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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

I was talking to an old friend this weekend about the meaning of life. You know, the way you do. It wasn’t even ridiculously late at night, and we didn’t take the morbid side path that’s usually an option in such conversations. The next day I happened to read Theodora Goss’s “Feeling Alive,” and so here we are, delving back into one of my favorite topics.

One of Dora’s main points is that there is the Frankl theory about meaning (projects, connections with people, and attitude) and then there is the Campbell theory that it’s more important to have the feeling of being alive than to know the meaning of life. (Does this make anyone else think of Sondheim’s song “Being Alive?”)

While there is an overlap between these two, many of the little things in life that I appreciate so much fall into the “Feeling Alive” category. Feeling alive can be a very physical experience, even hedonistic, whether we’re talking about having an amazing foodie experience or jumping out of an airplane or traveling around the world. Waking up after a good night’s sleep, sitting in the sun, hiking in the hills: all of these experiences remind me that I’m alive.

Photo Credit: Spencer Finnley via Compfight cc

And then there’s art, which in my experience falls squarely into both categories. Because art makes me feel more alive AND it is often through art (both creating and appreciating) that I find my own meaning. And I think those things that do fall into both categories have particular resonance for many of us.

What I don’t think is that every category like this is going to have the same resonance for everyone. And I also reject the notion that there is only way to find meaning for all of us. Finding meaning through art isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through having kids and raising a family isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through saving lives isn’t going to be right for everyone. (For example, I am sadly way too squeamish to ever have made it through medical school.)

But when we find something (whatever that something is) that works concurrently to make us discover our meaning and feel more alive in the process, then we’re onto something important.

I feel lucky because from a young age I realized art and meaning were intimately connected for me. For a long time I envied other people who had practical aspirations and knew what career they were going to pursue, especially when the career in question had a relatively straightforward path to success. Art isn’t like that. Art isn’t usually straightforward, and art is never a sure thing. But art has always been my personal pathway to fulfillment, and now I realize how precious that really is.

I’m saying art instead of writing because I was a musician before I started writing seriously, and my connection to my music felt much the same. I had a short period of time in my 20s in which I wasn’t engaged in any art whatsoever, and even though I’ve lived through much harder times, that period of time stands out in my memory for its relative bleakness. I realize now that is because that has been the only time I’ve been without much connection to meaning. I just kind of did things to do them, with most of the passion leached from them. Without my meaning, I also felt less alive overall. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one I’m not eager to repeat.

What did I learn from it? That art makes me happy to wake up in the morning. Art inspires me and challenges me and keeps me from getting bored. As long as my relationship with art continues, I have meaning built into my life. It is a very intimate experience, one that both encompasses outside influences and all the people I’ve met and one that excludes them because the art goes on with or without them.

Which do you think is more important: finding meaning in life or feeling alive? Or are they linked, as they are for me?

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I’m back from the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, and what a lovely five days I had! After all the hullaballoo of looking for a place to live, I was even more ready than normal to have time away from my cell phone and the logistics of my life. Whenever stress would intrude (say, from an e-mail from my current landlord), I’d go outside and look at the lake–sometimes rippling in the wind, sometimes a perfect mirror of the clouds overhead–and I’d feel much, much better.

It's hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

It’s hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

While my writing focus has been much improved this year compared to last year, I’ve been noticing as February progressed and the house search continued its grim plod that it was gradually worsening. It was taking me longer to get started writing every day, and I was taking more and more breaks. By the time I actually found my soon-to-be home at the beginning of last week, my focus was so shaky I had lowered my daily word count goal. So I went into Rainforest this year worried about my ability to produce.

I’m happy to say I was as productive as I hoped to be, which gave me food for thought. Why, I’ve been wondering, am I so much more productive and focused at Rainforest than at home? And is there any way to replicate any of Rainforest’s effects?

Factors that make Rainforest work so well for my productivity:

1. It’s remote, with no phones or cell reception, and very spotty internet connection. Without much communication from the outside world, it’s much easier to focus.

2. I clear the decks for the trip, which means for the most part I don’t have real world concerns intruding on my time or focus either. (Real concerns can range from daily dog care to doing my taxes to planning this social activity to going to appointments to doing chores.)

