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Friday Five: Inspiration

It's always harder to find time to write during the summer, and when I do find it I use it to work on my WIP rather than blogging. So my blog posts will continue to be sporadic throughout the summer. I haven't done a Friday Five style post in a while. So today I thought I'd bring you a Friday Five of Inspiration.






Hope your summer is full of inspiration!

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Write What You Know -- Yes or No?

You hear this a lot in writing circles -- write what you know. It occurs to me that this statement can mean many different things. Does it mean I can only ever write about a dark-skinned Jewish girl who grew up in the South? I don't think so. And for some years I struggled with what it really means to write what you know. I tried writing about things I'd had some experience with -- like summer camp or working with runaway teens. But those stories weren't working. Some key element was missing. So I tried writing a story that had nothing to do with anything familiar to me - a story just for fun with a paranormal twist and a strange and complex subplot involving murder and mystery. Still something was missing.

And then my kid got sick and I wrote about that because I had to, for my own sanity, had to get it out on the page. And that's when I came to understand what it means to write what you know. It may not be what you think I mean, though. It doesn't mean this manuscript works because I wrote about illness, something I'd been experiencing. Here's what I learned: At least for me, 'write what you know' means there has to be a kernel of emotional truth in your story. You can write about murder without murdering someone. But there has to be some spark of emotional truth in the telling that brings your story to life.

When I wrote about runaways, I thought I told a beautiful story. But there was none of my own truth in their story, and so I hadn't breathed life into them. I wrote about summer camp, something I knew well. But the story was just a story. Because I wasn't investing my essence in it. But the book involving illness was different. It came out of me in a whoosh, a rush of need to get it out onto the page. And the emotional truths I shared with it brought it to life.

Seeing what a difference this has made to both the process and the product has made it so much easier to write this way. I've got two new manuscripts vying for attention, both invested with a core of my own emotional truth. It feels different to write them, much like the well-known Ernest Hemingway quote: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."I think for a while there I was trying to bleed someone else's blood. My characters bled, but I didn't. I was protecting myself.

Not anymore. The blood on the page is my own. And while it may hurt, it also heals, and it makes for one hell of a better story.
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Writing the First Draft: Get Out of the Way!

If you were to see me around town, you might wonder what is going on with me. I might appear a bit tuned out or jetlagged or like I'm just not all there. It's because I'm not. I'm maybe one-third here and two-thirds in the world of the first draft I'm working on. Could be reversed, depends on the day. I've got one of those characters in my head that wants to have her say. She's feisty and obnoxious and has a chip on her shoulder that makes her into a pain in the a$$, and I adore her. What I love the most is that while I'm happily typing away, my brain moving faster than my fingers, planning the next thing she's going to say --- she makes my fingers type something completely different than what I'd planned. And it cracks me up! My brain keeps trying to make her more like me and she keeps laughing in my face and showing me how she really is. This is the magic of writing.

I love when a character comes around wanting to tell her story. It makes my job so much easier. I just have to get out of the way and let her do her thing. It can be a little scary sometimes -- to relinquish control without knowing where it's going, without knowing if this character can follow through to the end of a story. But at the same time, I know it will only be authentic if I let her lead the way. So chunks of my writing time are spent talking myself down, reminding myself to give her a chance to tell it her way, urging myself to keep my big mouth (or in this case, my typing fingers) shut (or still?)

Life has been hectic this week, so I haven't had as much time to write as I'd like. But my character is losing patience. She has things to say! And she is beginning to insist that I cut back on all that other stuff (life) so that she has more time. (I'm aware that this makes me sound crazier than I actually am.) But this is who she is -- a really sweet, caring kid who would absolutely despise that description of herself and would heartily disagree, who wants to be seen and heard and will stop at nothing to say her piece. So I (and my life) need to step aside and make room for her to be heard. She's on the rampage. So if you see me around town, it might be safest to stay out of the way :)
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How To Love Revising!

Something miraculous has happened.... I am loving revising my work-in-progress. ME! -- a first-draft-loving pantser, who has been known to despise revising. Not this time.

I think it's partly because I stopped trying to read the manuscript through someone else's eyes. And so the work I'm doing is strengthening the story, making it whole.

Some people write too much and then have to carve away the excess, like a sculptor. But for me, revision is often more about deepening, layering, enriching. And I am loving it. I feel excited for my story and my characters, as more and more pieces fit together and the logic of the story world clicks into place.

I'm also loving it because I stopped seeing it as something other than real work, and because I have thrown myself into it wholeheartedly. I've been in that delightful stage where the world of the story walks through my day with me, whispering little secrets, bits and pieces that long to be told.

