Retiring the Blog

Hello there, blog. Remember me?

I’ve been spending a lot of time so far this year over on other people’s blogs talking about my debut novel, We Hope for Better Things. And other people have been spending time over here on my blog as I’ve shared interviews with other debut authors. And, of course, I’ve been sharing my new podcast episodes here. And if you get my email newsletter, you know I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on that for about two or three years.

All of this has added up to a lot less time and brainpower spent on blog posts. Perhaps that’s all well and good. People aren’t reading blogs as voraciously as they used to. They’re spending more time on Instagram and Twitter and podcasts. And those who are still reading blogs are less interactive than they used to be, because we’re all reading on our phones far more than on our computers, and that’s less conducive to typing out comments.

I must say, I miss the time I used to spend in this space. It has been, in one form or another, a part of my life for more than a decade. A decade during which I struggled to decide what it was I wanted to say and what I wanted to do with my time. It used to go by other names: Stuff No One Would PublishThe Consummate AmateurA Beautiful Fiction. It had several different faces and two different web platforms. I’ve written about nature, gardening, seasons, travel, Michigan, family, sewing, quilting, and my long and determined trudge toward publication.

And now, here I am. All of that practice and all of that striving has paid off. And that means that I have less time than ever to muse in this space. Most free moments must be put to use in the creation and promotion of my novels (and there are more coming). I’ve set myself a rather punishing schedule with a weekly podcast and a monthly newsletter, one which I feel I must pull back from a little in order to give myself more time for novel writing.

All of this to say, I think it’s time to retire the blog, or at least put it on hiatus. I won’t delete the content. But it will be moving to a less prominent place on my website in the near future. Sort of a digital spring cleaning, if you will.

So if you like hearing from me now and again, may I suggest signing up for my at-the-moment monthly (though likely to become quarterly) email newsletter? And if you like more frequent glimpses into my life and mind you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter. And if you like photos, you can follow me on Instagram.

Just as the seasons change, life changes. What we once valued and took time for falls by the wayside, replaced by something better. And that’s just the point I am in my creative life right now. I hope you’ll join me in one of those other spots. Until then, I’ll be writing my next novel.

Thanks for reading. Really. My sincerest thanks.

Rediscovering the Power of Idleness

In the second episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling walks into Don Draper’s office and says, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”

As both a professional copywriter and a novelist, I knew exactly what that meant. Creative work, whether you’re coming up with sales angles and headlines or plot twists and character arcs, requires marination — periods of time in which the writer looks like they are doing nothing at all when in reality there is a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, as it were.

Whether lying on the fabulous mid-century modern couch in your swank NYC office, taking long walks in the woods, or just staring into space at your desk, “doing nothing” is important. It looks to all the world like idleness — laziness, even — especially to those with more visibly active jobs. But it isn’t.

I was recently talking with a friend whose kids are intensely scheduled — school, music lessons, sports, and other extracurricular activities, one right after another, nearly every day of the week. I felt exhausted just listening to her list them all out. When I commented on how that seemed like a lot for a kid to do, she responded that otherwise her son got bored. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that her son will do something amazing with his life (and knowing his parents, I’m sure of it) but that thing will not be becoming a writer.

From my earliest days, I was a “lazy” child. After having had an extremely active (maybe even hyperactive) first baby who climbed and ran and tumbled all over the place, my worried mother actually asked the pediatrician if there was something wrong with little Erin, who spent most of her time sitting and staring off into space.

“She’s just thinking,” was his wonderful reply. And I guess I was.

As a kid I spent a lot of time drawing and reading and sitting in trees, all activities that allowed me to do a lot of thinking. Sure, I played sports and acted in plays and played an instrument as I got older, but most of the time, I preferred to just observe and think. I was never bored. I was never looking for more to do. In fact, I was really good at doing nothing at all, which, as I grew up, I realized not everyone can do.