3. The word count board builds in accountability to my peers. This works better than an announcement on Twitter would because there’s a more tangible feeling of community and that we’re all in this together. I see people writing constantly, and conversation often revolves around how the writing is going that day.

4. I have extra motivation because of the resources used to take the trip, which ends up giving me the feeling that I’d better make this time count.

5. Because I have lofty (for me) daily word count goals, I tend to engage in less general shilly-shallying while ostensibly writing.

6. My writing day is more structured with meals and activities than it often is at home.

Some of these factors are hard to duplicate at home, most notably #2. I have to spend a certain amount of time each day dealing with life stuff, and sometimes that amount of time is much higher than I would ideally want it to be. So it goes.

Today, though, my first day back writing at home, I experimented with #5, otherwise known as the Shilly-shallying problem. And lo and behold, since I am now less accustomed to shilly-shally after a few days of better writing habits, I was able to cut down a great deal on the procrastinating that can accompany writing. And this on a day when I had a great many stressful life concerns piled up and demanding attention. Key to this, I think, was encouraging the belief that I could write my words in spite of what life was throwing at me, as well as remembering what it felt like to take those concerns and put them off to one side for a while and very deliberately doing that during my writing time.

I’m going to keep playing with that, and soon I’d like to experiment with #6 and see if adding a little more structure might help my productivity as well.

What has helped you become more productive?

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Some of you will remember that after many tribulations, I decided to leave last year’s novel unfinished, at least in the short term. So a question that I’ve been necessarily invested in is this: What do you do after a failure? How do you move forward?

Luckily for me, I knew exactly what project I wanted to work on next, and I spent several weeks brainstorming, researching, and outlining. But making the leap to actually putting words of the novel on the page took a surprising amount of discipline.

So I was fascinated to read Megan McArdle’s recent article in the Atlantic entitled “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators.” While the article ends up waxing on parenting techniques, it also postulates that the reason writers procrastinate so much is because the fear of not meeting a deadline has to become greater than the fear of having the end product suck. Basically, we procrastinate because we’re afraid of failure.

I’ve definitely noticed that I’m more afraid of writing than I usually am. As a consequence, I’m allowing myself longer periods of time to get the writing done (building procrastination time into my schedule, as it were). I’ve also begun listening to music while I write. I’ve always preferred silence while writing, but now I’m trying to distract myself from worrying that the writing won’t go well, and music helps divert my focus from thinking about failure to thinking about the work.

The funny thing is, for all that I’m worried, the writing is actually going just fine. I’m writing a rough draft, so there are going to have to be many revisions, as always. But I finished the first act earlier this week, and so far I feel like I have a good handle on what I’m trying to accomplish. There is none of that feeling of floundering around in the dark that I had with last year’s novel, but instead simply a striving to write to the best of my abilities.

Apparently, this is the way to go, embracing the challenge instead of obsessing over how the end result will turn out. As with so many things in life, staying in the present seems to be a helpful idea to keep in mind.

What to do differently… Photo Credit: Mufidah Kassalias via Compfight cc

So what really happens after a failure? We figure out what went wrong. We decide how we want to go about the next attempt differently. And then we go for it, all the while knowing this could be a failure too, but trying to stay in the present and revel in the process.

Because this could also be the time that everything clicks together and we create something that works.

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Now that I’m back home from ConFusion, and after talking a bit about impostor syndrome, a few of you might be wondering how my panels went.

Short answer: I had a great time!

Longer answer: Once I was at the convention, any nerves I had melted magically away. I had been afraid I’d be that panelist who sits there silently while everyone else talks, but that didn’t happen. I always had a lot to say, and most of the panels went by very quickly. Plus I had the great fortune to share the panels with a lot of intelligent and well-spoken people, talking about subjects that I am very interested in.

My favorite panel was “What Does Rejection Mean?” Not surprisingly, I can talk about the psychology of being a writer (or more generally, being an artist) all day long, and I also really liked what my fellow panelists had to say. I moderated three of the five panels, having only prepped to moderate one of them. I’m a planner so the idea of moderating on the fly is one that filled me with a certain horror, but as it turned out, I was able to improvise without too much difficulty.