"You must be so disciplined," people sometimes say to me, "to be your own boss and get your work done." Discipline has nothing to do with it. Because I am enjoying every minute -- even the hard, stuck ones. There's nothing else I'd rather be doing (except, of course, lying on a beach.) For those hours of the day when my husband is at work and my kids are at school, I play, focused with body and mind, engaged with heart and soul.

The manuscript has become a friend whom I am tending with loving care, readying it to be sent out into the world -- zipping up its jacket and double-knotting its shoelaces, doing all I can to prepare it so it faces the world whole and complete.

All in the hope that some editor will adore it and start me on a path to revising it all over again :)

Happy revising!
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What Is Your Work?

Yesterday was Poem in Your Pocket Day, part of the celebration of National Poetry Month. One of my favorite poets is Mary Oliver. I want to touch on two of her poems. The first is called The Summer Day:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And the other one I want to share is called Messenger:

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

I love the way she strings words together and the way she evokes so much feeling and meaning with so few words. I bolded the parts of these two poems that particularly speak to me. It's that question: What is it you plan to do with this life you've been given? What is your work? Not the job you go to each day necessarily, but what is it you bring to the world? For Mary Oliver, observing the world, being astonished by it and sharing that glory is her work. And maybe we all have more than one thing: like loving our kids and our partners, being there for our friends, etc. But when it just comes down to what you are putting out into the world, what difference you are making, whether it's through your job or your community service or your writing, what will you choose?
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Finding Your Inner Spring Holiday

As the holiday weekend approaches, I've been thinking about the meaning of the various holidays, and how this time of year is a reminder about rebirth, renewal, and appreciating our freedom. The weather in the Bay Area is perfect for this right now: After many weeks of rain and fog, the sun is shining, the sky is the bluest of blues, the breeze is giving the trees a workout, and the air is that crisp, cool delicious that makes me so love it here.

In the last couple of days, I have begun playing with a new character. I don't know yet what, if anything, will come of it, but for now I'm trying to just enjoy her birth, her creation, and the feelings of renewal I experience in starting a new project. When I'm revising, which is what I've been doing exclusively lately, I start to feel dried out and low energy. Some writers love revision. It's the thing that lights them up and makes time stop. I wish I felt that way. But for me revision is laborious. I do like strengthening the manuscript. But my favorite part of revising is when I think up some new element to add and I have to write fresh material, which technically is creating, not revising. But first drafts, ahh, first drafts are my drug of choice. And so right now, in the midst of all this sunny renewal, I'm diving back into my craft, starting anew, remembering why I love this crazy business. And it makes me feel incredibly grateful for the freedom I have to pursue this life.

As you feast with family and friends, or even go on about your normal weekend, take a moment to focus on how you can bring the spirit of freedom and renewal back into your own life. Maybe it's about recommitting to your New Year's Resolutions, maybe it's about trying something new and a little bit daring, maybe it's about finding time for people or activities you enjoy. Whatever it is, I hope this holiday weekend allows you to find ways to experience your own renewal or rebirth, because even though it may feel at times like it's out of our control, really so much of it is up to us.

Happy holidays :D
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Embracing Life with the Dreamer at the Wheel

As part of my focus on embracing life this year, I've been working at learning to accept life as it is, being with what is so. What does that even mean? It means that when something unexpected happens, instead of freaking out and trying to change it, I take a deep breath, remind myself to trust that this is what needs to happen right now, and that even if I don't understand why, it will make sense down the road. I'm getting so much better at taking things in stride and not getting hung up on how I wish things would be, enjoying life as it is.

But there's been an unfortunate side effect. Letting go of control has been very confusing for The Dreamer.

The Dreamer is an identity I've always loved. When I was young, people said it like it was a bad thing, "You're such a dreamer." But as a teen, I decided to own and embrace that. It was who I was and I loved that part of myself. I would dream up some future situation, set my mind on it, and work towards it with everything I had. Many, many times, those dreams came true. Sometimes they took longer than I'd expected, sometimes they were harder to make happen than I'd expected. But if I just kept at them, I could make them happen.

So when I started accepting life's bumpy road, started letting go of the need for control, started stepping back from the steering wheel a bit, The Dreamer went into hiding. 'I guess you don't need me anymore,' she seemed to say.

I miss The Dreamer! She was fun! She was bold! She was downright crazy most of the time! And I loved that about her. And without her I've been feeling dry and grey. So how do I find a way of blending these two elements -- the one who sits back and accepts life as it is and the one who drives with the pedal to the metal toward a goal?

For me, the answer is simple. I have to let The Dreamer run the show, because without her I'm not happy. And then, when life slings its arrows, I step back and say, 'Looks like that direction wasn't exactly where I needed to be heading, maybe I need to bear right at the intersection.' In other words, as I've said here before, the closed doors are signposts and there's no sense trying to knock them down. But there's no sense becoming passive either. Where's the fun in that?

