The Clock Ticks Ever On

If I’ve been lax at regular blog posts of late it’s probably because life is in a busy season. The end-of-school-year activities are picking up. The vigorous growth in the yard needs tending. We’re at the height of another catalog season at work. The articles for the WFWA newsletter need to be written and edited. And most of my spare time at the moment has been claimed by freelance editing and writing projects.

There’s a lot to prepare for in the coming weeks. Both my husband and my son have May birthdays.  I’ve been invited to speak to a large group of Nepali and Bhutanese women on Memorial Day as part of an event devoted to women and mothers in the church, so I need to start working on my message. Our summer travels are coming up fast, which means packing lists and playlists need to be created.

I’ve had little time for leisurely pursuits, like painting or taking photographs, though I am managing to read and wind down with a little Netflix now and then (Master of None at lunch, Better Call Saul or Brooklyn 99 in the evening). And I even watched a couple movies I’d had on my queue for months: The Imitation Game (amazing) and Sarajevo (quite good).

Life barrels forward. It seems with every new month I’m surprised that the last one is already ended. Were someone to find a way to slow it down to the pace of childhood, when every day was a lingering one and every summer hung on for eternity…Ah, but then we should complain that the future did not come fast enough.

Time is such a funny thing. Always a constant in reality, yet always slipping and shifting in our experience of it. And never enough of it, though it is infinite.

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.

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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.

“Wasting” Time to Awaken Your Inner Creative Spark

While I spent most of my time in Albuquerque writing, one workshop I did attend was Kimberly Brock’s Tinderbox Workshop. Before we all packed for the trip, our Retreat Planner & Organizer Extraordinaire Orly Konig-Lopez told us what we should bring: a journal or notebook, magazines and glue, stickers and interesting paper, markers and pencils. It was clear that this workshop would have less to do with writing than most offered at writers conferences or retreats. As I had recently purged my house of unwanted magazines (see earlier posts on decluttering in anticipation of listing our house for sale in the future) I decided to bring my watercolors and some pastels.

I won’t go into details about the workshop content (except to say that if you have a chance to be in a Kimberly Brock workshop you should take it) but I will say that she had to assure participants that they were not “wasting time” by not writing and that there was not a “right way” to do the exercises. I’ll share a page from the journal I was working on as she spoke about creativity:

Underneath that collage is a pretty simple painting of a face with colors coming out from all angles — my interpretation of what Kimberly was talking about. When she said we were going to start covering it up with collage, I said to myself, “Um, no. I will not be doing that. Thank you very much.” I was happy with what I’d painted and drawn and I wasn’t about to obscure it with things pulled from magazines.

But then I did. And it was fun. It’s been a while since I did any sort of collage and it was pretty fun finding images and words that inspired me and went along with some of the concepts Kimberly was talking about.

When I got home, I didn’t want to put my paints away. The retreat was held at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, a beautiful space that really got under my skin in a good way. So I decided to paint one of the pretty outdoor spaces: the pavilion. Friday night we all ate BBQ under here and Saturday there was a gorgeous wedding in this space. But it was most beautiful to me when it was empty of people and dappled with sun and shadows.

It’s funny how creativity works. I went to New Mexico to write, to learn, and to meet other writers. Bringing paints was definitely not part of my original plan. Neither was collage. But I came home with a heart and mind full of the place and a bit of dormant creative spirit unleashed. So now I not only find myself painting, I’m also plotting a novel set in our hotel, with an ensemble cast drawn from some of the people I saw (and many more I am imagining). Opening the door to one part of your mind often lets in enough wind to blow open other doors.

When was the last time you let yourself just fool around with art supplies for a few hours? When was the last time you allowed yourself time to just have fun doing something kind of mindless, like you did when you were a kid? My guess is that it has probably been too long.

So when are you going to start?

An Incredible Weekend with Literary Agent Donald Maass

Phew! What a week and what a weekend. By the grace of God, the prayers of many, and the workings of modern medicine, I was able to function on Friday and Saturday for Write on the Red Cedar. I also managed to get quite caught up today at work, despite almost a week of painful delirium where I think I may have answered a dozen emails, all with a mere sentence if possible. And now I am almost at 100% again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the highlights of my weekend was driving Donald Maass from the airport to the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, chatting about my writing. Don gave a fantastic, uplifting keynote address Saturday morning before launching into two hours of instruction on Writing 21st Century Fiction. As insightful and winsome as he is in writing, he is even more so in person. I was lucky enough to sit by him at lunch while our table shared stories of family, publishing, MSU shenanigans, and Michigan’s natural beauty.