Getting ready for battle

Getting ready for battle

I decided a couple of months ago to set myself a few goals that I could have confidence in my ability to complete while definitely still stretching myself. So many of my goals are long in duration, very challenging, and involve a lot of me stumbling around and making mistakes. This is necessary; I am ambitious. But sometimes it’s good to balance all the striving with achievement I know I can reach quickly if I commit myself to it. Participating on these panels at ConFusion was one of those short-term achievable goals, and it was a welcome change to try something that made me nervous but that I knew I had the skills to do. (I have another of these goals coming up in a few weeks, so more about that soon!)

More generally, I always have a great time at ConFusion, and this year was no exception. I was struck by how much value I receive when I have the opportunity to spend time with my fellow writers, whether they’re just starting out, have been around a few years like I have, or are at more advanced stages of their careers.

I’d been feeling a bit bummed out ever since my last novel fell apart, operating under a cloud of discouragement. I didn’t let this feeling stop me from planning my next novel project or continuing to query agents, but it’s been there, and it hasn’t been pleasant. For lack of a better way to describe it, I haven’t been feeling writerly. ConFusion reminded me of who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish, and talking to other writers about our projects and our processes has given me a renewed sense of focus.

Being writerly at the ConFusion barcon. Photo by Al Bogdan

Being writerly at the ConFusion barcon. Photo by Al Bogdan, 2014

More generally, I’ve been thinking of how important my writer community is to me. As a consequence, I’m bumping a Seattle visit up the priority list this year and considering the possibility of scheduling some Skype writer dates. Too much creative isolation does not a happy Amy make.

All in all, it was a very successful and productive weekend.

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1.

There’s this article beginning to make the rounds called “My Wife is a Terrible Piano Player.” I’ll confess I didn’t read the whole thing, but I like its main point. When we start doing something new, we’re usually bad at it. The first time I tried to play the piano, I’m sure I sounded like a little kid pounding randomly on a lot of keys. Because in fact, that’s what I was. It took years of time and practice and instruction and effort for me to become a passable pianist.

This makes me think about grit, a word I’ve seen pop up a lot lately. There are several components to grit, it seems, but one of them must be the ability to persevere even when we’re bad at something. Really bad. Wince-worthy bad, our efforts plagued with mistakes, missteps (or misnotes, as the case may be), and misunderstandings.

The first time I play a new board game, I never expect to win. It’s not that I think winning is impossible or that I’m not good at games. But I like to give myself the space to be bad while I’m learning. I want to experiment. I want to be able to make mistakes without embarrassment or disappointment. Isn’t that what learning is all about?

2.

But some people grow discouraged and give up. They don’t give themselves the time they would need to become good at something.

I saw this difficulty as a teacher. It was particularly prevalent with gifted children. They were so used to everything coming easily to them that when something didn’t–like, say, music, which pretty much always requires lots of practice–it was really difficult for them to continue. They grew frustrated. They weren’t used to having to wait to become good.

Music lessons were probably one of the best things those children could have been doing. Because really what they were learning was not only music, but grit.

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver via Compfight cc

3.

If, then, part of grit is giving ourselves permission to be bad at the beginning of learning something new, then another part of grit is cultivating self-discipline.

Becoming good at something is not always going to be fun. I love singing, but have I loved every minute of becoming a good singer? Have I enjoyed learning every song I’ve ever been assigned, figuring out how to practice effectively when I’m sick, doing the same exercise over and over and over, giving a poor audition? No. I love writing, but have I loved every minute of improving as a writer? Do I love the times when I’m stuck or whenever I realize my world building sucks or the endless revising or the hours upon hours writing personalized agent query letters? No.

If becoming good at something was pure enjoyment, we wouldn’t need much self-discipline. But there are always going to be off days and parts that aren’t very fun and repetition that is so boring you just want to scream at your screen and then go do anything else. And for things that don’t come with automatic structure, we have to provide ourselves with our own motivation and our own goal-setting as well.

Self-discipline, self-motivation, self-direction? All part of grit.

4.

