Maker, Writer's life

Level Thinking – Polymaths and Imaginary Worlds

Michelle and Robert Root-Bernstein — he’s a physiologist and she’s an independent scholar in creativity studies — first came to my attention in 2009, when they were part of an interdisciplinary group studying creativity at Michigan State University. This research shed light on children and early creativity.

Who were these people?

  1. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer
  2. Dian Fossey
  3. Leonardo da Vinci

Most people would peg Dr. Oppenheimer as a scientist, or mention his connection with atomic bomb research. But it would be equally correct to say that he was a student of Greek architecture and classic civilization, art, and literature.

Before Dian Fossey studied gorillas, she was an occupational therapist.

Leonardo is hardest to pin down. Scientist? Mathematician? Engineer? Inventor? Anatomist? Painter? Sculptor? Architect? Botanist? Musician? Writer? Let’s call him a polymath, which describes a person knowledgeable in many areas.

What the Root-Bernsteins and their group discovered was that the degree to which children create the details of imaginary worlds can be an early clue to which of them will become polymaths as adults. Polymaths tend to become very, very good at what they do.

All children create imaginary worlds and unseen friends, but not all do it to the degree of J. R. R. Tolkein. He began practicing the creation of Middle Earth as a very young child. He was reading by age four, writing by five, and before he had begun his formal schooling, his mother taught him botany, Latin, and foreign languages. Throughout his childhood he took notes on all the places he visited; drew maps; invented flora, fauna, and languages; and probably spent more time in Middle Earth than he did at home.

Looking back, one thing I value from my childhood is that my mother believed in classes, even if she and I didn’t always agree on what the class should be. I wanted tap-dancing; she put me in ballet because it was more lady-like. China painting was a disaster, we won’t even go there, but I did manage to wangle a few ceramics classes. And no matter how much I pleaded, never, ever music because she’d had a horrible experience taking piano lessons as a child.

What these classes had in common is that I was forced to face the empty dance floor, the pristine china plate, or the amorphous clay lump. I learned at an early age to start anywhere because the first few attempts would go by the wayside as the real work began to emerge.

Those classes also fed the imaginary worlds that constantly spun out of my head. The garden creatures who lived in our back yard, under the fig tree, danced ballets in the moonlight, even if a few of them remained miffed that they weren’t allowed to tap dance. Drawing class turned into maps. Other classes segued—often by very complicated and tortuous journeys— into codes, ciphers, secret messages, puppet-kings, costumes, hand-decorated menus for special celebrations, high drama, and low comedy. Never a hand-painted china set, though. People in my imaginary kingdom were forced to content themselves with lop-sided ceramic bowls.

Later in life I learned I could go back and pick up those missed things from childhood. I took my first music lesson at age 30. I was never accomplished at music, but I had a devil of a good time and even wrote one small original composition, about 3 lines long. The instrument I took up was the bagpipe. Maybe there is something to be said for getting what you want to do out of your system before turning 30 because goodness knows what decisions you’ll make for yourself when you’re old enough to decide for yourself.

I recommend that every writer sign up for classes, preferably ones where the students start with a blank something. A empty stage. A clean piece of paper. A length of cloth. A chunk of wood. An untuned instrument. Something where you can start with the most basic of skills and build from there. It will do wonders for your writing. And if you’d like to come to my place for show-and-tell, the garden creatures and I usually have tea about four in the afternoon. Bring your tap shoes.

Michelle Root-Bernstein has a new book out this year, Inventing Imaginary Worlds, from Childhood to Adult Creativity Across the Arts and Sciences. Check out that book and her website about imaginary worlds.

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My point of view, Writer's life

Level Thinking — Getting Ahead of Sneaky Viruses

This blog has nothing at all to do with writing, but a lot to do with a writers’ life. None of us want to lose valuable time because we’re laid low by a sneaky virus. And viruses can hide in the craziest places.

Today, instead of my writer’s hat, I’m wearing another hat—that of ex-public health nurse—so I can pass on tips and research I’ve gathered about unexpected places that we can pick up viruses. After all, it is October and the cold and flu season is just over the horizon.

Splatter patterns

Those of us that watch or read forensic-based mysteries know all about splatter patterns, so let’s look at how water splatters affect virus transmission. When I flush my toilet with the lid open, water and things in the water are aerosolized into an invisible cone-shaped spray, which can spread up to six feet in all directions.

Do you have a box of tissues on top of the toilet tank? In all probability, that tissue sticking out of the box is contaminated with microscopic drops of body effluvia. How about a toothbrush and drinking glass sitting beside the sink? Ditto. How about that bar of soap for hand washing. Ditto.

Faucets and ice/water machines

The other place that splatter pattern is important is in sinks. When I wash my hands, or dishes, or dirty washcloths, etc. under a faucet, microscopic drops of what I’m washing off flies upward and attaches itself to the underside of the faucet. When the next person comes along, what’s on the underside of the tap is washed onto their hands or into their drinking glass.