So as I forge ahead, I will continue to embrace life as it is, but I won't be sitting back waiting for life to happen. The Dreamer will be at the wheel.
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What Story Are You Telling Yourself?

My thoughts continue this week on the concept of embracing life. I've been thinking about how affected we are by our interpretations of events, by the way we label what's happening in our lives. As I read others' blog posts and listen to others' path to publication stories, here's something I notice: Some of us receive rejections and say, "I suck. I'm just not good enough." Others of us receive rejections and say, "This piece isn't there yet. It needs more work." And still others might say, "This piece of work isn't the best expression of who I am. This rejection is a guidepost, urging me to write the piece I truly long to write." Where do you fall on that spectrum? What story are you telling yourself when you hit a bump in the road? Or multiple bumps? How might you change that story to make it more useful to you?

Personally, I've found myself in all three of those positions. The interesting thing for me to note is the direction in which each story pushes me. I know that when I let myself feel like I'm just not good enough, I fall into a place that is neither kind nor productive and truly serves no purpose. Even when it has pushed me to try a writing class or seek out books on craft, I've come at them from a place of trying to prove myself. In contrast, when the story I've told myself is that the piece isn't there yet, I've come to the new class or craft books from a place of openness, a place of wanting to understand, to make the manuscript stronger. And I've learned a lot from those stories. But lately I'm finding that the strongest place for me is seeing the closed doors in life as guideposts, pushing me in a direction I might have otherwise resisted. And this ends up being the story that lights me up and sends me forging ahead on new paths.

The next time you meet a rough spot on the road, ask yourself what story you might tell about this that would be useful to you, and leave behind the ones that diminish you. See if you can't find a story that urges you onward instead of one that holds you back. Because the story you tell yourself is the only one over which you have complete editorial control.
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Revision: Let's Pretend

I have figured out why I don't enjoy revision as much as creation. When I write, I fall into that dreamy, otherworldly place where time stops, where my thinking/busy mind settles, where intuition takes over. Some people find that place through drawing or dancing or windsurfing or cooking. For me, writing is what takes me there. But when I'm revising, I'm critiquing -- constantly. My thinking/critical/anxious mind decides it's the one for the job and takes over, leaving intuition and that otherworldly type of being behind. I don't like being led by the critical mind. It's not the nicest of bosses.

Last night in my writing group, I discovered something. When I was little, my brother and sister and I played imaginary games. I remember each of us adding, "And let's pretend..." hundreds of times in a given game. As we added layers to the world we were creating, we often went back and revised what we'd added before -- not from any kind of critical thought process, but from that wonderful place of "let's also pretend...."

So my goal for today, as I return to revision, is to go at it from that place of wonder and excitement, that place of childhood pretend, where everything is possible and changes can come from fun and adventure, not just critical thinking.

And then, when I've done all the revising I can do for today, I'm going to write something new. Because it's that wondrous land of time-stopping intuition that makes me feel alive.
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Getting Inspired by the Uninspiring

Something I've been working on lately is learning to trust life, to let go of all the resistance that rises up so quickly to whatever might be happening. I know that so much of that resistance is fear. And I want to learn to calm down and take life as it comes and see its beauty.

Last night in my writing group we did two writing exercises. With both of them, the minute the facilitator announced the prompt, I thought, "Oh, great, that doesn't inspire me at all. I don't want to write about that. There's nothing interesting about that." But then, because I'm working on this trust thing, I made myself shut up. I didn't try to think about what to write. I just tried to get quiet inside. I forced myself to be patient, no matter how many precious minutes of our writing session ticked by, no matter that other people's pens were dashing across their pages. I sat still, not thinking. And then a few words came to me, and even though they didn't seem too interesting, I wrote them down. And then a few more came and I wrote those down too. And before I knew it, I was on a roll. And about twenty minutes later, when time was called, I had a complete piece written -- one that had depth and meaning, details and characters that came alive, a mini-story I felt good about. And when I read it out loud to the group and people reacted to it, I realized there was even more in there than I'd realized. All from a prompt that I'd found uninspiring.

It made me think back to this issue about life -- learning to fall into whatever it is that is happening -- even if it doesn't seem ideal or inspiring. Because the truth is no matter how much we think we know how we want things to be, sometimes letting them be what they already are can lead us to someplace better than we've ever imagined.

I'll be traveling next week -- an adventure I'm a little nervous about. There won't be a post then. But I'll be continuing to work on this issue, trying to meet whatever challenges may arise with acceptance and trust. If you find stumbling blocks in your path along the way, try letting that be okay, see if you can get still and notice what it is they want to tell you, toward what new direction they might be pushing. You might be surprised where it leads.