Just in case anybody wants to talk about talent? Forget about it. Grit is more important.

We can argue about whether talent exists. I happen to think it does. But talent without grit is not enough. Grit without talent might be. Talent might give an extra boost, but having that boost makes it less likely you’ll develop the necessary grit. So if you do have talent, that means you have to work even harder.

5.

So the next time you start learning something new and you really, really suck at it, congratulate yourself and give yourself a pat on the back. “Good job for persevering, self,” you can say. “You’re showing some real grit.”

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Blog Retrospective 2013

I’ve been looking over the last year of posts on the Practical Free Spirit. It’s always very satisfying to do this, looking at all the essays I’ve managed to write and post in the course of the year. Especially during a year like this one, when I did not accomplish all I wanted to, writing-wise, it’s helpful to look at what I did accomplish.

I chose THIRTEEN of my favorite essays that I wrote this year. Which I guess since we’re talking about the year 2013 is at least somewhat appropriate. These are what I consider to be the year’s greatest hits. So if you are a regular here at the blog, you might remember some of these or even be re-inspired by them. And if you’re new-ish to the blog, this list is probably a decent place to start.

I Don’t Care if You Understand Me

If Boys Really Won’t Read Books About Girls, We Have a Problem

On Trolls and Obscurity and Making Art

How to Start Over

We Need to do Better when Dealing with Death

Remember Who You Are

I am not Sorry

Commitment Leads to Awesome

How to Overcome Fear

If you have a lot of secrets, this blog post could save your life.

The Best Life Advice I’ve Ever Heard

Taking time off from social media is actually no big deal.

Failure is the New Black

 

Hope you enjoy! I’ll be back next week to talk more generally about the year that is ending and to share what I’m focusing on for 2014.

 

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I made a hard decision on Friday.

I decided to abandon my current novel-in-progress.

Currently at 61,000 words in length, this novel represents a large amount of my time and effort. It is about 75% completed.

It is also not working. And I don’t mean that in a rough-drafts-suck kind of way, but in a there-are-several-deep-systemic-problems-here-and-most-of-this-needs-to-be-thrown-out kind of way. So I am putting it aside. Maybe at some point I’ll know how to fix these deep systemic problems and I’ll return to the project. Or maybe I won’t. It’s hard to say.

Scott Adams had a good point in his widely shared article about failure: that there are people who focus on goals and people who focus on systems, and it is the people who focus on systems who tend to do better.

Don’t get me wrong; I think having goals is important. I’m a planner, and goals help structure planning. But ultimately, we want to have goals that support our system. When the goal no longer supports the system, it is time to change the goal.

My system is to be continuously improving myself as a writer while looking for opportunities to advance my career. My goal was to complete this novel. When I started the novel, the goal was in line with the system, but that is no longer the case. Being aware of the broken aspects of the novel, at this point I’ve been going through the motions, which isn’t teaching me all that much. (If I didn’t know how to finish projects, or if I felt I could learn a lot about endings by finishing, this might not be the case. But neither of those applies this time.) And finishing a novel this broken won’t do anything for my career except take time I could be using elsewhere.

That’s not to say I haven’t learned a lot from this project because oh wow, have I ever. I’ll take all of that knowledge and experience with me to the next project, where I’ll put it to good use. But sometimes it’s important to be able to figure out when to cut your losses and walk away. My own personal tendency is to hang on too long. This is another opportunity to practice not doing that.

If you’re wondering how I’m feeling, well, I just put 61,000 words into a drawer, which is not the most pleasant experience ever. But at the same time, I do feel good about this decision. I am excited to have more time to work on other projects that I believe in. I’m happy to be moving forward.

Failure is hard, but it’s also necessary when we’re trying to push our limits and become better. So this is not a horribly discouraging thing. I’d feel a lot worse if I no longer believed in my system, but I do. Nothing fundamental has changed. I’m just moving on to the next stepping stone.

What is your system? Are your goals in line with it? How do you feel about failure?

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On Tuesday night Jonathan Carroll had a quotation on his Facebook that resonated with me:

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

There are different kinds of events that call for courage. There is the desire to make change, of course, which I’ve talked about a fair amount in the past. There is the question of how we face and handle adversity. There is the desire to try something new. And there is the willingness to go back and do the same scary thing again and again, even if it doesn’t get all that much easier.