This isn’t so much of a concern when doing simple hand-washing. If I use soap and running water, I’ll rinse off not only what was on my hands originally, but whatever I picked up from the underside of the faucet.

Getting a drink of water is a whole other matter. Not only are faucets a problem, but if I refill my water bottle or a glass I’ve drunk from under an ice/water dispenser, my saliva is aerosolized onto the dispensing spout, ready to be washed into the next person’s glass or bottle. That’s why some ice machines and water coolers have signs that say, “Don’t fill water bottles here.”

Sanitizing wipes

Does your grocery store supply those pop-up, wet cloths to disinfect cart handles? They work great, but only if the container is closed between people taking a cloth. If the container is left open, the wipes not only dry out, but become contaminated. A person doesn’t have to cough or sneeze to expel air-borne viruses. Just breathing is enough to do it. So if someone with a cold breathed on the open wipe container, that little piece of wipe sticking out of the top of the container is now full of virus.

Food

Delivery people, store employees, and possibly other customers have handled those groceries you just brought home. How many of them had a cold or the flu? This isn’t so much of a problem with things like canned or jarred food or boxes of dry food, such as pasta. However, viruses can live up to 72 hours on containers kept in a dark, moist, cool environment like the inside of a fridge.

Finally, expect all communal food not opened in your presence to be contaminated, whether it’s those sliced oranges under the plastic dome in the grocery’s fruit-and-vegetable section, or leftover birthday cake in the break room, or jelly beans on my co-worker’s desk.

How to get ahead of sneaky viruses

  • Mom or grandmom were right. Always flush the toilet with the lid down. If your toilet doesn’t have a lid, sit there until flushing has finished.
  • Store things like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and water glasses inside a cupboard, not where the aerosolized spray will reach them.
  • I keep a spray bottle of vinegar beside my bathroom sink. Before I get water to brush my teeth, I spray some vinegar on the underside of the faucet—that little place where the screen is—rub it with my finger, then run the water for a couple of seconds.
  • When checking into a motel, clean the faucet, either with soap and water or one of those antiseptic wipes. I take a bleach pen with me when I travel. The first thing I do when I check into a motel room is to use a damp washcloth with a few drops of bleach added to wipe down the three dirtiest places in a motel room — the underside of the spigot, the light switches, and the TV remote. How do we know those are the three dirtiest places? A researcher swabbed motel rooms to see what would grow. The culture plates from some TV remotes were so overgrown with bacteria that they could not be counted.
  • Wiping down the spigot of an ice or ice and water machine is a good idea, too. And then, dispense ice or ice and water into a clean glass and pour it into your water bottle.
  • If you have a choice between getting water, including water to make tea or coffee, from a kitchenette sink or a bathroom, take the kitchenette every time, even if it means a slightly longer trip. And remember to wash the underside of the spigot.
  • Help the next person along. Close those sanitizing wipe containers.
  • If you’re lucky enough to be standing there when a cake is cut or dip and chips are opened, take all you plan to eat then. I’m not too keen on my co-workers knowing exactly how many taco chips I plan to eat, but putting my entire serving in a bowl and walking away with it is a lot safer than coming back an hour later and picking up a second or third serving. And, of course, absolutely no second dipping. Yes, the remaining dip/salsa/etc. immediately turns into a bacterial soup.
  • Food containers destined for the fridge should be washed with a mild disinfectant solution, rinsed well, and dried before they go in the fridge. This includes take-away or doggie-bags brought home from restaurants.

In the words of the late, greatly-missed Sergeant Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Station, “Let’s be careful out there.”

I hope to see you — hale and healthy — next Tuesday, October 14th, for the second part of my writing a second draft series. This one will be emotion, emotion, emotion because that’s what second drafts are all about.

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Art, Journaling, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life

Level Thinking – What Older Creatives Need

The late Dr. Gene Cohen is one of my heroes because he was part of a movement that’s redefining aging in a positive light.

A year before he died, I had the pleasure of watching a video feed of Dr. Cohen, then Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University speak at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His talk was part of the cathedral’s Sunday Forum series. These talks are archived, so you’re interested learning more about Dr. Cohen or in seeing this feed yourself, given below are two links.

Dr. Cohen proposed that, from about our forties to the end of our lives, four things happen to make us view the world differently.  During his talk, I had one of those wonderful ah-ha moments when the world suddenly made more sense.

Mid-Live Reevaluation

The first phase he described was mid-life reevaluation, which starts in our forties and lasts, more or less until our mid-sixties. And boy, has this time of life gotten a bad rap, under the header mid-life crisis. Think of all the jokes about men with red sports cars and hair transplants, or women with plastic surgery and toy-boys. Sisters, that ain’t what it’s about at all.

As creative people, we’re familiar with the right-brain, left-brain idea, the notion that most of us have a dominant hemisphere. When younger people do activities that stimulate whichever side of their brain is dominant, they feel more in their comfort zone. But, according to recent neurological research, what begins in our forties is that both hemispheres begin to, literally, think together.

