room, if necessary, as journalists and other professional writers have learned to do, I also can see what Woolf was implying. In order to write, you must create a mental space to take in information through reading, watching, observing, and then meditate on those things long enough to turn them into your own thoughts. Once those thoughts are formed, they must then be written down in some way. All of this takes time and space and energy, much of which is lacking in busy family life, especially when the children are small.

Of course, a mother must make time for her children. Interruptions must be allowed. Attention must be turned from her work to her child’s needs. Reeve Lindbergh discussed this in her memoir, Under a Wing:

…if I knocked at my mother’s door, she always answered, and if I entered the room, she never seemed to mind. She would put down her pen immediately, and smile gently, and ask what I wanted.

However, since my children have grown and moved out into the world to embrace their lives as adults, it has been easier for me to go deeper and further in my thinking and writing. The empty nest has allowed me to acquire the mental and physical space I need work. Having a room with doors that can be closed signals to others that I am in working mode: please do not disturb. I can now fall into what I call the “black hole of research” without being concerned for hungry tummies and skinned knees.

It doesn’t mean that the men in my house always pay attention to that closed door (which is why I still get up before everyone else in the mornings), but it does help me to feel less conflicted and less likely to be interrupted, which allows me to more freely pour out what I want to communicate. Long stretches of time are still scant, but with careful planning, I can often find corners of time and sometimes even a few hours to gaze out the window, read beautiful prose, chase down my myriad of thoughts, and write what’s in my heart.

A room of one’s own—what a luxury and a comfort to have this place of beauty in which to work and think and ponder the important things of life. This room, this jewel, is in the top ten of things for which I am thankful every day.

Favorite Authors: Madeleine L’Engle

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Last week I finished A Circle of Quiet, the first in the Crosswicks books, by Madeleine L’Engle. It has been on my “to be read” list for years. However, I had never found the right time or been in the right mood for it until now. What a lovely book! L’Engle talks about the writing life, family, community, God, and many other things. It’s a memoir of sorts but so much more. Listening to her voice, I heard echoes of ideas I have pondered, events I have meditated upon, and values I also hold dear. It gave me hope that my writing is not in vain and that I must continue to pursue it as long as I am called to put words on paper.

This is not the first time that L’Engle has written something that filtered into my mind as sunlight filters through the branches of a stand of trees. In my early teens, I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time. The protagonist, Meg, was so like me—nerdy, misunderstood, thoughtful, awkward. I had braces but no glasses at that point in my life. Instead, I had wild, curly hair in a time when everyone had straight hair, “feathered back”.  My nose was stuck in a book every possible moment, I spent hours writing in journals, and I was still fond of my dolls, although I’d never dream of letting anyone at school find out.

I loved Meg and her search for her father, the quirky Mrs. Whatsit and the adventure. When Meg found a friend in Calvin, who seemed out of her reach, I realized that I might not always be weird and misunderstood. Her little brother Charles Wallace, her mother’s lab at the house, and making spaghetti sauce while doing research charmed me.

The sequel, A Wind in the Door, was another favorite. Looking back, I suspect it had something to do with my love of biology in high school and choice of a major in biochemistry. I spent many hours in the library after finishing A Wind in the Door, reading about mitochondria and wishing that farandolae existed so I could discover them.

Both of the books helped form my thinking as a teenager. I learned that being odd was okay, that big thoughts were allowable, and that someday my outer and inner lives would reach an equilibrium of some sort.

I read many of L’Engle’s adult fiction years later including one of my favorite books, A Small Rain, and its sequel, A Severed Wasp. As I read these two books I realized how L’Engle incorporated her belief about God throughout her books, which caused me to view her writing in a new light.

Five years ago, I first picked up one of her nonfiction books, The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth. I marked so many of the thoughts, it’s almost a solid underline. I did the same with Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art a couple years later.

I plan to read the rest of the Crosswicks quartet soon and someday finish the Austin books (I’ve only read the first). I know that Madeleine L’Engle’s books have much more to say to me as a writer, as a human being, and as a Christian. It is a delight to know there are so many of her works I have yet to read for the first time. I look forward to learning much from them as well as enjoying her prose and sampling her poetry.

Achieving My Goal

There is nothing as satisfying as achieving a goal you’ve set for yourself, especially if that goal is one that stretches you outside of your comfort zone. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I decided to spend the month of November participating in NaNoWriMo to develop the habit of daily writing.

If I had plenty of time at home to work on my goal, reaching it would have been easier, but between going to work daily, organizing a conference, and preparing for Thanksgiving, my time has not been free and easy this month. Instead, I had to do what many writers did over the centuries.  Anthony Trollope, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and many others had to fit their writing in around their day jobs and so did I. Each morning, I wrote until my timer went off, signaling that I had to quit writing for the day and prepare for work.