I think when we choose to be artists–whatever that means to you–we are, in a sense, choosing to face fear again and again. There might be times when we aren’t seeking change, when we’ve got the adversity of life under control, when we’re living in a comfortable groove of existence. But if we’re actively working as artists, we’re constantly pushing, striving, experimenting, and revealing ourselves to others.

I can see it getting easier with time and practice, but I can’t imagine it ever being easy.

I have three main projects I’m working on right now: I’m querying my completed novel to agents, I’m in the middle of writing a novel rough draft, and I’m planning a future project that involves experimental elements. Each of these projects involve artistic courage.

-Querying puts me straight in the path of the rejection of my work, and while most of the time I shrug it off fairly easily, occasionally a rejection will sting.

-The rough draft is not coming together like I’d hoped it would, so writing it has become quite the struggle. I also deliberately chose to work on a concept that I knew depended on a writing ability in which I lack confidence and feel fairly weak.

-The new project is something new and experimental, and I’m not sure if I’m going to do it yet. But if I do, I’ll be trying all kinds of new things, and because of this, the entire project has a higher likelihood than many of tanking. It takes courage even to consider doing it.

reaching for origami cranes

Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc

And then there’s the drive as an artist to go deeper, to explore dark corners, to shine a light on truths that are hard and uncomfortable and scary. There is the call to show vulnerability in our work. All of this requires so much courage.

So I would say not only do our own lives expand or contract in relation to the courage we can bring to bear, but our artistic work does the same.

What do you have the courage to see? What do you have the courage to feel? What do you have the courage to communicate?

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Today you are reading one of my (relatively) rare writing posts, in which I am mostly going to share intelligent things that other people have said about writing. I admit that I am somewhat motivated by the selfish reason of wanting these articles available in the future for my own easy reference. But I’m also motivated because I’ve been thinking more about short stories lately because I’m critiquing three of them for WorldCon’s writing workshop, which takes place later this week.

First off, Goodreads did a survey on why people stop reading books. I’m fascinated by how many people don’t stop reading in the middle of a book because “as a rule, I like to finish things”: 36.6%! I’m so interested because I stop reading books all the time. I always have so many books in queue that I either should read or want to read that I’ll stop for any number of reasons: I’m not in the right mood, there’s another book I want to read more, the book doesn’t grab me, I can tell it’s not to my taste, etc.

But probably the most interesting number from that survey is that the single biggest reason why people stop reading a novel is because they find it BORING. From what I’ve heard, this is also one of the biggest reasons why slush readers stop reading novels and stories. So if you’re a writer, wanting to learn how to not be boring is a legitimate concern.

Photo Credit: Esellee via Compfight cc

Rahul Kanakia, otherwise known as my favorite blogger, shares some thoughts about the difference between short stories and novels in the boredom department. Rahul was a slush reader for Strange Horizons and now teaches writing to unsuspecting undergrad students at John Hopkins, so he knows that of which he speaks. He talks about having the “So what?” reaction to short stories, which is one I often have as well, and how to work towards inspiring a stronger reaction.

(Incidentally, it’s really interesting to think about the different things that a reader tends to want from a short story vs. from a novel. There definitely seem to be things you can get away with more easily in a novel than a short story, and vice versa.)

Ann Leckie, who edits GigaNotoSaurus, among other things, writes about a problem she often sees in her slush pile: namely, that much of the work she reads is not very original and involve ideas that haven’t been thought all the way through. Which results in what exactly? You guessed it: BORING stories.

Finally, I think anyone involved in narrative storytelling should check out this article, which I first read more than three years ago and still refer back to. (I expect to be referring back to it thirty years from now.) James Van Pelt wrote an outline of a talk he was going to give about writing a great ending. I am such a stickler for stories and novels landing the ending, and this blog post is the best discussion of how to achieve this that I’ve come across so far.

Have you stumbled across any great writing resources or articles lately? Been thinking about any aspect of writing in particular? Feel free to share in the comments!

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