New brain cells are created. Existing brain cells develop more synapses—imagine all those people milling about independently in Times Square on New Years Eve suddenly holding hands. And those synapses, in large numbers, begin to connect the right and left sides of our brain. We are on our way to becoming whole-brain thinkers.

This is where I had my ah-ha moment.

How many times have you heard someone say, “The older I get, the more time it takes me to do something?” This statement, inevitably, has a negative connotation. Getting older. Slowing down. Decreasing mental and physical faculties. The inevitable winding down of the car engine or the clock, to use two physical objects used as metaphors for aging.

Yes, there is a physical component to aging and, as a society, we have thankfully crossed beyond that mental barrier that once said all older people will inevitably grow physically weaker until they can no longer manage even simple tasks. So we’re out there pounding the pavement, or taking aerobics classes, or doing Pilates and yoga, etc. And still it takes us longer to do things as we get older.

It takes us longer to do things because, beginning in our forties and lasting the rest of our lives, our brains come to tasks working in a way that is more holistic, more whole-brain, more multi-focused. And, like baking multi-grain bread, which takes longer to bake than white bread, that way is healthier, more artistic, and more satisfying. In a world where nano-seconds are considered a reasonable measure of time, taking longer has a bad, bad reputation.

Liberation

The second phase that Dr. Cohen described was liberation. It begins in the mid-fifties and goes to somewhere in the mid-seventies, though for all of these phases, there is no hard and fast end point.

Liberation is a change in consciousness: “If not now, when?” “What can they do to me?” Raise your hands, all of you who—like me—took up serious something sometime after you qualified for the “Over 55” menu at Denny’s. For me it was serious writing and art.

Summing Up

The third phase was summing up, and it comes to the forefront in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. People become more interested in philanthropy, in volunteerism, and in conflict resolution. This is the time many of us think about writing memoirs, or taking that special trip back to a place that marks a significant event in our lives.

Encore

The final phase is éncore, in the French sense, so let’s use the French spelling, as in pas éncore (not yet), or éncore un peu (just a little more, just a little longer), or Quoi éncore? (What else?) It’s the grown-up equivalent of “Can’t I play just a few minutes more?”

Dr. Cohen finished by saying that for most of our lives, we were nudged along. Parents expected children to do better. Peers influenced teen-agers in ways that parents and teachers could only dream of. We nagged our spouses, “It’s for your own good, dear.”

The older we get, the less people nudge us. Too old, they think. Slowing down. Takes them longer to do things. Not interested in new things. Not really keeping up. Living in a shrinking world. So sad, so why remind them of their frailties. Stop trying to nudge them along.

I think that you and I, as writers, as creative people, and as friends, have this absolutely sacred task not only to develop our own creativity, but to continue to nudge one another along in all creative areas. Forever. Éncore un peu.

“I attended a major retrospective exhibit of fifty years of folk art. Of the 20 artists featured in the catalogue, 12 of them, 60%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of sixty-five; and 6 of them, 30%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of eighty-five.” ~Dr. Gene Cohen (1944-2009), gerontologist, teacher, author

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My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level thinking – Habits for a Project’s End

“–30–. Slug it.”

I love old black-and-white movies about newspaper reporters, the guys with hats tipped back on their heads, and cigarettes dangling from their mouths, who grab candlestick phones and say, “Give me copy.”

–30– means the end of a story and a slug was a line of hot metal linotype. To slug a story was to send it to the linotyper to be set. If you ever have a chance to watch Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu, don’t miss it. Sorry, no link. It was on YouTube in the past, but it seems to have been removed. This documentary tells the story of the last day the New York Times printed on hot type and the first day it printed with computer-generated type.

In any case, we’re done. Deadline met. Story/article/book winging its way, probably electronically, to its destination. Now what? In this third blog about building habits, I’m writing about the down time a writer needs after finishing a huge project.

We are in shock. Not “shock” neatly enclosed in quotation marks as in, sort of like shock. We are in real shock. Run through this list: anxiety or agitation/restlessness; confusion; disorientation; dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness; pale, cool, clammy skin; sweating, moist skin; rapid pulse, and shallow breathing. Yep, that pretty much the way I feel on Deadline Day +1.

We’re not leaking blood. At least I hope we’re not. I assume we already poured all we could spare into those final pages. But other shock biochemical reactions such as not enough oxygen in our cells, lactic acid accumulation, changes in blood pH, electrolyte imbalance, catecholamine depletion, and disturbances in blood circulation actually exist after several days/weeks of intense periods of pressure, sitting, creating at a computer. If we’ve been consuming prodigious amounts of caffeinated drinks and less than the recommended quota of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, add caffein overload and constipation to the list.

Way back in nursing school [Florence Nightingale was in the class just ahead of me] the watchwords for treating shock were quiet and warm. Maintain a quiet environment and keep the patient, er writer, warm. Recent research coming out of Texas is now indicating that if someone is in shock in a hot environment, it’s more beneficial to cool them rather than warm them. See, nothing stays the same.

