Turn into the Skid: What to do when writing gets tough

For many of us, the act of writing can lead to many wonderful moments of joy, satisfaction, and feelings of accomplishment. Still at times, writing can be a frustrating, anxiety-producing, even depressing task. Often when we get to a place in our writing that makes us feel uncomfortable, sad, depressed, or anxious, we turn away. Many times I’ve walked away from my memoir-in-progress when it got to just be too much to sit with. I didn’t want to recall painful experiences from the past –even though that is the whole point of writing a memoir!

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While reading a recent article about how we handle conflict in our lives, the writer said we should “turn into the skid.” The writer, Diane Hamilton, uses the analogy of driving; when we hit a bad patch of road, our instincts are to brake hard and turn away from the danger, but of course, this only causes us to skid more and possibly crash. By turning into the skid and letting off the brake, we allow our vehicle to correct itself and coast to safety.

In relation to writing, when we hit a bad patch of difficult writing, our instincts are to turn away from it. We find other things to do – eat, surf the web, check our email, text our friends, or worst of all for a writer, pretend it didn’t happen – anything to avoid the difficult job in front of us. We’re putting on the brakes and turning away from our writing. But by turning into the skid, we face the difficulties ahead. Turning away, or avoiding our writing when we get to the pages that are most difficult to write, can cause us to lose a bit of ourselves. Hamilton writes:

“We may not really even know how we feel about things. We’re so deeply habituated to withdrawing that we don’t even take the time to think and feel and wonder what something is, if it matters, how it matters and what it means. We just disappear” (“How Do You Cope with Conflict?”)

The next time you’re writing and come upon a particularly difficult moment, turn into the skid. Mindfully face what is in front of you and avoid finding reasons to turn away. Don’t be afraid, embarrassed or ashamed to tell your story. Consider this an opportunity to rethink, re-evaluate, and recall moments that are still causing you sadness, pain or guilt. Consider this also as an opportunity for growth. Turn into the skid.

Writing as an Heirloom

 

People often ask writers ­– or at least they ask me – why we write. This always sounds like an odd question to me. That’s like asking a sculptor why they want to be a sculptor, or a singer why they want to sing. Because the sculptor or singer will find happiness and fulfillment fulfilling those desires, just as writers find happiness and fulfillment through writing.

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But I suppose there is a more to it than that. One very real reason writers are moved to write is because we feel the need to leave something tangible behind after we’re gone. Just think of all the wonderful literature that has stood the test of time, passed down through the decades and even centuries. Those writers have left a piece of themselves for future generations. In doing so, the writers live on through their stories.

Leaving the legacy of writing isn’t only for great poets or memoirists or fiction writers. Consider all the stories of your family you’ve heard from parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. Do you ever wonder how many family stories have simply been lost? Perhaps some of those stories are too painful to speak of; why dredge up the past? In practicing mindfulness and mindful writing, we strive to live in the moment, but that doesn’t mean we don’t think about the past, or avoid analyzing the past. That’s impossible. And often the burdens of the most painful pasts are lessened when we face them and process them through writing.

Writing our past, laying bare family skeletons and buried secrets, can often have a cathartic effect on families. Releasing painful memories can take away their power. From personal experience, the family stories the older generations in my family have tried so hard to bury (stories of brothels and mob bosses and living in “sin”) aren’t really as bad or damaging or hurtful to those of us left as they might have been for older generations believed them to be. They are the truth, our truth and our heritage. How sad these stories might have vanished with the deaths of older generations. I cringe when I think of all the stories that already have been lost.

Most families probably don’t have the colorful past and made-for-TV drama that I was born into, but their stories are just as meaningful and important to those who are left behind. There is nothing more enduring than handing down the heirloom of our stories to our children and grandchildren. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Writing Exercise:

What are the stories of your parents? Your grandparents?

Do you know how your parents or grandparents met?

What kind of house did they grow up in?

What did their mothers cook for Sunday dinners?

What was their father’s first automobile?

This list could go on and on. If you don’t know, start asking!

 

Save the date! Heirloom Writing Workshop March 5, 2015 in Omaha, Nebraska. More info to come.

 

Taking a Day Off in Nature

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This week has been a warm one for the end of October, and I have been toiling in the garden, relishing the last of the warm sunny days. As I clean the fallen debris from the flower beds, plant the remainder of the clearance-priced perennials, and lay a new paved walking path, I am clearing a path for my writing, laying the groundwork for a long winter of creativity.

Recent research has shown that physical activity in nature not only increases happiness, but also creativity and focus. The very act of the physical connection with the earth acts as a conduit for creativity. Something as simple as a leisurely walk has been shown to increase cognitive ability.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir

A writer who sits in front of a computer all day will surely burn out sooner or later. We have to take a break to recharge our minds and stave off writer’s block, and I find gardening is the perfect way to rejuvenate. There is much writers can learn from gardeners – the importance of sowing seeds, the need to nourish the soil, the necessity of preventing weeds from overtaking the garden – all metaphors for our own writing. For those of us who garden, as we work the earth through our hands, we often are working stories through our minds, turning words over as if tilling the hard earth to lay the groundwork for a new harvest.

