On the road paved with good intentions

Whenever I travel for business I plan to write while I’m away. I’ll have time on my hands at the hotel without the distractions of home, I tell myself. I’ll crank out a serious word count and return home feeling extra productive.

It doesn’t happen that way. Ever.

What happens is that whatever work has prompted my travel consumes my brain. When I’m not with the client, I’m thinking nonstop about whatever we are working on or the next meeting, workshop, seminar. All of my creativity is channeled toward the client’s project and there’s nothing left for anything else.

At the end of each travel day I return to the hotel wanting to completely unplug and recharge so that I can do it all again the next day. Before I know it I am home again without so much as a single word counted toward the personal writing I’d planned. Worse yet, back at home I usually find myself drained and needing a serious recharge.

That’s what happened last week and I’m still working to recharge and get back on track creatively. But it doesn’t hurt that the walk I took to clear my head this morning offered this view…

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Second pass changes

My beach walks consist of parking the car, crossing over the dunes and heading straight for the water, and then walking along the shore for a couple of miles, turning around, and walking back. I almost wrote “retracing my steps” instead of “walking back,” but that would have been inaccurate. My steps seem to disappear almost as quickly as I make them in the ever shifting sand.

Although I have been taking these walks nearly daily for more than half a year, I continue to be surprised by how much changes in the time it takes me to cover the same ground twice. Whether the tide is coming in or rolling out, whether the wind is blowing sand or not, whether the beach is crowded or nearly empty, change is constant along my route.

In those early walking days I often made the mistake of procrastinating. If I saw something interesting to take a photo of, or investigate, or maybe a shell to pick up, I would hesitate and tell myself I’d do that on the way back. But I quickly learned that putting it off usually meant losing the opportunity. Maybe whatever it was washed out to sea before I returned. Maybe someone else picked up that shell. Maybe a gull carried something shiny away. Whatever the case, waiting until my second pass meant missing the moment.

During a walk last week I started thinking how much this is and isn’t like the process of converting a first draft of a piece of writing into a second draft.

Sometimes a second draft is such a considerable change from the first rough attempt that it is nearly unrecognizable. Shiny things and beautiful landscape from the rough draft are discarded or at the very least altered enough so as to appear new. Sometimes a second draft nearly obliterates the first one, taking the raw material and rearranging it as severely as a gust of wind or strong wave rearrange sand and sweep baubles away.

The difference lies in who or what controls the change.

With the coast, nature is absolutely in charge. Wind, waves, and rain sculpt the sand and deposit goodies on the shore. Yes, humans are part of that nature, but I am not directly in charge of the creation at large. I’m just an observer.

When taking a second pass at a writing project, however, I am the creator. I decide what stays and what goes. I mold the raw materials into the shapes that I imagine. Even so, I sometimes find myself surprised by the differences of the second pass.

Of course there are exceptions. On this morning’s walk I noticed a shell with friends attached to it at the water’s edge. I was only about half a mile into my walk, just hitting my stride, and decided not to stop to take a picture. I told myself I’d snap a pic on the way back if the shell was still there. As I passed it a wave covered the shell and my feet and I figured the shell would be long gone when the water receded.

Thirty minutes later it was right where I left it, waves still lapping at it occasionally. The lighting was less than ideal and I didn’t take a great pic but here it is…

Similarly, when I opened the file for the rough draft of this post, I found it already said most of what I was thinking. I just needed to add an ending.

Today was one of those days when the second pass didn’t change that much after all.

Journal your journey

Jax Beach, 5-21-2012, part of my writing journey today and mentioned in today’s writing journal entry as “sparkly.”

A common tip given to writers is to keep a journal. This tip is usually followed either by silence (as if just saying the word journal is enough) or a list of suggestions that feel a lot more like rules. This tip is often met either with an almost fanatical enthusiasm or varying degrees of disdain.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Journaling is good advice, that I have received and given throughout my writing life. It’s also a lesson in writing as a habit and way of life that I have learned and relearned, hopefully for the final time (fingers crossed).

Over the years, as I have given this advice to fellow writers and writing students, I have found that the same questions are asked. Here are the ones I’ve been asked most often, with my answer/opinion, of course.

Do I really have to journal?
No, of course not. But why don’t you want to?

My experience as a writing teacher/mentor, and as a writer, has been that resistance to keeping a journal usually comes from thinking that there is a certain way that a journal should be written and kept, and finding that way unappealing.