So, Deadline Day +1(the ideal): breathe, sip water, take a walk, stay quiet, and cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +1 (the actual): attend an all-morning meeting for our day job; bake 3 dozen cupcakes for the class Halloween party; wash seven loads of laundry; go grocery shopping, cook a real meal instead of ordering pizza again; clear the e-mail backlog (home and day-job); take the dog to the vet, and the kids to soccer practice.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Guilt. My boss has been so understanding about me needing to meet this deadline. Ditto my significant other. Ditto my kids. Ditto my friends. They have ALLOWED me to be a writer. I OWE them. I can’t BE PERMITTED to take one minute more than that needed to meet the deadline because if I do I will be A BAD PERSON. After all, it’s not like writing is a REAL THING, or a writer is a person with REAL NEEDS.

Can we rethink that?

Remember last week when I suggested lying in our voice mail message about when our real deadline is. It’s really October 22, but we say it’s the 31st. We need to realize that Deadline Day isn’t the day we hit send or frantically rush to catch the last Purolator pick-up. Real Deadline Day is that day plus at least three days. If we can swing it, plus seven days.

If we’ve got a day job, don’t rush back to work. Use vacation time, or flex days, or mental health days. In the grand scheme of things it will not matter if we miss one important presentation, no matter what our boss says to the contrary. If we’re not fortunate enough to have any of those options, call in sick, because if we aren’t now, and we race back to work, we will be sick within a week. “Life isn’t fair. I finished this horrendous deadline last week, and now I have a terrible cold.” Duh!

Deadline Day +1: breathe, sip water, take a walk (maybe take two walks), and stay quiet. Cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +2: take another walk, pick one undone task we really like to do. Since I love playing in warm, soapy water, my thing is usually to do the dishes. Also, pick one thing that’s fun. This might be a good day to take the kids to something you all enjoy, or cook supper for the sig other.

Deadline Day +3: start easing back into a regular schedule. If three days are all we can manage, regretfully so be it, but at least we’ve had three days.

Deadline Day +4 to +7: if we’re fortunate to have this kind of time, go for it. Build ourself a recuperate and recover ramp back into real life. We’ve worked hard. We deserve it.

“A big piece of writing is a little like a big storm. It leaves you shaken and disoriented and things need time to settle down. You don’t want to talk with your friends and sound like  you just went through an alien abductions. … You don’t want to reenter the world until the world has more in it than you and your capital-A Art. I like [a few days transition] to let the dust settle.”

~Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

That’s my –30– for today.

I hope to see you on Tuesday, September 23 for another look at finishing a project — Congratulations, you’ve finished your first draft. Now what?

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Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Habits for meeting deadlines

Last week I wrote about habits we need to build and use each time we start major projects. This week I’m looking at the other end, habits we need to use as a major project draws to a close. That’s a fancy way of saying, surviving deadlines.

“I am so grateful to my husband/wife/spouse/partner/kids for learning to survive on cold pizza/respecting my closed office door/being able to amuse themselves when I was on a deadline.”

In one form or another, I’ve seen this sentence in dozens of book acknowledgments.

Deadline.

That word has a wonderful way of concentrating the attention. We know it’s coming; in many cases we know the exact date it’s coming. Here’s what we need to do to get ready.

Once more, get enough sleep

Just like last week, the first thing we need is enough sleep. Those of us who have faced deadlines are now rolling on the floor laughing because we know that sleep is the first deadline casualty. Just let us survive on three hours of sleep a night for the next two week’s and then, I’ll go to bed and sleep for a week.

The body doesn’t work like that. Research has shown that we can’t recover lost sleep, but we can put deposits into a sleep bank by pre-sleeping. So if we know or even have an inkling that a deadline looms in a couple of weeks, we need to go to bed an hour early or get up an hour later, or take a nap during the day. Every extra hour of sleep that we rack up goes into the sleep bank for withdrawal at deadline time.

Pre-everything

Deadline preparation includes pre-everything. Pre-shop for personal items we don’t want to run out of at ten o’clock at night. Pre-cook and freeze meals. Pre-make a list of no-cook/little cook meals and post it on the refrigerator door. Most of all, prepare our friends.

Good, healthy relationships are ones we can take to the bank

Good people, in healthy relationships, love to help. Good people in healthy relationships may have no clue how to really be helpful, so we might have to prime their pumps.

Who do we know who is a good person, with whom we have a healthy relationship? ” Be honest. If we love our sister dearly, but there are issues, deadline time is not the time to rely on her for support. If we have a friend who resembles a remora (a sharksucker fish with an appendage to take a firm hold against the skin of larger marine animals), a voicemail message a la Jim Rockford, may be in our best interests.

“Hi, it’s Sharon. The Wicked Witch of the West and I are on a horrendous deadline until the end of October. Call the witch’s castle after Halloween and we’ll do coffee.” Tip: set our available date a week later than we think it will be. Maybe my deadline is really October 22, but I don’t have to tell anyone that. And I know I will want to use the extra time to decompress.