After lunch, Zach and I answered questions about traditional publishing at a “roundtable” discussion, which I think was helpful and enlightening for the participants. Then I presented a workshop I’ve done at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference called Finding Your Writing Rhythm. I felt a little rushed with only 45 minutes, but I got some good feedback from attendees and, best of all, my voice held out.

Next I attended a great workshop on character led by author Kristina Riggle. She had some wonderful insights about how to create characters that walk off the page and feel like real people.

After a quick agent/author panel, I tried my first real solid food in nearly a week and managed not to choke (huzzah). Then I settled in for four hours of Writing the Break-Out Novel with Donald Maass. Wow. Writers, if you ever, ever have a chance to sit under this man’s teaching, you need to do it. Don is engaging and funny and challenges you–commands you, even, but in the nicest of ways–to think differently about your writing, to forego the easy solution for the creative solution, to raise every aspect of your craft to the next level, to take control of your fiction and thereby take control of your reader’s emotions in order to create fiction that moves and sticks with people.

I have a notebook full of ideas that Don drew out from me through his probing questions and exercises. I’m excited to get back into my first draft of I Hold the Wind and to get The Bone Garden back out to make even more improvements.

But I think the most important thing that Don said, for me at least, was this (I’m paraphrasing): You have the time. No novel is so timely that it can’t wait a few more months or a year or more for the author to make it better, to make it as good as it can possibly be. Don’t be in such a hurry. I’m going to try to take that to heart this year and truly enjoy every minute of the process of writing rather that always wishing for the next step to be here.

There is time. There is always time.

Waiting for the Snows

But for a few days in November, mid-Michigan has been naked this winter. Today was rainy and in the 40s and felt like spring, a melancholy masquerade in late December. Two days out from Christmas with no snow on the ground and even the most summer-loving Midwesterner must feel an itching wistfulness. When we moved to Lansing from Grand Rapids in 2005, it was a green (brown, really) Christmas. During the week following, I was working in my new yard, pulling English ivy from walls, trimming tree limbs with a saw my father got me for Christmas, and digging up sandstone rocks from beneath the ground. I was more than 50 pounds lighter then than I am today, eager to make my new home my own. Nine years later and I have nothing to do in the garden despite the warm temperatures and the soft earth. The garden is “finished” as far as that goes.

I won’t lie; the lack of snow has got me down. What is winter without snow except a long, dull stretch of cloudy sky and gray-brown earth? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. There are lights on the house, presents under the tree, family coming for good food. I’m anticipating the smiles on the faces of my son and husband as they open up their gifts. I’m listening to carols and playing them for my son on the guitar at night. Tomorrow night is our candlelight service at church. Everything is as it should be–except the snow. Funny how one thing out of place throws off the whole thing.

One thing out of place.

When I turned my calendar to December a few weeks ago, I was met with an envelope containing a letter I had forgotten I’d written. Last night I cheated and opened it a week early. At my husband’s bemused urging, I read it out loud. It was cheesier than I can imagine myself being. Or maybe it wasn’t cheesy so much as it was too sincere. We had a couple good laughs during my oration. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of my hopes for myself had come to pass in 2014. One very particular one did not–one thing out of place–but I am slowly becoming okay with it. Perhaps the most surprising thing was that I was ahead of where I had claimed I hoped to be when it came to my writing. And yet, for much of the second half of 2014, I have been impatient and felt as though I was lagging behind. My January 2014 self, the one who wrote that letter, seems a more reasonable person than my December 2014 self. And I’m glad that she reminded me just how much I have accomplished this past year.

So I wait for the snow and I wait for the fulfillment of a goal I hadn’t really given myself a year ago. I remind myself that I’m right on track and that Christmas comes whether it snows or not. I may feel that there is still one thing out of place, but in reality it is just my own impatience. God’s time is rarely our time, is it?