There is no one right way or wrong way to journal. Don’t google journaling tips and think that what you read is a blueprint you must follow exactly. You are free to incorporate any ideas that appeal to you and change your mind at any time. The purpose of a journal is to make writing a habit and keep it that way. Writer’s write but few writers write something substantial every day, or every week, or sometimes every month or (gasp!) longer. Journaling keeps a writer writing between projects and ideas.

Should I keep a writer’s journal or a diary?
Yes.

Let’s start with a definition. A journal kept by a writer is a writer’s journal and each is unique to its master/mistress. Some writers keep journals that look like writing class homework notebooks, containing the results of various writing assignments, prompts, and projects. Some writers keep stream-of-consciousness journals with entries that tend to look like the author vomited words onto a page with no further thought or organization. Some writers journal their writing process, meaning they write about writing. Some writers keep diary style journals with entries detailing boring days butted up against story fragments, and an impromptu haiku. Some writers journal the first draft of any writing project so that they never face a blinking cursor on a white screen with no idea where to start.

Each one of these is a writer’s journal, even if when placed alongside each other they don’t even resemble the same species.

I have kept each of the types described above, and various hybrids. For the past seven years, my non-work writing projects have consisted almost exclusively of creative nonfiction–memoir and essays of various lengths. Writing creative nonfiction about my own life is much easier for time periods with diary-style entries, therefore I devote a portion of my daily journaling to those. But I also include ideas, thoughts, and snippets of writing projects. I have started essays in journal entries to avoid the blinking cursor. I do a little bit of everything except journal writing assignments/prompts. Typically those get their own writing files separate from my journal.

Should I keep my writer’s journal handwritten or electronic?
It just doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want. The point is to start and maintain a writer’s journal.

I used to keep handwritten journals, many with a favorite pen, some in moleskines. Others in generic notebooks. About two dozen in both hard and soft cover journals bought from local bookstores. Lined. Unlined. In 1996, grounded off of keyboards for three months due to a bout of carpal tunnel, I wrote an entire novel manuscript by hand in a couple of journals. But for the past few years my journals have gone exclusively electronic. Thanks Evernote!

Do I have to write in my journal every day?
No, of course not. There are no writer’s journal police. But writer’s write. Do you really want to go a day without writing?

I have been journaling full-time since 1994, almost twenty years now. Before then, my journaling was rather hit or miss. And over the past couple of decades there have been two or three long spans of time (one of more than a year) when I didn’t journal at all. Not coincidentally, during those times I also did not write anything else outside of the workplace. No books. No essays. No letters to the editor. Zip. Zero. Once I noticed that pattern I made journaling a priority and haven’t stopped since. I have some journal entries that essentially consist of “I got nothun.” But I have journal entries. Because I don’t really want to go a day without writing ever again.

Do I have to write properly in my journal (meaning with correct spelling, sentence structure and punctuation)?
Again, there are no writer’s journal police. But what is the appeal of writing “improperly?”

I have been referred to as a Grammar Queen and I insist on taking that as a compliment even when it’s not meant as one. I do believe it’s important to know the rules before breaking them. But I don’t think there’s much, if any, value to throwing them all out the window and insisting that’s art. If the point of keeping a journal is to write, and by doing so, improve as a writer, it would seem to me that writing properly would be desirable.

That being said, a writer’s journal is written by the author, for the author. It need not please anyone else.

What should I write about?
Whatever you want. I firmly believe that it does not matter.

I frequently journal about my beach walks. How far. How long. The weather. The waves. Who I shared the beach/my walk with. If I spoke to anyone. What I saw. I can easily tell you which days I’ve watched an osprey catch a fish or pelicans skim the waves in formation. I have logged what shells I found and what kinds of jellies I’ve had to step around. My attraction to and experiences along the coast are obviously an important part of my writing journey and naturally a part of my writer’s journal.

My journal also includes snippets of conversations I’ve had or overheard, topics we discussed as a family over dinner, detailed accounts of good, bad, and indifferent experiences I’ve had, and the fact that I made my taco salad upside down today. My journal is my place to write without self-censorship so if it pops into my mind while my journal is open, then there it is preserved on the page.

Is there a minimum amount I should write?
Nope. You may read or hear advice to write daily. You may encounter suggested word count minimums. You may disregard all of that. It’s your journal. Keep it when, how often, and in whatever length segments you want.

My journal entries over the years tend to be snowflakes. No two are the same. I write whatever and how much I feel like writing and I try not to allow lengthy gaps between entries since, as I noted above, for me, going without journaling coincides with going without writing. I now write something every day. Something. Every. Single. Day.