When we’ve whittled the list down our list to a three to five good, healthy people, ask each of them for one specific thing. “I’m heading for this horrendous deadline. Could you

  • bake me one of your wonderful apple pies?”
  • call me once a day for the next two weeks and leave an encouraging message on my voice mail?”
  • go to the library for me once a week and leave the trashiest romance novels you can find in my mailbox?”
  • come to my house Tuesday at 12:30 and force me to go with you for a quick lunch at Gobbles?”
  • go walking with me for a half-hour every afternoon at 5:00 o’clock?”

The big five for working under pressure

Excuse me for a minute, while I take off my writer’s hat and put on my nursing cap. Yes, I still have one. It makes me look like a sailor on shore leave. Here’s the straight gen on five healthy deadline habits

  • For every cup of coffee or tea we drink, drink one cup of water, too. At the very least, this forces us to take bathroom breaks more often. Also, even 2% dehydration, an amount too small to make us thirsty, decreases our ability to concentrate and be creative.
  • Every hour, work for 50 minutes, and then get up and move for 10. Set a timer if necessary as a reminder.
  • Nibble on raw vegetables, whole grain crackers, fruit, and nuts. If allergies are a concern, find healthy alternatives that provide fibre and, above all, complex carbohydrates, the kind that metabolize slowly. 30 minutes of brain activity lowers brain glucose level by 2 to 5 grams, which we need to replace every 30 minutes. And, no, we can’t save it up by working 6 hours without nourishment, and then eating a few cookies. Energy in has to balance energy out.
  • Some people write with music in the background, some people don’t. In any case, listen to music every day. This does not mean blaring rock. Go for something soothing, inspirational, maybe even mystic.
  • Turn off the television. Really off. Leave it off.

“Background TV is an ever-changing audiovisual distractor that disrupts a child’s ability to sustain various types of play. [It] is potentially a chronic environmental risk factor affecting most American children.” ~Marie Evans Schmidt, research associate, Center on Media and Child Health. Boston’s Children’s Hospital, July 2008. If television is bad for children, it’s gotta be bad for the creative child in all of us.

Above all, remember that deadlines are temporary phenomena, like tornadoes and strobe lighting. We will get by with a little help from our friends.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” ~Douglas Adams, English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

I  hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 16, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.

Next Thursday, September 18, we’ll finish up the habits series with Habits for Ending. Far too many of us celebrate far too little when we finish a major project.

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My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Habits for Starting a Book

Unless you’re in one of those unfortunate families that started school in mid-August, I’ll bet the kids where you live aren’t really back in school. I mean, really back in school, not in the adjustment phase. Somewhere past new clothes, new haircuts, new backpacks, and into sensible breakfasts, homework after supper, and refrigerator doors festooned with schedules.

I always loved going back to school because I was a routine-loving gal, who was overly fond of school supplies. Okay, I had a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness, and I adored school supplies, especially new boxes of crayons, all sharp, pointy, and standing in rows. The first thing I did was gently tip them out onto a soft surface so they wouldn’t break, and reorganized them by color families. Obsessive-compulsive.

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” ~W. Somerset Maughan, writer

Contrary to the myth that writers are free-spirits who have lousy health habits, bohemian lifestyles, and sustain their productivity with coffee, other substances, and good reviews, writers who keep going for the long haul develop healthy, successful habits. We need different habits for starting a major project; for handling pressure; and for ending a major project.

Let’s start with starting a project. What habits do we need to develop?

Enough sleep

When we begin a major project, the first thing we need is consistent, restful sleep. Current recommendation is at least 7 hours a night, but a huge portion of adults are getting by — or think they are getting by — on 6 hours or less every night. Night after night. Here’s 7 reasons that is a very bad idea.

At least once a week, we need to sleep an extra hour. Until Daylight Savings Time ends on November 2, we might need to sleep an extra hour twice a week. The reason is that our bodies run on a 25-hour cycle; clocks run on a 24-hour cycle. Getting extra sleep one or two morning a week resets our body’s internal rhythms.

Plan Treats

Set-up treats ahead of time. One year my family gave me a tea subscription. Every two months, a small package of tea arrived. Some months that little gift was just the boost I needed to keep going.

We might pre-purchase gift cards for ourselves, or season tickets to something fun, or set up a dozen envelopes with a little mad money in each one, to be used in the future for small treats when the writing is either going terrific or really, really rotten. Creative people desperately need good things to look forward to on a regular basis, so we have to pre-prime the creative pump by assuring ourselves, in advance, that goodies are on the way.

Honor Research and Inspiration

Announcing that we are establishing a routine for research comes easier for many writers than justifying the other types of time. “I’m off to Majorca to do research,” slips easily from our mouth to be greeted by our friends’ jealous groans. Don’t we wish? More often, it’s “I’m off to the library to strain my eyes at the microfiche reader,” but even our non-writing friends understand that writers must do research.

We also need to establish inspiration habits, which are completely different than doing research. Research fills our notebooks. Inspiration fills our hearts. Think of collecting inspiration as being akin to a sailing ship taking on provisions before the crew sets out on an around-the-world journey. We need to start our book journey with our creative quartermaster stores filled to the brim.