My childhood talent for idleness came from my father, who loved nothing more after a long day at work than to turn the stereo up loud, sit down, and listen with eyes closed, drink in hand. He wasn’t someone who always had a bunch of projects going. He wasn’t going off to parties or performances. He liked being home and relaxing by himself. I can’t imagine him ever feeling lonely or bored during these times.

I certainly didn’t get my talent for doing nothing from my mother, who couldn’t sit down to watch a movie without also ironing or folding towels or cleaning out her purse. She was the list-maker, the errand-runner, the shopper, the one making dinner and cleaning the house. She was always productive in a way my father and I were not. Nowadays she’s learning to enjoy relaxing with a book (though I suspect she still can’t watch a movie without a sewing project in hand).

As a teenager, my sister jumped at the chance to get a job and earn money that she could spend while out with her friends. I resisted getting a job for as long as I could. I didn’t care about earning money because I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t care about having a car, going to movies at the theater, going to the mall. Everything I liked to do, I did by myself and none of it cost more than I could earn doing chores around the house (which I would always put off until the last possible moment).

I was lazy and content.

Then at some point, perhaps once I was done with college, I turned into my mother.

With just a job and no school, I suddenly had a bunch of empty time to fill and a bit more money to spend. I began making lists and thinking up little projects and shopping for stuff I didn’t need. I started hobbies — scores of them — and filled my time with stuff to do. I still didn’t care to do the stuff that actually needed doing — like cleaning and laundry and grocery shopping — but by golly I made a lot of cards and jewelry and quilts.

I kept busy and I somehow got the notion into my head that any recreational time I had should be productive. That there should be some visible result or product of anything I did. Something to show for my time. I have no earthly idea where this notion came from. It certainly wasn’t a concept I was raised with. My parents never told me that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Maybe it was just the natural result of reading DIY magazines. Maybe I spent too much time at Michael’s and Jo-Ann’s. Maybe it was just living long enough in a frenetic, get-ahead-or-get-left-behind culture. I have no clue. But somehow I had lost the white space in my life. And while my twenties may have been extremely productive years in terms of things created, they were barren years in terms of creative thinking. They were years I thought about how I’d like to write . . . and yet didn’t write a word worth reading.

Lately I’ve been reclaiming my down time, from both responsibilities to others by quitting a few activities and from the arbitrary busyness I have tended to create for myself. I’ve spent entire afternoons reading and not felt guilty about wasting time. I’ve spent entire days closing myself off in a room to write. I’ve spent entire weeks off work without checking my email. I decided that it’s okay for my garden to just be pretty and not productive. It’s okay to binge-watch The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. It’s okay to amble through a park and watch ducks and collect pretty leaves.

Nothing has to come of it all. It’s just pleasant idleness. It’s just enjoying myself, my family, and my world.

And in rediscovering the idleness I was so good at as a child, I find that I am recovering the “empty” time I need in order to write.

“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing,” Roger Sterling said to Don Draper. But he wasn’t doing nothing. He was doing his job, and doing it in such a way that he made his company quite successful.

At the end of our super busy months of September and October, I told my husband that I was not going to say yes to any invitation to go somewhere and do something on any Saturday in November. And except for one Saturday in December, the same conviction holds true. I don’t need the time to do anything specific at home beyond rake the leaves and do the laundry. I need that time to just do nothing. 

I know that to a lot of people this seems kind of rude and selfish and antisocial and lazy. But it really isn’t. My 9-5 job is writing. My avocation is writing. And my writing well is not filled by engaging in activity for activity’s sake. It’s filled by reading, walking, observing, thinking. It’s filled by things that look like nothing.

Writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Henry Miller, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and many others understood the importance of giving the mind room to work by simply taking a walk, and this article has a lot to say about why that is. I heard a speaker at a recent conference relay some advice she had drawn from another writer (whose name escapes me) that “If you aren’t reading so much that you feel guilty about it, you aren’t reading enough.”