Should I share my journal with others?
That’s entirely up to you. Many writers journal through their public blogs, giving readers a window on their process and progress. Many more keep journals locked away or password protected hoping they are never read by anyone while they are alive or even after their death.

In our household, journals are nonnegotiably¬†private, including between spouses. That doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally read aloud to each other if it’s relevant to a writing/literary/similarly artistic discussion. We are both writers, after all, and there are times when sharing a passage is the best way to communicate. But such sharing is rare and short-lived and the rest of what we journal is kept secret.

Keep your journal private. Make your journal public. Or strike a balance in between. It’s your choice.

Well there you have it. If you are or want to be a serious writer, and you don’t already keep a journal, give it a try. If you have any questions I haven’t answered, please ask. I’ll do my best to answer. Also, if you are primarily another type of artist, I’d love to hear if you have an equivalent to the writer’s journal. Something that provides a regular opportunity to practice or try out new ideas or just keep you artistically active between projects? Or is this just a writer thing?

Tern, tern, tern

Inspiration doesn’t always come easily, even when I stick to routine, write on schedule, and tempt my creativity with the sights and sounds that bring me ideas and the peace of mind to pursue them.

I can do all the right things, and still sit down at the keyboard only to find that I have nothing to say.

That’s not the case for me today, however. Today I have far too much to say, about too many topics. My thoughts are like this flock of terns at the beach this morning, each taking flight at the same time and not necessarily with the same destination in mind.

Royal Terns, Jax Beach, 5-14-12

I find this harder to deal with than what is traditionally known as writer’s block. I cannot, after all, write simultaneously on multiple projects at once, no matter how much my mind wishes to do so.

Or can I?

I used to think that was a no-no, that to be disciplined as a writer I had to force my brain to work on just one project at a time. When I had days like this I would refuse to add even a word or a note to anything but the work in progress at that time. This didn’t make me more productive. And worse yet, I seemed to forget those bursts of inspiration for other projects when the time came to work on them. Eventually I gave up on my one-at-time rule and focused instead on trying to keep up with ideas as I had them, even if that meant working on more than one thing at a time.

This is one of those days when I have files for multiple projects open, adding bits to one and editing pieces of another. I may not feel like I have accomplished much on any particular project by the end of the day, but at least I’ll have the comfort of knowing that I didn’t miss the chance to add any of the ideas I have flying through my head to their appropriate projects.

Here’s to creativity taking flight, and to holding on for the ride!

Writing is writing is writing, except when it’s personal

As we know, writers write (and artists sketch and paint, and sculptors sculpt, and dancers dance). That’s both a true statement and excellent advice. We must practice not just to improve but to maintain. Absence of creative activity makes the artist grow rusty.

But for writers, is all writing created equal? Does it have the same effect? Serve us equally well? Yes and no.

In many ways, writing is writing is writing. It works the same muscles and stimulates the same brain cells. But over the years I have noticed that all writing is not equally fulfilling, especially for me.

I am one of the “lucky” writers that writes for a living. That has been the case for me during happy moments of my career. As a journalist, a publisher, a documentation specialist and now as a consultant, I have earned my paycheck by putting words to pages. Often I put quite a lot of words to pages. But this isn’t always a good thing for the other writer in me, the one who writes because she can’t imagine NOT writing.

Writing for a living means that my writing, and with it my time, is divided roughly into two categories–work and personal–with work always receiving priority status.

Bill do have to be paid after all.

It would be great if the writing I call personal–the manuscripts, stories, and essays–brought in enough money to pay my bills. It would also be great if cash sprouted from the ground like weeds. While I wait for either of those scenarios, I have to prioritize accordingly.

Work writing hones my writing skills, and requires a fair amount of creativity as well, but it’s just not the same for me as when I open the file for my current book in process, or scribble down lines that have been dancing in my brain, or sketch out a character that has been talking to me.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about missing blogging when life and work combined to knock me off of my routine and therefore cut out any and all personal writing time. But I haven’t blogged about what type of personal writing that I do, so I thought I’d take a moment to introduce my personal writing self.

I write a little bit of everything. I have several fiction novel manuscripts in various stages of completion/endless rewrites, about a dozen finished short stories, and a handful of flash fiction pieces. But my favorite type of personal writing is creative nonfiction, probably stemming from my introduction to journalism at an impressionable age. I have two creative nonfiction book length manuscripts and I’m currently working on a third. I’ve also dabbled in essay writing and have taken stabs at the creative nonfiction equivalent of flash fiction, with mixed results. I steer clear of poetry, leaving that to my husband. It’s not good for married writers to compete, right?