Lessons in Not Scrimping

There are some foods that you just can’t go low-fat on, aren’t there? I think we can all agree that fat-free ranch dressing and fat-free mayonnaise and those sick, white-fleshed turkey hot dogs are at best disappointing and at worst disgusting and not worth all the calories you’re saving. With some foods, you just can’t hold the good stuff back. They need the fat in order to taste how they’re supposed to taste.

I imagine that pound cake is one of these.

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Pound cake is lavish. It’s unapologetically decadent. It’s essentially just butter, sugar, eggs, and heavy cream with some very white flour thrown in for good measure, then topped with more butter, sugar, and heavy cream. If you tried to make pound cake with low-fat and low-sugar substitutes I think you’d end up with a sad, nasty mess. No, in the case of pound cake, you need to go all in.

When you’re creating, whether you’re writing, sewing, painting, gardening, or whatever, the same holds true. You want to go all in, with the best of your ideas, the best tools at your disposal, the best raw materials you can get, and the best effort so that when you’ve finished something you’ve put all of yourself into it. Why? For several reasons:

1. When you put your all into something, you are generally happier with the result. Even if something didn’t turn out quite perfect (and there’s always something) you still know for a fact that you have done your absolute best. And mentally, that’s worth something. Even if others don’t get it or don’t even see it, if I know I’ve done my best and put everything I had into something, I can be proud of it.

2. The product of your efforts, whether it’s an herb garden or a baby blanket or the Great American Novel, will be better than if you only put in partial effort or just some of your good ideas (holding back others for a later project because you were worried you’d exhaust them forever on this one). If you put your “full-fat” self into your work, the end result will always taste/look/read/feel better. This is obvious, but it bears repeating when so many of us have the tendency to get down on our own work before we’ve even given our full effort to it. The world doesn’t owe us success for our minimal efforts. We owe the world our best effort, and success may follow.

3. Once people see your best, you’ll always want to give them your best in the future. If you bring an amazing, delicious, completely homemade pound cake to a dinner, the next time you’re asked to bring food, you’re not going to want to bring Chips Ahoy! cookies. You’re going to want to wow people again–because it feels so good to wow people. Once you write something you’re truly proud of and you get great feedback from people, you’re going to want to do even better the next time. Giving our best in one thing spurs us onto improvement. When we set a personal record running a mile (because really, you need to work off that pound cake) it makes us want to beat our personal best, doesn’t it? Giving everything you’ve got to a task not only makes the current result better, it makes future results better.

Today, this week, this month, and for the rest of the year, ask if you’re giving your current project the full-fat, gloriously delicious best you have to offer. Whether you’re cleaning out the garage or teaching your kid to ride a bike or detailing a car or crafting a poem or refinishing a table or whatever, remember that Splenda and Egg Beaters and skim milk and gluten-free flour do not a pound cake make.

How are you giving your best today?

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.

The Creative Momentum of Concentrated Time

I wrote this post just a little over a year ago. Since that big writing weekend at Gun Lake, I’ve taken a few blocks of concentrated time off of work in order to write. The first week of this year I did this and managed to write over 13,000 words and the first five chapters of a new novel. And I felt pretty swell about that.

I managed to write here and there in the weeks following, ending up with twelve chapters and nearly 28,000 words by the first week of February. At this rate I thought maybe I could be done by Easter.

Then this past week I took another writing vacation that was capped with another weekend at Gun Lake. Two weeks of vacation already used up in February?! Why would I do such a thing? How foolish!

Actually, it’s not a big problem. One of the perks of staying with one company for twelve years is accumulated paid time off. So I’m not worried about needing more vacation time later in the year.

And you know what? I wrote more than 36,000 words this week and am now on chapter 29. That’s called momentum. Almost 65,000 words into a novel that I started just six weeks ago.

How did I manage it? I took control of my time. I directed my life instead of letting it direct me. And everyone, everyone can do that.

On Wednesday I’ll be guest blogging over at author Susie Finkbeiner’s blog. I’ll be talking about time. If you’re having trouble finding the time to create, whether you’re writing or quilting or painting or making music, I encourage you to check it out.

You’ve got 24 hours today. Are you going to set aside a few of them to do what you love?