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams,” said Virginia Woolf, “that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” And if I, as a writer, intend to be about the business of discerning and presenting truth, I need the time that I need in order to discern it and present it in such a way that the reader experiences it in the most fulsome and lasting way possible.

If you are a writer or a painter or a poet or some other kind of artist who has been feeling guilty about the time required to do your art well, I invite you to join me in recovering and relishing your “idle” times — which of course we know are anything but. Others may not understand, but what they don’t realize is that every time they read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song that speaks to them, they’re enjoying the result of someone else’s strategic idleness.

Time: The Great Motivator

At some point over the long weekend, this blog surpassed 2,000 followers, so I want to take a moment to thank all of the new readers who’ve come on board. And I want to encourage you to look through some old posts in the category that brought you here. You can find broad categories on the sidebar or click on tags on individual posts to find more that may interest you. You may also enjoy my photography page, which I have plans to add to during yet another summer of exploring parts north. Take some time to wander around.

I think about time a lot. Not having enough of it. Watching it whiz by. It’s June? Really? Why do the months keep surprising me? My son turned eight this weekend and it kind of floored me.

Eight

Back in 1968 (not December — that’s just when the film was finally developed) someone took this picture of my parents at the Detroit Zoo when they were dating.

DaleDonnaZoo copy

Nearly forty years later, I took this photo of Zach and the boy in about the same spot.

I’m willing to believe my parents can’t believe it’s been practically four decades since they leaned against that railing for that first photo. And I bet in forty years I’ll be in a state of disbelieving shock that the second photo is that old.

At home I see time reflected in the growth of trees and bushes in my yard, the amount of chipping paint on the windowsills, and the number of new cracks in the driveway. I look at photos of long-dead relatives and touch some of the objects they touched — a pocket watch, a quilt, a silver serving spoon — and realize that the things we create as humans tend to outlive us. That railing around the fountain at the zoo was erected in 1939. Thousands of people have been photographed by it. Many of them are gone now, but the railing remains.

That’s part of the reason I’m compelled to write: to outlive myself in some small way.

Another part is to capture time.

During the past month I have been trying to get a catalog to press at work, doing ghostwriting work for a ministry, freelance editing a novel, celebrating my son’s birthday, visiting friends from Kenya, planting the garden, prepping and leading a workshop, and, when I can find a few minutes, working on my own fiction. When we get busy, time slips along like water down a storm drain.

Yet, when we write, we capture moments in time, hold them, and make them available to other people at a later date. Those bits of time wait patiently, encased in paper and ink, and begin all over again when someone starts to read. And as long as a copy of a book or letter or journal exists, those moments cannot be lost to busyness. And, graciously, they allow us to take time out of our own busyness when we settle down to read.

The problem is, there’s only so much time to capture time. (Does your head hurt yet?) And the fact that every moment that passes is a moment that will never come again is a great motivator to prioritize our lives, to make time for the things that invigorate us and makes us feel most like ourselves. Family, friends, and our special contribution to this world, whether its writing or cooking or encouragement or serving or sewing or photography or woodworking.

Summer is upon us. We have lots of daylight to use. May we use it well.

On the Beauty of Stepping Back

A Rose Blooms on Veteran's DayLike it or not, twenty-four hours is all you get. Subtract sleep (eight hours if you’re lucky) and work (another eight hours if you work full time) and you have eight left. Personal hygiene, prepping and eating meals, doing dishes and laundry and picking up after yourself, gassing up the car, driving to and from work, getting the kids off to school and activities, church and volunteering, hopefully getting in some reading time or an episode of Brooklyn 99 or The Man in the High Castle

Friend, your day is slipping away fast. And that means your week is slipping away. In aggregate, your life is slipping away and you probably don’t have the time to properly lament that fact.

I have been asked on more than one occasion how I “do it all.” Work, kid, writing, gardening, canning, sewing, teaching, etc.