My personal writing is what gets pushed off my To Do list when work and regular life gets busy. But that can only go on for so long before I feel that restlessness that only being creative can cure. When that happens, I MAKE time to write what I want to write…after I meet those pesky work deadlines, of course.

Tidal Pools of Creativity

Yesterday I was lucky enough to take my walk along the beach at my favorite time–about half way between high and low tide, with the tide going out. It’s my favorite time because of the tidal pools.

Jax Beach, 5-1-2012

What I like about tidal pools is that they are never exactly alike. Even pools that regularly form in about the same location vary in shape, depth, behavior, and duration depending on the sun, sand, water and wind.

What they trap varies as well. Some have beds of shiny shells. Some have rivers leading back to the receding sea. Some have walls so shallow that it seems the water isn’t trapped at all, but merely hanging out there by choice. Others have walls steep enough to make them an excellent makeshift kiddie pool for toddlers.

Lately the tidal pools at Jax Beach have been home to schools of tiny fish. Ranging from less than 1/2 an inch to almost an inch and a half long, these groups of fish trapped in the pools, or scurrying along those temporary streams between some of the pools and the sea, have broken up my walks with stop and point activities.

“There’s another batch!” I tell my husband as I point and stare.

This wrecks one purpose of my walk–to log exercise miles–but is perfect for the other reason I put my feet to the sand–creative inspiration. I love watching the worlds formed by each pool, with its unique characteristics and inhabitants seemingly unaware that I’ve already passed half a dozen such worlds in the last quarter mile of beach.

Each started with the same ingredients, but created something original. That’s what we artists do every day.

In a former life I published an ezine and one of its most popular features was a page of potential story titles or ideas punnily called the “Title Pool.” Readers would submit entries to be posted on that page for all to use or misuse as they saw fit. I now keep a private Title Pool file for puns, phrases, or snippets of songs, poems or conversations that catch my attention and seem like they may lead to something.

Create you own and see how it captures and inspires your ebb and flow of ideas.

 

Death, taxes, and the necessity of routine

Death and taxes are not the only certainties for me. I can also count on the loss of routine knocking me clean off the writing wagon.

That has been the case for me over the past few weeks. My routine sank into the sea and my regular blog entries and all personal writing plans washed away like so much sand art I trudge through during my beach walks. Oh, and, of course, my beach walks suffered the same fate as my blog entries and personal writing, which in turn threw me farther off track. Vicious, vicious, circle.

What derailed my happy routine days? What upended my regular weekly cycle of write, sleep, write for work, beach, write more for work, eat, write, sleep?

Well, one of my cars broke down, my husband had surgery and recuperated at home, one business project ended with my delivery of a full report and recommendations, another business project started with my development of a huge, detailed proposal and the tax deadline arrived, all in the span of one short week. Eight days, to be precise.

Everything turned out fine, except that I failed to post weekly blog entries for two weeks straight and gained two pounds.

Coincidence? Probably not.

I am most definitely a creature of habit. I have routines for everything and when I follow them they serve as a road map to my health, happiness, and productivity. When I abandon them, look out hopes and dreams!

It wasn’t as if I didn’t do any writing during my off track days. That report and proposal didn’t create themselves. But anything that wasn’t strictly business suffered a bit and I suffered with it. Like most artistic people I’ve known or known of, I’m only fully happy when I’m creating.

And so, besides offering an excuse laden apology of sorts for not posting here for a couple of weeks, I urge you to take stock of your own routines, superstitions, and must haves. What do you need to maintain your creative endeavors?

Whatever it is, guard it with your life, especially when life gets a little crazy.

A foolish day for a walk

Midday on a hot Sunday in Spring is not the ideal time for a walk along the beach. But I went anyway.

Jax Beach, FL - April Fool's Day 2012

Labeling it crowded would be grossly understating the scene. The beach was packed and the tide was already high and still rising, forcing everyone there to share increasingly less space. There was a lot to see, sure, but not a lot of room to do anything that involved moving from place to another along the coast.

This was when I decided to take my walk. And at first it seemed like a mistake.

I’m not one of those people who exercises at the same time or even exactly the same place each time. I procrastinate. I get bursts of energy and decide to go for it right then. I am all over the map at times and therefore wasn’t the least bit surprised to discover as I crossed over the dunes that early on a Spring Sunday afternoon was not the best time to get my walk in.

But I also didn’t let it discourage me. I switched on my pedometer and started weaving between towels, hairs, umbrellas and people toward the shore. Once there, I headed south, focusing only on the few feet of sand in front of me rather than the crowds of people ahead, behind, and surrounding me.

