Writing Methods and Progress

As I have been reading YA dystopian trilogies lately, my mind boggles at the amount of work that must have gone into each one of those books. Especially now that I am a writer, I see my experiences devouring works with my speedy reading from the author’s point of view – so much time and effort for a reader to blow through a book in a day.

After each series is finished, I hear thoughts in my head saying, “You’ll never be able to write a book like that.” In the past several months, I have learned better than to listen to those negative thoughts any more. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I have been trying to work out a way of writing a complex story that would work for me.

I tend to be big-picture oriented. Looking at high amounts of detail or data to begin with always confuses and intimidates me. It’s hard for me to get a big handle on lots of little bits. So I thought: Why not start by outlining one big story arc from a character’s point of view? Then, keep layering on character arcs until you have an idea of what characters are together when. Then you can break it down into scenes or chapters. The last steps would be to go in and fill in all the details – the dialog, the descriptions, etc. After I thought of it that way, I felt a heaviness lift in my chest. Yes, I thought, that would work for me.

As I said to a friend today, I have read a lot about time management and getting into some kind of artistic practice. I haven’t found a way to make it work for me until now. The accountability calendar I have been using that allows me to check off that I have written at least one page of journal writing a day, two blog posts a week, and three days of writing for a total of 2,500 words a week really got me going. I must not have understood myself well enough to know that I love to check off a list of things I have completed, that checking off that list makes me feel productive, and that it helps me to stay committed. Now, with my idea about writing big and then working my way into the details, I feel like another thing has clicked into place for me.

What I have learned through my writing practice this year is that each person really does have to find out for themselves what will work. You can read all you want about how other people do it. It helps if you understand what makes you feel upbeat and productive and then work that into your life. That will help you along. But no one else can really tell you what methods will work for you.

It’s just you, your understanding of yourself, and your ability to work with tools that work with you that will let you take that next small step towards your goals.

3 Lessons on A Writing Life

Today I celebrate two accomplishments: the seven year anniversary of my blog and 30 continual days of writing! Woo-hoo! I am beyond thrilled, especially at the 30 days. Along the way I have learned three lessons on how to make the writing life work for me.

Prioritizing My Writing

If you want to be a writer, then you have to make time to write. The time of day doesn’t really matter. I’m not even sure it matters how much writing that you do. However, if you put off the writing until evening, then you run the risk of getting squeezed into crunch time. Unexpected crises could mean that you don’t write until very late, your writing is not up to par, or you lose on sleep. I can write under stress if needed, but I can’t do that on a regular basis. The earlier you write, the better you’ll be. Why? Becausee you might end up writing more than you had anticipated and that’s better that not having the time to write at all.

Creating Accountability

I printed out an accountability calendar. What is an accountability calendar? It’s a calendar for the sole purpose of marking off the completion of a task that I wish to complete every day. For my writing to improve, I need to write every day, even if it’s just a little bit. This is what creates the habit of writing. Take advantage of all the different kinds of writing you can do on any topic that interests you.

Another important piece to the accountability calendar is that it is adjacent to my desk. I can’t sit down without noticing it. I like seeing the uninterrupted days of writing where I can’t miss it. If it weren’t there, I would forget how many days I would be at it. The calendar is like my drill seargent. I’m not going to get away with excuses or lack of performance with the searg staring at me, insisting I meet my commitments.

Setting Attainable Goals

The last time I tried to write daily, I had a list of writing goals that I wanted to meet every day. First, I would do my minimum three pages of morning writing. Then, I would do practice writing. If it was Monday or Thursday, I would write in my blog. Finally, I would work on my stories. Before long, I was feeling overwhelmed and gave it up.

This time, I gave myself a smaller goal set: Write every day, even if it’s only one page of morning writing. Mondays and Thursdays I write in my blog. The rest of the days I try to work on my memoir or whatever story I am writing. I have discovered that the minimum of 1 page of morning writing is easily attainable. As a result, I feel like I have achieved an accomplishment and that alone gives me the encouragement and enthusiasm to keep on writing.

