…the more things stay the same

It’s a beautiful North Florida fall day with plenty of sunshine, highs in the upper 60s, and the threat (promise?) of lows in the upper 30s tonight. My local weather alert text this morning urged everyone to “bundle up.” If I had ventured out today, I would no doubt have seen people taking that advice, wearing actual coats of the sort that northerners (and former northerners) reserve for December-March weather in the upper Midwest.

As a transplant from up north marking my first full year down here, I put on a long-sleeved shirt, opened the windows, and turned off the air conditioner that has run continuously since March. To me, the weather is perfect for a day of digging my desk out from under a mound of paperwork and catching up on my To Do list.

Item #1 – write a blog post.

Sigh.

So much to write…so little time. Fall is anniversary season for me. September held the anniversary of our relocation to our new home here. October featured my wedding anniversary and the first anniversary of the founding of my consulting company. And November 15th will mark one year of The Beach Writer blog.

I’ve learned quite a bit about blogging this past 12 months. Mostly I’ve learned that I blog more often in winter than in summer, or at least that’s how it seems at first glance. More accurate, I think, is that I blog more often when I only have a couple of projects going simultaneously, and fairly infrequently when I have completely overextended myself. This has been the case for me throughout my entire writing and publishing life. As much as I think I would like to change that, I can recognize that it’s unlikely.

What is more likely is that I slow down every once in a while to figure out where I am, reflect on what I’ve accomplished and encountered, and plot a course for where I think I want to go (always subject to change, of course).

I combined one of those slow down and think sessions with a beach walk shortly after Labor Day and realized something wonderfully comforting and, I think, amazing, about the beach. After a year of observation, through all four seasons, Nor’easters, tropical storms, seaweed invasions, and a seemingly endless string of sunny days packed with people, I realized that I was looking at a shoreline essentially the same as when I first saw it.

How could that be?

I could understand how it would look basically the same following sand erosion during storms. The sand diminishes and shifts, sure, but the basic slope from an upper level near the dunes that led steadily but gently to the waves remained the same. But something happened at the start of the summer that significantly altered the landscape, the Great Seaweed Event of 2012.

Just before the solstice in June, right as beach attendance was ramping up, I arrived at the beach to walk and found it covered in seaweed. Blanketed in seaweed. Carpeted, actually. Overnight, the sea had coughed up a thick layer of smelly vegetation that spanned the width of the beach nearly from the dunes to low tide line and stretching north and south as far as I could see. Local news ran stories and aired interviews with beach visitors put off by the smell and the sight, and beach caretakers trying to explain that they couldn’t remove the seaweed and wouldn’t even be able to move it until it dried out some.

The Great Seaweed Event, Jax Beach, 6/20/2012

Walking was a little difficult that day, and for the better part of the next week, but what happened next was fascinating. As soon as it had arrived it was gone, buried beneath a fresh layer of sand, and in its place was a ridge of sand running parallel to the shore. For most of the summer that ridge held, creating a multi-level beach. From the dunes to the high tide line was the upper level, and from there to roughly the midline between high and low tides, was a new middle level shelf. Then a sharp drop occurred to the low tide level below.

Jax Beach, July 2012, with new mid level hump from seaweed dump

That’s how the beach remained June through August. But shortly after Labor Day, as I walked and thought about the culmination of our first year living here, I realized that things had changed. The ridge was gone and once more the beach was a steady and gradual slope from dunes to sea. In fact, it looked almost exactly like it did when I first saw it, before the storm erosion and the seaweed explosion made their subtractions and additions.

Time had smoothed out the extremes.

Doesn’t it always?

A lot has changed for me over the past year. I relocated to a new region of the country, with a new climate. I started a business. I began and have nearly finished a book and have another one waiting for its turn. I started this blog and posted regularly and semi-regularly as life allowed.

And yet for the most part, my landscape and the ebb and flow of my days remain the same. I walk, I write, and I work among the sun, sand, water and words.

The more things change, the more they truly do stay the same, at least for me.

Jax Beach, fall, 2012

The more things change…

Since my last post, the Summer Olympics came and went and each political party held their convention. There are many writing lessons to be gleaned from each of those events such as the importance of perseverance, training, practice, organizing/outlining to ensure a coherent presentation of your thoughts, and my personal favorite–the importance of comparing a changed document with the previous version before publication.

Without taking sides in the current nasty U.S. political climate, I think we can all agree on the fact that words were omitted when two sections of the Democratic Party Platform document were updated for 2012. Looking at this purely from a business writing or publication viewpoint, it seems that the person(s) involved with preparing the platform failed what I believe is the most critical step when revising anything written. They failed to compare the old and the new versions, side by side, word for word.

Now that takes awhile with anything over a few pages long. It’s tempting to just run spell check and have the new version proofed, reviewed, and authorized while leaving the old for dead. But without comparing the old and new side by side, word for word, the odds are high that something important could be unintentionally left out. Perhaps more than one something important will be left out. And if the new version is published or widely distributed, such omissions can quickly become a great embarrassment, or worse.

What if the document is an instruction manual and the omission is a critical step that skipping causes an unintended result? What if the document is a procedure that must be followed exactly and the omission causes a violation of regulations? These are two quick technical writing examples, but omissions during the revision of a recipe or a book on just about anything can be similarly serious.

Do yourself a favor and remember that a quick proofread to ensure correct spelling and grammar and that the material “sounds good” isn’t enough when you’re dealing with a revision of a previously published document. Compare the old and new one last time, before your readers do.

Back to work

Well it’s been awhile, hasn’t it? More than a month, to be exact, since my last blog entry. Definitely a serious flouting of the rules of blogging!

And it was just what I needed.

I’ve had a very busy 2012, starting a business, trying to finish one manuscript and start another, blogging. Something had to give and so, toward the end of June, I decided to take a vacation from everything that I could and give myself a chance to recharge.

I couldn’t actually take a “real” vacation because I’m in the middle of long-term project with deadlines throughout this summer and fall. So for the past month I took a vacation from everything else. When I wasn’t working I did nothing at all. Nothing writing-wise that is. To be exact, I took a staycation, because I stayed right here at home, and even worked in my office, but just not on anything I wasn’t contractually obligated to create.

Obviously, I didn’t blog. But I also didn’t write a word on my nearly finished manuscript or the one I started at the end of May. No essays. No snippets. No notes. I journaled, but that’s it.

Typical vacation day, Jax Beach, FL

What did I do with my time instead? I read a lot. I walked the beach. I took a lot of photos. I spent extra time with family. I allowed my mind to wander wherever it wanted.

But most of all, I refused to feel guilty about not writing, which is a first for me.

The result has been fantastic. By focusing only on work  I was able to be extra productive in that area. By refusing to write anything else, I pushed all thoughts on other projects to the back of my mind where they were free to bounce around unattended and come up with new perspectives and combinations of their own.

That’s a wonderful thing, but as happens with all vacations or staycations, the time has come to get back to my regular writing life again.

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…

20120620-145720.jpg

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.