I wrote about books and reading, my faith, prayer, and listening to sermons, memories of my mother and favorite authors. Despite many responsibilities, I was able to carve out moments for reflection, creativity, and turning my thoughts into words and sentences and paragraphs.

I missed one day of writing and found myself writing in my head instead. I once read that the more you express love the more it grows, and creativity is similar. The more I wrote, the itchier my fingers grew, waiting for the time to put my words on paper.

I never stop thinking, but my thought life can become stagnant when I don’t feed it or let it flow freely. Like damming a stream, you can stop up your mind until the algae forms on top and nothing can grow because the water of your mind is stagnant. On the other hand, when you let your stream of thoughts run freely, the flow brings many kinds of thoughts and ideas and words and mental images tumbling out, eager to be shared. Writing daily gave my thoughts a place to go which, in turn, allowed more thoughts to form.

Before I started, I didn’t know whether I could make the time or have the discipline to write every day this past month. Some days I didn’t want to write. If I did my writing at the start of my day, I was more likely to succeed than if I waited until later in the day when distractions abounded and my brain was overflowing with too much input.

Like regular exercise, I became used to working on a new idea each morning and began to look forward to my daily creative time. I had listed topics for possible blog posts in October, but I ended up using only half of them because the more I wrote, the more new ideas would pop up during the day that I wrote about as soon as I could find time.

November was a good month, and I plan to continue to write or at least edit every day. I hope to share the fruits of my work with you over the next several months.

Do you write every day? If so, when is your best time for writing and how do you carve out time for your creativity each day?

Daily writing and NaNoWriMo

For the past four years I have been leading and facilitating local writers groups at the library where I work. Each November I encourage the writers to take part in NaNoWriMo, but I have never participated myself. I had multiple excuses: I write nonfiction, not novels. I am homeschooling and working so when would I find time to write?  I could never write that many words in a month. That’s for real writers not my wannabe self.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Each year hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world attempt to write 50,000 words in November. If they succeed, they “win”. What do they win? Nothing monetary, but they will have a completed rough draft of a novel and a banner to download to their website/social media.

So why participate? There are several reasons: it’s more fun to write with others cheering you on which happens a lot during the month. It’s more likely you will sit down and write when you have made it public you are writing 50,000 words. There is nothing quite like the pressure of making a public pledge to keep you accountable. Even if you don’t achieve 50,000 words, you will still develop the discipline of writing every day.

Writing is only successful when you sit down every day and put words on the paper. Neil Gaiman said, “To be a good writer… read a lot and write every day.” A writer once commented that it takes a million words before you are a competent writer. That means if you write 1,000 words a day, it will take three years of daily writing to get the bad writing out of your system. Only then will you start to write the good stuff. But if you never start, you will never reach competency.

I cheered others on but never took part myself until I  decided to join in the fun this year. Why did I change my mind?

First, I discovered the “rebels” group. There are various group forums on the NaNoWriMo site. Groups for research, various genres, resources and support, fans, and the rebel group. The rebel group includes poets, playwrights, bloggers, nonfiction writers, and others. They set their own goals. Some want to write 50,000 words on a nonfiction project. Others want to write a poem a day for 30 days or work on their thesis or set research goals for a new book. There are as many goals as rebels, which is okay.

Since there was a group in which I would fit, I thought about joining. But what would I write? I still have far too much research to do on my book and I didn’t want to set research goals this first time out. I did, however, want to develop the discipline of writing every day, and I decided to write 30 blog post drafts in 30 days.

I won’t be posting all thirty immediately since the point of this exercise is getting a rough draft down.  However, I hope to post at least once a week, and by the end of the month, if I succeed, I will have two things: thirty blog post drafts for the future and the discipline of writing every day.

As I have been writing regularly over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that it easier to get my thoughts on paper and I have been increasingly creative. Also, it is autumn and I spend more time thinking and pondering and meditating this time of year.

To reach my goal, I’ve been rearranging my morning time customs: I am getting up earlier each morning to make time for more contemplation and prayer, more reading, and regular writing. I am spending less time on social media and the internet. I am picking up pen and journals more often. I’m attempting to spend more time with real books rather than electronic books.

I’m not against electronic books but it is too easy to get distracted when the internet is on the same device as the book. With a paper book in my hand and the internet devices in another room, I am more likely to lose myself in the story than go look up a rabbit trail topic. With a paper journal and pen, I am more likely to keep writing rather than go find the perfect word or do research on my current topic or find the exact wording of a quote I want to use.

Expect to see more regular posts from now on and also ask me how it’s going. If my friends and family know about this, hopefully they will encourage me, keep me accountable, and check in on my progress throughout the month.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? I’d love to hear about your goals and cheer you on in your writing.