The next time I want to begin any new habit, I’m going to ensure that I prioritize, make myself accountable, and set achievable goals to bolster my confidence and enthusiasm. I highly recommend it!

Illness, Alienation, and PTSD – Part 6

Read Part I, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5

The surgery in 1992 that I had for an intestinal blockage was the last of my surgeries for intestinal blockages, but not the last of my intestine and stomach related issues. Since then, I seem to have experienced periods where my stomach seemed to be having intense gas pains that worsened in intensity. When that happens, I follow this protocol:

  1. Take GasX. If it’s actually gas, GasX works like a dream. Tums don’t cut it.
  2. Take Pepto Bismol. This helps with any stomach cramping. If one dose is not enough, repeat one hour later.
  3. In the meantime, get my heating pad out and lay it over my stomach.

Almost every time in the intervening 23 years, this has worked. Mark and I vaguely remember me going to the ER once, possibly in my late 20’s, for stomach pain that would not go away. But nothing serious was discovered because I did not have any further intubations with an NG tube nor any blockages discovered.

So it was with surprise when, on March 1st, I followed my protocol to find that it did not work at all. By the time 9pm came around, an intense pain gripped the right side of my abdomen. It seemed to start near my appendectomy surgical scar and go up to right under my rib cage. When it continued unabated for 30 minutes and I was crying out in pain, I asked Mark to call an ambulance.

I had tried to go to the bedroom, but the pain caused me to curl up in a ball. Any attempts to move my right leg away from my abdomen caused more pain. I was unable to sit straight up, to walk, or to do anything except lay there. I asked Mark to go let my mother know that I was having stomach pains and that we were going to call an ambulance. I was sweating because the only other time I ever felt pain like that was when I had intestinal blockages. I prepared myself for the worst.

I felt terrible for my mother to have be in the same room with me while I was crying out in pain. The pain was at a 10 level, and I could not keep it inside, even if I wanted to (and I wanted to). I knew it was just hitting her in the gut with helplessness and shared empathetic pains, so I told her to go downstairs so that she wouldn’t have to listen to me. She refused to leave until the EMTs were taking me to the hospital.

The one thing about my town that rocks is the speed of the EMTs, police, and fire department when someone is in need of an ambulance. We waited only a few minutes before someone was knocking on our door. I needed help just to get up off the floor and sit on the ottoman. To get me out of the apartment, they put me into a chair and then slid me onto a gurney to take me to Winthrop.

By the time I was being processed in the ER, my stomach started to feel a little better. They gave me some fluids while they had me drink contrast for a CT scan. The results came back showing that no blockages, but that there seemed to be a change in caliber to the intestinal in the mid transverse colon and constipation throughout the sigmoid, ascending colon, and cecum.

I found this odd, but I chalked it up to the smaller opening that they saw in the colon. Even though I had already passed soft stools that day, I felt a kind of straining that I can only chalk up to not having enough room for the intestines to breathe. It certainly wasn’t traditional constipation, and, after the enema, the attending nurse told me that it was odd that there were no hard pieces. I didn’t think it was odd if things could not move through easily enough on their own. I was relieved not to be in pain anymore and to be able to go home.

I was released with instructions to follow up with my primary care, take Miralax for the constipation, and go for a colonoscopy. I met with primary care and her GI specialist that week, but I did not care for his bedside manner. I also did not want to go to a Queens endoscopy center. I wanted to go to a hospital that I trusted.

That weekend, I talked it over with my sister M. She helped me research GI specialists and even came over to the house to visit and to work with me. The next day, I made the appointment with the GI for the following Monday. Once that was done, my sister M then helped me research for a new Winthrop-affiliated primary care doctor. I made an appointment with the new primary care the following Friday. She spent so much time with me, helping me research and select two new doctors, that I bought her a gift that will soon be delivered.

After my release from the ER, I continued to feel uncomfortable. I could feel and hear stool moving through my midtranverse colon. It sounded like things were being squeezed through a smaller opening. I ate small meals and stuck to a low residue diet, but even doing that made my stomach feel hard and uncomfortable. My stomach felt full all day long. I had periodic bouts of pain right under my ribcage. I decided to start taking the Miralax every day and eat a low residue diet. Things went on in this manner for almost two weeks until suddently I could eat normally with no discomfort or full stomach.

