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.

Back it up

I am prepping for a business trip tomorrow and I have a long To Do list. Last minute emails to the client. Meeting preparation. Checking in for my flight and printing boarding passes. Packing. Checking and rechecking between now and my departure to make sure I have everything I need.

The last thing I will do today, however, will be the most important task on my list. I will back up my computer files.

This is a lesson I have learned the hard way. Repeatedly. In the last 15 years I have lost 3 full book length manuscripts and countless business writing files including presentations, procedures, instructions and forms. One of the book manuscripts was never printed and is gone for good. Ditto for the countless business files.

It doesn’t matter how I lost them. Lightning strikes. Hard drives fail. Networks crash at the worst possible times.

There is one way to insure that all is not lost. Save often and back up your files on a regular basis.

It’s easier than ever to back up your work these days, with programs and apps designed to let you click your way to peace of mind. Many of these apps provide the added bonus of allowing file access and sharing among many devices which makes business communication and travel easier and lighter. But bells and whistles aside the key is maintaining a back up of your work on a separate device or cloud.

I’m not going to promote any particular program here because it doesn’t matter what you choose to use as long as it works for you. What’s important is that those of us who work and create electronically regularly take the time to back it up.

Into the wind

There are two kinds of reactions that the local gulls have to windy weather along the coast. Most of them huddle together in the sand, facing the wind with resistance and determination not to be blown away or allow their feathers to get ruffled. But a few abandon the sand and use their wings, not to resist the wind, but to interact with it. They play.

Gulls

There is nothing wrong with hunkering down. Sometimes battening the hatches and facing the storm is the only sensible approach.

But there’s nothing creative about it.

The creative ones are the gulls that see the wind as an opportunity and make the most of it.

On a particularly blustery day this winter my husband and I stepped onto the beach and found ourselves directly under half a dozen gulls hovering just out of reach overhead. They weren’t going with the flow and being blown about. They weren’t fighting the current.

Those gulls were managing the stream to suit their purpose. Not fighting the change, but allowing it to support them and enable their play.

Gulls

We stood there beneath them and watched as they experimented with the air, landed in the sand to rest, and then resumed their game of positioning themselves directly over our heads, at just the right angle to stop flapping their wings, stop moving a feather, and pause right there in midair.

Look at me, they seemed to say. Watch this!

We did.

Now when I visit the beach on blustery days, I watch for gulls playing in the wind. I always find a few, though usually not as many as we watched that first time together. Whether it’s one or a dozen, however, the lesson is the same. When faced with adversity, we can hunker down until it blows over, or we can use what we’re given, manage it, manipulate it, and transform it to create something spectacular.

Gulls

Creating is more fun.

Take every opportunity to soar.

Unlock your observation skills

Once upon a time I taught a Beginning Creative Nonfiction Writing class to adults through a local arts council. My students ranged in age from late teens and twenty-somethings through retirees, and their writing experience ranged from hey I think I’ll give this a try to multiple academic publishings. What they shared was a desire to create art from truth and a willingness to let me guide them.

The course ran from 8-10 weeks depending on which semester we were in and I taught it for several semesters using the same curriculum, expanding and contracting as needed to span the time alloted.

My first class lesson plan was always the same. I opened with reading aloud an excerpt from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. I then provided an introduction to creative nonfiction and its various forms (essay, memoir, family history, journalism, biography, etc.), and ended with a homework assignment designed to get students to look at the world around them with fresh eyes.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is a book that I reread at least once a year. Written by a man who had Locked In Syndrome following a stroke, and who dictated his story by blinking one eye, it reminds me that no matter how hard I think my life is at any point, it’s not THAT hard.

It also reminds me that much of our lives goes unnoticed. Our senses are bombarded with information as we make our way through our days and we tend to overlook or simply miss quite a lot of what happens around us, and even to us.

To help writers tune in to more of what happens around them every day I developed the Locked In Essay homework assignment. I think it works for all types of writers. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Here are the details…

Locked In Essay— Sit or stand quietly in a public place (college campus, park, beach, mall, bus stop, food stand, busy street corner, etc.) for 15 minutes, and observe. Do not interact with your surroundings. Write a page or two about that experience. What did you see? Smell? Hear? Think? Feel? Were you inspired? Were you bored? Was it 15 minutes of your life you’ll never get back? What?