However we organize our new creative project; whether it’s in notebooks, folders, or on an electronic writing program, devote a section to Inspiration. Collect quotes and pictures. Bookmark 25 to 50 web sites for people people and activities that get our juices going. Visit those sites regularly for quick pick-us-up inspiration.

Honor thinking

Most of all, when we begin a new project, we need time to hear ourselves think. This is often the hardest thing to justify to ourselves. “But I think about my book all the time: in the shower, in the car, while I’m waiting in the dentist’s office, etc.”

In a study about work, first graders were presented with two pictures. In one a man hoed his garden. In the other he sat back in a chair with his hands behind his head, staring into space. The children were asked, “Which man is working?”

One first-grader selected the man staring into space and could not be dissuaded to change her mind. Her father was a writer. She recognized that sitting back in a chair, staring into space was work for some people. We should all be so lucky in our family and friends.

Shut out the world

As writers standing on the precipice of a new project, the most deadly line we hear begins, “As long as you’re not doing anything . . .” My advice here is simple. Lie. Outright lie if you need to. “But I am working on something. I started my new novel last week and I’m already up to my eyebrows in research and outlining.” Then go to our offices, set every electronic device we own to babysit itself for while, and sit in our chairs with our hands behind our heads, staring into space. It will do us and our incipient plot worlds of good.

Let’s see, what are we working on?

Next Tuesday, September 9, on Write the Novel, I’ll have thoughts on Flash Symbols — micro-details that hook readers in very sneaky ways.

Next Thursday, September 11, come back for more habits writers need, or how to survive living in a pressure cooker.

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Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – The Value of Negative Space

Once upon a time, there was a rhythm to submitting manuscripts and publishing.

Never submit a manuscript or look for an agent in August. Everyone in New York is out of town in August. As for December, close up and go home. Publish in May to catch the summer readers and in October for the Christmas market. Never, ever release a book in January. No one buys a book right after Christmas.

The seasonal rhythm of writing has vanished like the dodo bird. Finish a book on Tuesday; start writing the next book on Wednesday. Come home from a convention; get ready to go to the next convention. Submit a manuscript or hunt for an agent every day of the year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day itself. With electronic publishing, publish even on Christmas Day.

Negative spaces is what surrounds activities and events. An image is seen not only because of the image itself, but because of the space that surrounds it. Good negative space makes an object pop.

There are no negative spaces in writing any more, except the ones we create for ourselves. That makes them even more important.

The first writing negative space I encountered was in a class I took almost thirty years ago. We were required to keep a daily journal, writing down snippets of overheard dialog, descriptions of people or events, news stories that caught our attention; in short, anything that might make a good story. Only, we weren’t to grab our notebook and write these things down as they happened. The instructor asked us to wait a full twenty-four hours before committing them to paper.

He said that beginning writers were often afraid to lose the moment. Fearful of not getting the dialog or the description word perfect and correct, we focused on immediate retrieval. He said that we needed to train our writer’s mind to do two things: first, to develop memory because there would be times that we simply couldn’t get to a notebook. Second, to let the thing we wanted to remember settle; in essence, adding negative space around it so we saw it more clearly.  If we couldn’t remember it after twenty-four hours, chances were what we thought so brilliant in the moment wouldn’t make a terrific story after all.

It wasn’t easy to wait. My fingers had this intense desire to scrabble in my backpack, pull out my journal and write. Sometimes I grieved over forgetting. If I’d only written it down yesterday . . .

Gradually, I came to realize the dimensions of what he was trying to teach us. There was a huge difference between things remembered in exact detail, and things remembered as fiction. For some experiences it mattered that I could recall the exact smell, the sight, the colors. For others, it was more important to remember the—gestalt, for lack of a better word—how I was moved by the thing rather than the exact details of the thing itself. Both had a place in writing, and learning how to do both made me a better writer.

Over the decades, I learned another lesson about negative space. If the business of writing has become a 24/7 occupation — I believe that it has — then we, as writers, have the freedom to set our own seasons. Yes, there will always be deadlines coming at us faster and harder, with none of this nonsense about taking August off or relaxing in December. But I truly believe that it will be the negative spaces with which we surround our work that will enable us to survive.

We have to develop a whole range of negative spaces in order to survive. Five-minute vacations that we take on a moment’s notice. Ways to shut off that nagging “What am I going to do about Elrod’s lack of motivation in Chapter 7?” long enough for Elrod to work out the answer for himself. Entire days off in which we restore, restock, and replenish those creative gifts we have been given.

Recently, I added Jennifer Louden’s Conditions of Enoughness to my tool box. She says that as creative people we tend to over plan, over commit, and over work ourselves. Her COEs are four steps to limit doing that.

Recently, a rather pompous writing expert pontificated to an audience I was in that, “Writing today demands a full-time commitment. If you’re a part-time writer, you’ll never be successful.” Oh, dear, I have a life outside of writing. I love that life. I guess that means I’m not a real writer.