I’m still taking Miralax every day, but went down to half a dose a day because stools too loose are a problem in their own right. I’m also having weird twinges and bouts of pain in the area under my ribcage. But now I have to wait. After the appointment with the GI doc, I went to check out and make an appointment for the colonoscopy.

The scheduler first offered me the date of May 12th. May! I said to her, “I have to wait two months to get a colonoscopy? That’s insane!” She then looked again and offered me an April 29th date, which I took. Afterwards, I said to my sister M, “Well, now I know that no one ever has an emergency colonoscopy. You have to wait for that sucker!”

One positive that thing has occurred is that, for whatever reason, going to the ER motivated me a bit to move forward on my writing goals. It felt like a great stone had been moved from a closed entrance, allowing light to enter for the first time. Usually, an ER trip with significant pain like this would have me refusing to move forward on things that are anxiety-producing for me. Work is one of those things that causes a lot of hand-wringing on my part, but that’s a topic for a different series of posts. However, I was able to make a few changes.

I printed out an accountability calendar created by Carrie Brummer, creator and owner of ArtistThink.com. Carrie is an art educator and tries, through her site, articles, and free online classes, to encourage people to explore their creativity in different ways. I printed the calendar out, hung it up on my wall, picked and start date and began writing.and decided that I would start using it mark off the writing that I did. Every day. Across the top I wrote, “Don’t break the chain.” Jerry Seinfeld once told an aspiring comic to write every day and to not “break the chain.” Nothing feels better than checking off that little box and knowing that I am fulfilling my commitment to myself and my writing goals every day, even if it’s just a little bit.

Today is day 13 of that unbroken chain. As a result of recommitting myself to daily writing, I restarted the morning writing exercise that I learned from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. She recommends writing three, 8.5″x11″ pages of freehand writing every morning. I found the three page minimum difficult when I tried it last year, so I decided to make it easy on myself and make it a one-page minimum. Yesterday, after spending a working day’s worth of time researching rheumatology docs for my mom, taking her to the appointment, helping her get xrays, bringing her home, filling her RX, getting milk, eating dinner, and coming home, I was exhausted. I could only manage that one page. I was surprised at the depth of what I wrote because, if you had asked me, I would have told you that any thinking at all would be out of the question.

On all the other days, I’ve managed to write that one-page minimum plus more. Sometimes it’s writing for my blog post. Sometimes it’s writing for my stories. Sometimes it’s writing down ideas that I have. WHATEVER it is, I am committed to writing and keeping the writing thing going. When I did that last year, I was so much happier. One day this week, I realized that I laughed and smiled more than I had been lately. I chalk it up to the writing practice. I feel productive.

My trip to the ER could have been paralyzing. For the first time ever, it wasn’t.

Writing Progress + Practice

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Thomas Mann

Got my butt (and the rest of myself, too!) to Starbucks for writing. Mark is working from home today. Intermittent, remote meetings means he can’t necessarily get out of the house. What do I want to do? Get out of the house, of course. So I went with my college-ruled notebook and my aging MacBook Air to Starbucks where I write.

Two days at Starbucks does not a writing habit make, but it’s a start. I have to start somewhere, don’t I? For some reason, I seem to keep going back to the start, to the beginning instead of holding steady and making progress. It’s so frustrating! I started out the year with writing at the forefront of my mind, and then I let it go and refused to pick it up again. That’s how I fail. At some point, I pick myself up and begin again.

I want to get back into writing, all sorts of writing. I can work on a novel, sure. But I have also written poetry and short stories. Working on different styles of writing can cross-pollinate your creative works. I heard about a writing contest for a 1,500 word short story. By Monday. Putting it out here so maybe you can give me a kick in the pants. It’s totally doable. I have a 6K+ word short story that I could totally adapt and make it work, or I could write a new one.