“I have never had so many good ideas day after day as when I worked in the garden.” — John Erskine

Take a day to be alone in nature. Notice the sounds of the birds, the feel of the breeze, the fragrances of the grass and trees. Find a spot to garden, if only to simply plant a flower or a few fall bulbs. Feel the earth as you work it in your hands; breathe in and out, meditating with your eyes open.

“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” — Mahatma Gandhi

 

In Defense of Writing Longhand

Years ago when I was getting my undergrad in creative writing, I wrote everything longhand. I wasn’t much of a computer person anyway, and felt much more comfortable composing pen in hand. A few years later in grad school, I felt a bit of peer pressure to write on a computer (as everyone else did) so my pen and paper was left to gather dust.

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I’ve always been a pretty “busy” writer. I have about five projects going at once and can go from essay to blog to book and back seamlessly. However, I have noticed lately that composing on the computer has slowed me down – not physically, but mentally. I’m not producing like I used to when I used pen and paper. My unfinished book draft has been gathering cobwebs for over a year, and I can’t muster the desire to sit down at the computer to revisit it. The first draft is this-close to complete, but yet, it languishes.

At home, I would sit and stare at the empty screen on my laptop, sometimes glancing over to the oak bookcase that holds my stack of dusty yellow legal pads and favorite ball point fine-tip pens and feel a sense of loss. After one frustrating, unproductive session on the keyboard, I pulled a legal pad and pen from the shelf and went to the front porch, curled up in a rocking chair, and began. As the pen glided across the crisp pages, my writing took a new rhythm, words flowing effortlessly from my pen. Writing longhand, not printing, but cursive, with the ebbs and flows of movement like a gentle, downhill stream, opened a well of words and sentences and paragraphs that had been stuck inside the hard plastic shell of the keyboard. The repetitive pecking of computer keys was replaced with the hushed swishes of my pen, line after line rushing back and forth across the page like the tide. I fell into a meditative rhythm, time standing still, the perfect words and phrases washing across the pages like an artist’s brush.

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I haven’t revisited my book manuscript yet, but I’m excited at the thought of returning to it with pen and paper. I know I’ll eventually have to transfer those handwritten words onto a computer, but that’s an extra step I’m willing to take.

How do you write — on a computer or with pen and paper?

Try both, and share with us how your experience differed.

 

 

The Currency of Time

As I’ve written about previously here, last fall I moved just a bit outside the city to the quiet of the country. Living with no neighbors and few passersby fits my introverted personality quite nicely. The nearest place resembling the hubbub of city life I left behind is the Cubby’s Mini Mart two miles away. However, I can only take the busy and often boisterous Cubby’s in small doses.

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I knew that moving out of the city would force many adjustments, but one unforeseen change has been how I see time. Time is the one thing with which we are all equally blessed/cursed. How each of us choose to use it is what differentiates us from each other. The spending of time is sometimes set, as everyone needs at least some sleep, but outside of the six to nine hours of sleep is where we depart.

Now that I live in the quiet of the country, I spend most mornings outside in my patio chair. I never sat outside much in the city, because of the noise mainly – a daycare on one side and screaming teenagers with hemi trucks on the other. Now that I am isolated, I sit outside more and do pretty much nothing. I watch the birds come and go – this week a family of bluebirds has moved in; I never really noticed birds before. Now I notice downy woodpeckers and nuthatches and barn swallows. I watch for the fox that roams the gravel road early mornings, and the woodchuck that seems to be making a daily meal out of our rotting chicken coop. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? He’d eat approximately a 3×4 hole out of a small building.

I’ve also had to adjust my newspaper reading. In the city, I took the early morning paper, my days beginning with coffee and the news. When I moved to the country, I learned, to my bewilderment, they don’t deliver a morning paper. How would I spend my morning? How would I know what’s going on in the world? After a month or two of no paper, I decided I really didn’t need to read the news the moment I rose from bed, so it freed up a lot of time. So I sat outside and watched the birds some more, thinking.

Now that I live on a gravel road, I have to drive slower. My Volkswagen Jetta wasn’t made for bumpy gravel roads, so now, just like everything else, the pace of my driving has slowed to a crawl. But this doesn’t necessarily take more of my time. In fact, the time I spend in my car now has become a different type of time than when I drove on the busy streets of the city. Sometimes I’ll turn down a dirt road just to see where it will lead, to see what I will see. I’m looking out instead of looking ahead. I hated wasting time driving before; now I look forward to that time.

In the city, there was always something to do, a restaurant to try, music to hear, a festival to visit. I was always doing something. Now I don’t always do something; I often don’t do anything at all. At first I missed the variety of restaurants the most, but mostly I just felt I wasn’t busy enough. Before I was always busy doing something, and now I was a bit lost in my unbusy-ness. What does one do when there’s nothing to do? At first I searched for things to do, but as time passes, I’ve come to like doing less. I suppose you could say I’ve undone myself.