I came home depressed until I caught site of a mini-quilt I did a couple of months ago.

168 hours = 1 week

168 hours = 1 week

There are 168 hours a week, so unless we’re writing 168 hours at a time — yes, some weeks seem like that — we’re all part-time writers. And many of us are darn good at working part-time.

“It takes peace of mind and clarity to recognize and reorder meaningful, personal priorities . . . Many of us assume that we can continue to get along just by winging it indefinitely. We can’t. We need an antidote for the hurried and harried lives that threaten to tear us apart.” ~Sarah Ban Breathnach, author

Hope to see you back next Tuesday, September 2, for Write the Novel – Secondary and Tertiary Plots, what are they and how do we use them.

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My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Things I learned at When Words Collide

I’m fortunate to have attended all four When Words Collide. This is a genre writers conference, held each August in Calgary, Alberta. If you’re a writer, and there is any chance you’ll be in Calgary 2015 August 14 to 16, I urge you to sign up for the WWC newsletter  and consider attending.

Here are six things I didn’t know before I attended this year’s conference

Branding develops a consistent image that links us, as human beings, to our books

“A brand positions an author so that she is unique. Our brand must be a subset of our personal self that best relates to our fiction.” ~ Kate Larking,  fiction marketing expert

Brand wasn’t new to me. I developed a brand several years ago. Here’s my core message.

Strong women enjoy adventure, but everything comes at a price. The past overtakes everyone, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm everyone. Transformation comes through courage, strength, and honourable relationships; healing comes through reflection and honesty. There’s strength in adventure and adventure in strength. To those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected never know.

The real eye-opener was realizing that I haven’t taken full advantage of that brand in what I include on my web site. I need far, far more links and material about adventurous women there. That’s going to guide my next web site renovation.

It’s no longer a question if to self-publish, but when

Knowing how to self-publish has become as essential a tool in our writers’ workbox as being able to create characters, plot, and use serial commas correctly. Everyone from first-time published writers, to writers multi-published by large, traditional houses said that self-publishing is now a part of every writer’s career path.

Word length no longer matters

This is directly tied to self-publishing. Word counts were artificial limits imposed by the needs of producing books of such and such a size and so many pages in order to fit printing presses. Because of self-publication and the multiplicity of devices now available, both the short story and the novella are making come-backs, as well as forms that we don’t have names for yet.

What we publish between books is as important as the books themselves

Appetite for content is insatiable. Readers are no longer content with even a book a year. They expect short stories, novellas, character interviews, and additional material to be published on the author’s web site. We have to feed the pipeline constantly.

Time lines for traditionally published books to be successful have become impossibly, unbelievably short

“Most new books from traditional publishers are released on Tuesdays. Because gathering on-line of statistics is instantaneous, authors now have 48 hours for their books to be successful. If sales numbers aren’t good by the end of Thursday, there won’t be a contract for a second book.” ~ Dr. Robert Runté, teacher and editor

“Book sales for traditional publishers are so much more front-loaded now. You hear about a book that interests you. A couple of weeks later you tell your mom about it. A couple of  months later she goes looking for a copy to give you for the holidays. She’s likely to discover that it’s no longer in stores. Bottom line, if you see a book you think you might like, buy it. Right then.” ~ Ian Alexander Martin, publisher

“Kindle tracks not only what books are sold, but what books readers read or don’t finish. A book’s sales may be high, but if the percentage actually read is low or the percentage not finished is high, that book is dead.” ~ Hayden Trenholm, writer, playwright, and managing editor

New resources

Next Tuesday, August 26, I continue Write the Novel with a look at secondary and tertiary plots. Hope to see you then.

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Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Merit Badges 4

Today we conclude our summer series of merit badges for writers.

 

Merit badge Writers of a Certain Age

For those of us who have been around a while

Writers of a Certain Age

This one is for writers who have been around a while. We began our writing careers writing in longhand or using a manual typewriter. We remember how mimeograph ink smelled and the way it turned our fingers purple. We erased on carbon copies with a small brass stencil and a crumbly erasing pencil, which had a white eraser on one end and a stiff blue brush on the other end. We sent a SASE with our submissions and bought International Reply Coupons if our submission was going to another country. We had to look up words in a dictionary and did research by going in person to the library.

We’ve been around for a long time and this badge celebrates our persistence! You go, girls and guys!

Merit Badge Writers of the Purple Page

To celebrate those slightly embarrassing things we’ve written

Writers of the Purple Page

This is for those of us who have written—let’s say anything involving parts of the body or clothing, which throbbed, heaved, ripped, or enlarged, or characters blessed with milk-white skin and raven locks. If we’ve ever written anything that would embarrass an elderly, conservative relative. If we’ve ever written fan fiction, and had a hot date with someone else’s character. If we’ve ever written under our burlesque name.