Well, here’s the dirty little secret: I don’t. Not all at once, at least. I haven’t sewed a piece of clothing for myself in well over a year. I didn’t manage to can cherries, raspberries, pears, or apples this year. I did the absolute bare minimum in the garden this summer. I also barely manage to keep my house in working order. I often go to bed with dishes in the sink (and on the counter), with laundry getting wrinkled in the dryer, and with toys strewn all over the house.

And every once in a while I have to step back, look at where I’m spending my time, and reevaluate. I did this back in 2007; the result was quitting grad school. I did it again in 2012 and decided I needed to quit being a docent at the zoo. Suddenly during this crazy fall, I felt the need to reevaluate once more.

I realized that I was overcommitted in general, but specifically in two places: in my local writing group and at church.

As a board member and the marketing/communications chair of CCWA, I was committed to monthly meetings, but also to developing and keeping up the website, helping to plan events that required extra meetings, attending as many organizational events as possible, blogging and asking others to blog, trying to remember to tweet, developing and giving talks, etc. It wasn’t an everyday commitment, but over the year it amounted to a lot of time away from family and, ironically, from writing.

At church I have been prepping and teaching an adult Sunday school class, serving as a deacon, practicing and singing in the choir, attending two worship services, doing building renovations, and often leading singing, lay leading, prepping and serving communion, and trying to be a semi-decent pastor’s wife type person on top of that. On Sunday mornings especially I was rushing from activity to activity with not a moment to stop and chat with church members or visitors on the way. On some weeks, I might find myself at church three or even four days out of the week.

At an especially busy time, I realized that my entire week was spoken for by these two very worthy, fun, and rewarding aspects of my life, plus my son’s one extracurricular activity:

  • Monday night: deacon meeting during which my son had to entertain himself at church (family grabs fast food on way home, son gets to bed too late)
  • Tuesday night: take the boy to karate (family eats whatever I can scrounge up and make into a meal at home)
  • Wednesday night: choir practice and midweek service (husband takes the boy to karate; family either scarfs down early dinner at home or eats separately)
  • Thursday night: CCWA board meeting (family eats out again, again separately)
  • Friday night: take the boy to karate (family would eat at home but no one has had time to plan meals or cook, plus the kitchen, somehow, is still a disaster even though we’ve eaten out nearly every night)
  • Saturday: spend 9 hours at church sanding floor, prep for Sunday school at night
  • Sunday: teach Sunday school, practice choir number, sing choir number in service, come home to crazy-messy house and try to reacquaint myself with my husband and son

It was easy to see that this was just too much, despite the fact that, taken individually, I valued each of these things. I had no margin, no white space, no mental rest or physical rest, no time to let my mind breathe, no time to take care of myself or my family or my home.

So I looked at all of the things I was doing and found the ones that could be done by others. No one can be my husband’s wife but me. No one can be my son’s mom but me. No one can write my books but me.

But could someone else be a deacon? Absolutely. Could someone else serve on the CCWA board? Absolutely. Could someone else sing soprano? Absolutely. And probably there is someone out there dying for the chance to do those things, looking for an open spot, for a need to fill. Me stepping down could create that open spot.

So that’s what I did. I contacted the leaders and supervisors and directors of those groups and let them know that, come 2016, I was stepping back. Not one of them was upset with me. All of them understood. And once they had all been told, a weight lifted off my shoulders I hadn’t realized was there, even though I hadn’t really gotten anything off my plate just yet. There are still Christmas baskets to distribute as a deacon. There’s still the Christmas cantata and all the extra practices that entails for choir. There’s still the annual writer’s conference (Write on the Red Cedar) to advertise and execute for CCWA in January. But just knowing that within a matter of months those commitments would be over put my mind at ease.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation — overcommitted and exhausted and wondering where each day is going, unable to find the time or mental energy to serve your family, take care of yourself, or pursue your passion. Why not take some time as this year draws to a close to reevaluate where you’re spending your time and energy. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I doing this out of a sense of obligation?
  • Does this bring me joy?
  • Is this good for my family?
  • Could someone else do this?
  • Is this how I want to spend my time?
  • What do I really want to do — both now and in the future — and how do each of my current activities feed that dream or drain time and energy and imagination from that dream?