When I worked at the Berklee College of Music, I took some online creative writing courses. I still have the digital and physical materials. I was thinking about going through them again, doing some of the exercises, practicing. I did review some of the work that I did. And I thought: You know, the topic is a bit silly (I wrote about cats in more than one assignment) but the strength of the work itself stood. If you asked me then, I would have been like, Yeah. So? Now, I see that my writing skills were evident. But I need the practice.

Writing Practice is just like any other kind of practice. There is nothing in the world, no activity, that does not require practice. This means doing for the sake of doing. Sure, you’ll get better – over time. And you might be able to look back and point out a specific time where your work changes and you’ve improved.

What you cannot do is look at a single moment and declare it a failure of creativity. I mean, I guess you could. You could decide ahead of time what you wanted, measure your current effort against it, and judge it a failure. I understand that in one context – the car you designed won’t run or has a poor design that causes wind drag and increased gasoline costs.

But in terms of the fine arts, that’s a terrible approach to take. How can you immerse yourself in your work if you’re busy judging and knocking yourself down? I put that question out there as if I don’t do it myself, but I do. I am both perpetrator and victim of my creative failures. I am not calling any particular thing I do a failure. I call my inability to carry forward my dreams with the same commitment that I bring when I employed by someone else.

The great thing about this life is that the earth continues to rotate, the sun comes and goes across the sky, and that I can pick up a pen or open my computer and start putting down words that spring from my consciousness that want to escape into this world for us all to see.

Here’s to continued writing progress!

Three Reasons I Blog

Approximately six months ago, I began writing in this blog for a few reasons. Those reasons have not changed much, but I thought it would be good six month post to remind myself exactly why it is I continue to do this. For those readers who have joined along the way, this will help you understand what you might find in this blog.

#1: To Experiment with a Variety of Writing Styles

A well-rounded writer is a better writer, and blogging is its own special kind of writing. I wanted to explore this medium and expand my repertoire. No more would I write only for technical or school-related reasons! Instead, I wrote and continue to write in order to become better at this craft called blogging, and, by extension, with writing itself.

#2: To Write on a Regular Basis

When I first began my blog, I was not doing any other kind of writing. Blogging daily would keep me writing on a regular basis. Writing in my blog would test my ability to write daily, as well as my ability to come up with different topics that both I and you would find interesting. I posted a little reminder in a frame at my desk, “Singers sing. Painters paint. Writers write.”

#3: To Share My Life as Authentically as Possible

I write about topics that personally interest me: cats and volunteering with animals, personal growth and development, meditation, family and relationships. Most importantly, I write to share and possibly connect with others.

Nothing is verboten from my blog. I do not keep secrets, nor do I believe in keeping any. I do not have any topic that I would consider off limits for discussion. Having grown up in a fear-, guilt-, and shame-based household, I have worked as hard as possible to let go of all those feelings in any form. I refuse to take on anyone else’s fear, shame, or guilt as my own. I am against censorship in all its forms, most of all, my own. When I fail, I try to forgive myself and move on.

When that fails, then I write. In my notebook. And in my blog.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Artists Way Cover ArtLast week, I decided to crack open a book that I have owned twice, The Artist’s Way by artist and writer Julia Cameron. I bought the book the first time when I was in my early 20’s. Back then, I was terrified by my desires to be an artist that I let the book sit on my shelf untouched for many years. I even gave it away at one point.

Sometime last year, I bought another copy. Between graduate school, packing, and moving, the book remained unopened and unused.

Back to last week: I decided that I would start adding practice writing in a journal in addition to my daily blog posts. I figured I would never get anywhere editing my novel if I tried to sit down without any kind of warm ups. I also decided to start reading the book.

Ms. Cameron is a 12 week, theme-oriented weekly course where you tackle your creative obstacles one by one. She recommends two things: first, daily writing practice that she calls morning pages because you are supposed to write them first thing in the morning; and, second, taking yourself on an artist date wherein you go and have some fun to feed your creative side and keep your creativity burning.

Both of these basic tools are easy enough. I already planned on doing the first suggestion, and I am thrilled to consider implementing the second. What shall I do next? What are your suggestions? Ideas?