Burlesque, for those of us who don’t yet qualify for the Writers of a Certain Age badge, was a form of entertainment popular in Britain and the United States from approximately 1880 to 1920. It involved ribald humor and dances that would embarrass an elderly, conservative relative. The women who danced in burlesque theaters worked under pseudonyms, sort of nom-de-danse names.

To find your burlesque name, take the name of your first pet combined with the street you lived on when you were ten years old. My burlesque name is Blackie Freemont, which has a nice ring to it. I may name a character that one day.

Of course, this formula doesn’t work, if we lived on a numbered instead of a named street. In that case, try this alternate formula: combine an object that is either sweet or has a lovely odor with the name of a bird. Rose Nightengale? Robin Cinnamon? Hey, those beat out Bowser 68th Avenue.

What better symbol for writers of the purple page than a Mardi Gras mask? As they say where I come from, Laissez les bon temps roulier—Let the good times roll. If we’re a little hesitant about going public about having written purple prose, you have my permission to keep this badge in a drawer instead of displaying it on a badge sash.

Merit Badge Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again

It’s okay to stop. Right now. Really.

Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again

I don’t have to explain this one. Those of us who have earned it know who we are. Even though our contributions are hugely appreciated it’s okay to stop volunteering! Why not spend the next few months at our word processors instead? Writing a new novel would be hugely appreciated, too.

We can’t burn the candle at both ends forever.

I hope you’ll be back Tuesday, August 19, for Write the Novel: Primary Plots. After all, they are what the book is about.

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Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Merit Badges – Part 3

Today we continue with our series of merit badges for writers and readers because we all need an Atta-a-Girl once in a while.

Series Maven

This is the second in our badges for readers as well as writers.

Sometimes we just have to have it all. Every book in a series, lined up in perfect order on our bookshelf.

 

Merit Badge Series Maven

Waiting for the last one

Award yourself this badge if you will go or have gone to any lengths to own a complete series and/or read it in order. This includes—but is not limited to—bugging librarians, requesting inter-library loans, dropping not so gentle hints to friends and family as to what you want for your birthday or holiday gift, sending out general SOS calls for books on the Internet, driving to another city to buy a copy of the book, or paying an exorbitant amount for the one book needed to complete your series.

Book Tour Survivor

Being a writer isn’t easy. Being a writer on a book tour is a test of humor, stamina, patience, planning skills, and the ability not to trust GPS to get us where we need to go, but rather take out a map and read it.

Merit Badge Book Tour Survivor

What do you mean, you think we’re in the wrong state?

 

Award yourself, and any traveling companions, this badge if you have done at least 2 of the following:

  • Laughed until you cried listening to other authors describe the machinations of their book tour, only to find out later that everything they said was true and then some.
  • Spent three hours making conversation with two bookstore employees and the store cat because you scheduled your signing opposite a major local sporting event, the Rolling Stones return tour, and/or the worse weather the town has had in 50 years. “We never have hail in October, honest!”
  • Added an extra stop on your tour at the last minute, but without checking a map. Then you found out that the Springfield you thought you were signing in—the one only 30 minutes from your last stop—isn’t the right Springfield. The one you’re committed to is half-way across the state, but not to worry. You can still make it if you drive all night.
  • Eaten the most incredible meals, in the most bizarre circumstances and laughed yourself silly while eating it because you know what a great story this will make at the next convention you attend.

Extreme Researcher

It’s not easy being a writer’s family member. There are questions significant others learn not to ask. Do I smell gunpowder? Why is there a raw chicken in the sink with knitting needles stuck in it? The Poison Lady returned your call. She’ll be home tonight if you want to call her back.

They also learn to adopt a nonchalant stance and fix their eyes on the horizon as we ask police officers if we can hold their tazers; airport baggage security checkers what’s the weirdest thing they’ve ever found in a suitcase; and construction workers how long it would take a body to sink into freshly poured concrete.

Merit Badge Extreme Researcher

Does this or doesn’t this look like a poison blow fish?

Award yourself this badge when you have done at least one activity from each category listed below in order to research a book:

Research in extreme places

You’ve done any of the following activities for a book: snake or other wild animal handling, skydiving; scuba diving; mountain climbing; rappelling; skateboarding, break dancing, in-line skating over the age of 55, or cave exploration. Going with a guide through Carlsbad Caverns doesn’t count for the last one. We’re talking the light-on-your-helmet, wedging yourself through tiny holes kind of cave exploration.

Danger pay research

Gone on a ride-along with a police officer or taken a civilian police course; learned to fire a gun or fight with a knife, taken up a martial art, or attended a para-military basic training course. Give yourself full credit, and award yourself the badge, if you served in the military.

Researching the law

Done something slightly illegal. If you’ve done something blatantly illegal, I don’t want to hear about it. I’m putting my hands over my ears. I’m not listening. La-la-la-la-la-la-la.

As often as not our whole self…engages itself in the most trivial of things, the shape of a particular hill, a road in the town in which we lived as children, the movement of wind in grass. The things we shall take with us when we die will nearly all be small things.

~Storm Jameson, That Was Yesterday, 1932

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