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Nighttime has changed as well. Now I leave the confines of the house at sunset, building a fire out by the barn as I sit to watch the sun go down and the stars come out. And the stars come out in the country, big, bright, glowing beads of crystal right above my head, so low it seems I could reach up and pick them from an invisible branch. I never spent my time at night like this in the city. I cleaned house or watched TV or read the paper or magazines or the occasional book, always doing, always looking down and never out, killing time, a mass murderer of time.

Now when I sit under the nighttime stars and watch time pass, I feel I am most productive. Before I had the same amount of time as everyone else, but spent my allotment in ways I wouldn’t dream of now. I realize time doesn’t fly. Birds fly; time passes. Time is a currency that we all spend in different ways for different reasons, and the pace at which we live our lives is a choice. The time to just think, to contemplate, turning over thoughts like mossy rocks, is a kind of time I never had – never took – before. The open space where I now live has brought with it open spaces of time, and now that I have it, plan to guard it as if my life depended on it. Perhaps it does.

 

What is your relationship with time?

Do you ever hear yourself saying, “I don’t have time to write” (or time to … fill in the blank)?

If you had more time, how would you spend it?

 

Am I Good Enough? Persuading Your Worst Critic (You!)

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When I teach writing classes at the university or workshops for the general public, I always get the same question from students: Am I a good enough writer to, well, be a writer?

I honestly never know how to answer this question. Sometimes I answer the question with a question – “What do you think?” – followed by a long pause as they wait, breathless, for a real answer. Some writing students start out with, quite honestly, little talent for storytelling. But often these students become the best writers. Why? Perseverance. Stick-tuitiv-ness. They read, read, read, take time to hone their craft and never lose the desire to learn. In contrast, the person a class might deem the “best” writer of the group might never write another word in his or her life. Does that still make them the “best” writer? How can you measure talent or aptitude without a regular practice?

“I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels, most would choose none.”
― Ben Shahn

Whether aspiring writers become “real” writers, successful writers, whatever that means, is perhaps less important than just showing up. Showing up means scheduling a regular practice of writing, as Anne Lamont says, “-whether there are dirty dishes in the sink or a dead body.” A regular practice brings not only knowledge and understanding of craft, but also confidence, which for many writers, is much more difficult to gather than skill. You can’t be if you don’t do, and doing will help build confidence in your skills and abilities.

Avoid buying into the desire to measure your progress or talent against another. You are unique, with unique talents as well as challenges. I know successful writers who don’t need to work for a living and others who work full-time while raising three kids. Each is a unique situation which may or may not affect the amount of time and energy one has to write. For many of us, we look to others for the scale of how to measure ourselves when the only scale we should use is our own.

 “The battle you are going through is not fueled by the words or actions of others; it is fueled by the mind that gives it importance.”
― Shannon L. Alder

Are you good enough? I can’t answer that. No instructor can. Or I could have answered, “Yes! You are good enough!” Avoid putting so much weight in my or other’s opinion that you let it affect your actions. I do know if you write with attachment to the outcome – that you’ll be published or famous or the best writer in your class or the world – you’ll miss out on the joy in the act of writing itself.  If you truly love writing, that’s a joy I’d hate for you to miss out on.

Writing with a Beginner’s Mind

Writing with a Beginner’s Mind

One of the basic tenents of mindfulness is beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind refers to the act of thinking like a beginner as you engage in any activity. Can you think back to when you first started writing (or painting, or gardening, or even showering) and how you were thoughtful about the choice of each word, how excited you felt when you discovered the perfect metaphor, the sense of accomplishment you felt after a long stretch of writing? As writers, many of us have been writing so long that we just cruise on autopilot, but how would your writing be different if you came to it from a different perspective, that of a novice?

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For those of us who have been at it a while, we often forget why we chose to take up this often frustrating, isolating, vexing profession/trade. Bringing a beginner’s mind to our writing can serve to open up new channels of creativity that might become blocked by a fixed, stale perspective.

All writers, at some point, must have possessed a love of language. Think back to what made you fall in love with storytelling. I always got a rush when I discovered the perfect conclusion, not because I knew I was done, but I just love great conclusions. I love the art of pacing and rhythm to get there and the moment of release with that final line. After writing a while, I found that I didn’t appreciate those hard-won endings as much I once did. The novelty of creating them had worn off. The mindfulness practice of beginner’s mind offers writers the opportunity to re-discover the joy we once experienced in the act of writing.

Exercise

Think back to the first time you picked up a pen or pencil or tapped a keyboard. What did it feel like, on an emotional level? Can you recall? Were you excited? Enthusiastic? Terrified?

Now think back to what you felt on a physical level. Did you enjoy the feel of the perfect fine-tipped pen in your hand? Did you hold a spiral notebook, or were you the yellow legal pad type? Maybe you never wrote a word longhand, but have always typed because you liked the feel and sound of tapping keys.

If you began writing by hand and now only type, even your first drafts, try writing by hand and see what happens. Going back to our writing roots is often a great way of unblocking our stuck creativity.

Let me know how it goes!