I think you’ll find that the answers you give will tell you what you can step back from and what you really want (and need) to do with your precious twenty-four hours.

How to Write Your Novel’s First Draft in Just 2 Months

Late Tuesday night, I happily typed the final words of the first draft of a novel that I began 65 days before. 92,615 words, averaging out to 1,425 per day, though if you’ve been following this blog, you probably know that I don’t write every single day, and I don’t even advocate writing daily (though, if that’s your thing, more power to you).

Beyond writing, I do work full time Monday through Friday; attend church and teach Sunday school on Sundays; take my son to karate on Mondays and Fridays; teach ESL and attend choir practice and Bible study on Wednesdays; commute halfway across the state on Thursdays; and make halfhearted attempts to keep up on housework (well, sometimes).

So how? How can someone with a full life still find the time to write the draft of a full length work of fiction in a little over 2 months?

I’m glad you asked. Because I bet you can do it too–if you want to.

First, spend an entire year thinking about, researching, and sketching a rough outline of the novel before writing anything. Go ahead and make notes of scenes or particular phrases or dialogue you think of, but don’t start the real writing until you are ready. Really ready. So ready that you can’t hold back any longer. I put this first not only because it comes first chronologically, but because it was so obviously the most critical factor for me this time around.

Second, build in some concentrated blocks of writing time. I probably could have managed most days to write something on my manuscript, but to write fast and in the moment, I needed to have a string of empty days where nothing was on my schedule except writing. That’s how I got momentum. I took one week of vacation at the very beginning and another six weeks later. More than 50,000 words were written in those two weeks alone–over half the book.

Third, write first. Write before you go to work, before you do the dishes at night, before you collapse in bed and binge on House of Cards. Put the writing first for this limited amount of time while you’re working hard to get that first draft done. Now I have the whole rest of the year to relax a bit and enjoy life more while I edit at a far more leisurely pace. But if you don’t put it first for awhile, it will always get pushed back down the priorities list until it’s the last thing you do with the dregs of your energy–or it may fall off entirely.

Fourth, resist getting bogged down. There were times, especially near the end, when I had to slow down and look at the big picture again before I could see the way forward. But if you stand still too long in the muck in the middle of your book, you may find that you’re cemented there. Leave it too long, and you might give up on it. Push forward whenever you can.

Fifth, eliminate your biggest distractions. TV? Facebook? Video games? Friends? They’re all crouching on the sidelines waiting to devour your time and brain cells. Do whatever it takes to control these distractions. Have a friend take your TV and your X-box for a while. Go Cold Turkey on time-sucking Internet sites. Have your mom dog-sit for a couple months. Schedule some special times with your friends for a few months from now so you have something to look forward to.

I want to stress that I didn’t set out to write this draft at breakneck speed. I was fully expecting it to take at least twice as long as it did. The speed happened because the story wanted so badly to be told after my copious research. It was all wound up inside my brain and once I let it go, there was no stopping it. But along the way I had ample opportunities for it to get derailed. And that’s where the last three pieces of advice come in.

You have to want it. And you have to be willing to sacrifice for it, if only for a time.

I’m a pretty firm believer that a person can do almost anything for set amount of time. When I was running a lot, I convinced myself to go further and run longer by forcing myself to “at least get to the end of this song” and then “at least get to the chorus of this next song” and then “at least go one more minute.”

Can you give yourself a time frame and tell yourself that you can write for “at least this one hour today” or “every day for just this next week” or “1000 words a day for just this one month?” If you can do that, push yourself a little harder. Give yourself a deadline. Then beat it.