At first it looked like walking even a couple of feet would be impossible. Walking a couple of miles seemed out of the question. But I took that first step determined to make it work.

I had to dodge a lot of people who couldn’t care less if I walked or not. I had to stop and restart when beach balls or babies crossed my path at the last second. I had to weave around fishermen and football-throwing teens. I had to share space with squawking gulls used to having sand to land on.

I also got to watch a fisherman rescue and stingray and send it back out to sea.

Pretty soon it was time to turn around and retrace my steps, and although even more people had crammed together on the beach by then, the walk back actually seemed easier.

Maybe I’d simply adapted to the distractions and obstacles, which is what any writer has to do if they want to consistently produce.

Writers and other artists often find themselves trying to create in less than ideal situations. Crowds. Obstacles. Distractions. These don’t disappear just because we have deadlines or if we’re just not feeling “it” that day.

At those times we have to create anyway. We have to make that first move determined to get where we want to go.

Sometimes we have to get creative to be creative. And sometimes that leads to memorable results.

 

Part 2 of truth doesn’t have to be complicated

It’s said there are 3 sides to every story: his side, her side and the truth.

Truth is easy enough to determine when we’re talking verifiable facts. Dates. Times. Exact numbers of widgets. Writers either get these right or wrong in nonfiction and their fact checkers and readers judge them accordingly, as I blogged last week.

But how those facts are perceived, and the meaning assigned to them, is personal. People can perceive the same event quite differently. A handful of people to one person can be a crowd to another, or a gang to a third. The devil is not just in the details, it’s also in the conclusions drawn from those details.

Personal perceptions are part of any story told. Even a “just the facts ma’am” recounting is subject to spin. But that’s not automatically a bad thing.

Writers of nonfiction are expected to draw conclusions based on their perceptions. Journalists, technical writers, essayists and creative nonfiction writers all make judgments as they write. Writers decide what facts to highlight, and order of importance, based on their knowledge and experience. They write the truth as they know it, drawing conclusions based both on verifiable facts and their perception of what those facts mean. It’s unavoidable.

And that’s ok.

Of course there have been, are, and will again be writers who take things too far. That’s why we have terms like exaggeration, melodrama and hyperbole.

However, the nonfiction writer does have certain obligations to the reader. The writer must not alter facts. And when it comes to descriptive words (such as few, several, many, near and far), the writer must sincerely strive for accuracy as they relate what they perceived.

Ultimately the writing speaks for itself. The honest, the accurate, the most truthful perceptions are often the most enduring works of nonfiction. Perhaps that is because we humans love a true story. Perhaps it’s because we have gotten pretty good at figuring out when people are lying to us, be it to our face or in writing.

The nonfiction writer cannot deliberately mislead the reader. That’s propaganda. Fiction.

That’s the line that cannot be crossed.

Truth doesn’t have to be complicated

Once again the writing community is blathering breathlessly about the nature of truth. What are facts and why are they stubborn things? Can true stories be told without tweaking what happened to make the tale more dramatic or compelling? How much tweaking is too much tweaking? What does nonfiction really mean anyway?

This happens every so often. A journalist bends the truth or creates an imaginary friend as a “source” to get the big story to press. A memoir writer makes up events that never happened or people who never lived to help propel a life story into a best seller. An essayist publishes a book¬†detailing an argument with a fact checker that attempts to justify stark departures from reality because those departures allegedly “sound better.”

Unfortunately the latter has led to literary minds once again wrestling with the question of truth and the role of factual accuracy in nonfiction. Thankfully, according to this source, at least one panel of writers apparently understands that the issue is not that complicated.

Truthfully, this is a topic that writers shouldn’t have to discuss. All prose writing can be divided into two categories, fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is made up, even if it’s based on real events. Nonfiction is, brace yourself, not fiction.

Each of these categories can then be subdivided into genres, but regardless of what flavor of the writing, readers bring certain assumptions to the table depending on which category the writing claims to be. Readers assume that nonfiction is, shockingly, not fiction.

Any nonfiction writer, creative or otherwise, who claims they can’t tell a good nonfiction story without altering verifiable facts (such as the number of businesses in a particular location, or whether two specific event took place on the same day) has three choices. One, select a story to tell that isn’t burdened with stubborn facts or inconvenient truths. Two, become a better writer, one that can weave reality into an intoxicating story without tweaking, altering, or outright fabricating. Or, three, write fiction.

It truly is that simple.