As a writer, I spend a lot of time staring out the window. My writing desk is positioned to accommodate this activity. Situated in front of a large picture window, it provides an expansive view of the town wharf and the river twisting around the bend and out to sea. There is always a lot of activity going on across the street – boaters coming and going, people walking their dogs, cyclists careening around the corner, children chasing the ice cream truck, and flock after flock of Canada geese making their daily trips up and down the river according to some complex time table that only they know.
Closer at hand, only a few feet from the window, is my bird feeder. Like the Canada geese, the avian visitors who frequent my feeder do so according to an indecipherable schedule of their own devising. My most frequent diners are common house sparrows, a rowdy and somewhat uncouth bunch who travel in packs like winged wolves. One moment, there is not a bird in sight and the next twenty or more have descended in unison and suddenly blanket the entire area as they scavenge for leftovers.
I have been an amateur birder since the age of seven. Other feeders I’ve had at other houses have attracted a wide variety of birds – finches, wrens, titmice, jays, cardinals, gray-eyed juncos, orioles, downy woodpeckers, and – one of my favorites – black-capped chickadees. Sadly, at this house, the local house sparrows aggressively defends the feeder from all other species, even chasing off the larger cardinals who sometimes have the audacity to come in for a quick bite.
Earlier this morning I looked up and saw, to my surprise, not one, but three chickadees at the feeder. This was highly unusual. Most of the time, these tiny but courageous birds will come in singly. They are, I expect, trying to slip in under the sparrow radar. But, this morning, there were three – bold as daylight. Their impertinence made me smile. Despite the sparrows’ dominance, these masked renegades had slipped in to steal the seed from the enemy camp.
Those little chickadees reminded me of my creative writing practice. Each day, the lion’s share of my time is gobbled up by a marauding band of responsibilities and obligations. From doing the laundry and buying the groceries to juggling multiple deadlines for my copywriting clients, these duties pillage my larder of time and energy, leaving only the most meager crumbs for my creative projects.
And yet, like the diminutive chickadee, my creative self does not give up. Unable to overcome the odds by force, my creative writing uses more cunning means to steal a little time here and a little energy there. Persistence and patience deliver enough sustenance to keep my creative practice alive and hopping. Nimble and tenacious, the protectors of my creative time keep coming back despite the challenges. Like Robin Hood, they steal from the rich and give to the poor – feeding my urge to make things, express my ideas, and tell my stories.
Perhaps one day, the chickadees will stage a coup and oust the belligerent sparrows; but until then, it’s good to know that a little charitable thievery goes a long way to keeping dreams alive and well even when the Real World feels a bit overwhelming.
What I’m Writing:
So, here’s a thought. Even when you aren’t “writing-writing,” you can still be practicing your craft.
Though my life does not currently make it easy for me to set aside large chunks of time to work on big creative writing projects, I still find time each day to hone my writing style and skill. And, guess what? I bet you do, too. You just haven’t realized it. Here’s an off-the-cuff list of a few ways I get writing practice in during my “non-(creative) writing” days:
- Scribbling my way through three morning pages. It’s a messy, but effective way to loosen up my writing muscles.
- Writing emails to friends, family, and even clients. Whether I’m sharing a recent event with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, corresponding with my parents, or making a case to a client, emails give me a chance to practice brevity and clarity in my writing.
- Posting to social media. Instead of thinking about social media as a time-waster, think about it as a chance to practice a little flash fiction. Social media can actually help you learn how to create a strong hook and tell an engaging story in only a few words.
- Commenting on social media. From Facebook status updates to blog posts, the Internet gives us so many opportunities to engage via our writing. When I do leave a comment for someone – either socially or professionally – I take care with the words I choose. I do my best to contribute valuable thoughts and make sure that I articulate them well.
- Captioning photos. I’m an Instagram addict who fell in love with the visual nature of the platform. I also love the chance to craft cool captions for my photos. I don’t do it all the time, but when I’m inspired, I spend a little extra time coming up with something that might be the title to the story told by the image, or sometimes the caption will be more about practicing writing a good description.
- Thank you cards. I am making a conscious effort to send more thank you cards – real ones, that you have to put a stamp on and bring to the post office. I love getting mail and I love sending mail. Thank you cards are a wonderful way to help you practice expressing your feelings without resorting to tired cliches and ambiguous generalizations. I love making thank you notes as personal and honest as possible.
I am in no way saying that these kinds of in-the-nooks-and-crannies writing exercises can ever replace a more focused and dedicated practice. I do, however, find it comforting to know that even when I’m unable to carve out hours of time to work on a story, I can still be doing my writerly thing – if only in a small way. Every little bit makes a difference. Each word on the page helps you define and refine your voice.
What I’m Reading:
During busy times like the one I’m in now, trying to read fiction is mostly just frustrating. I never seem to have a long enough time to truly sink into the story and savor it. Consuming a novel a couple pages at a sitting certainly does not do any book justice, and also robs me of the best experience. So, instead of fighting my way doggedly through such a battle, I will sometimes turn instead to a non-fiction read.
This time, I chose a book that I saw at an indie bookstore last holiday season. I thought about picking up a copy for my mom, but another book won out that day, and I left The Urban Bestiary sitting on the shelf. A few weeks ago, however, Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book again caught my attention, this time from a shelf at my local library. I was walking in circles trying to locate my daughter (who was, doubtless, also walking in circles in an attempt to evade me and extend our stay at the library), when the sky blue cover caught my eye.
In the first chapter, A New Nature, a New Bestiary, Haupt describes what she hopes to accomplish with her book:
It is time for a new bestiary, one that engages our desire to understand the creatures surrounding our urban homes, helps us locate ourselves in nature, and suggests a response to this knowledge that will benefit both ourselves and the more-than-human world.
Each following chapter is an educational yet enchanting exploration of a particular species – coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, crows, cougars, and many others.
Though I am fascinated by the subject matter, I toted this book home as much to sate my curiosity about this kind of writing as to learn about the history, behaviors, and folklore associated with my furred and feathered neighbors. In her bio, Haupt describes herself as “a naturalist, eco-philosopher, and speaker whose writing is at the forefront of the movement to connect people with nature in their everyday lives.” I love that. I’d never heard of an eco-philosopher. I also hadn’t given much thought to the fact that there are many writers who make a living writing non-fiction books about nature and related topics – topics that I care about deeply.
Haupts book is a wonderfully informative and entertaining read that I recommend to anyone – writer or not – who has a love for or curiosity about nature, particularly the way it intersects with our lives at the fringes of the wild world and the urban one. I’m learning a lot and enjoying her writing style. I’m also equally grateful for the way this book has opened my eyes a bit more to all the different kinds of writers and writing that exist in the world. Reading this book has filled my head with all kinds of new ideas.
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
- A Memoir Is Not a Status Update by @danijshapiro via @NewYorker
- Yoga Hacks: How to Undo the Damage of a Desk Job via @99u
- Tackle Your Passion Project With The 90-90-1 Rule via @99u
- Short Story: A Process of Revision by Antonya Nelson via Tin House
- This Writing Exercise Will Get You Unstuck Every Time by @joebunting via @thewritepractice
- Tom Hanks’ Typewriter App Shoots to the Top of the App Store via @techcrunch
- Why You Have a Better Chance Than You Think at Landing a Guest Post (and How to Do It) by @aliventures via @problogger
Finally, a quote for the week:
I hope your creative chickadees are winning their battle against the house sparrows of Real Life. Here’s to stealing time back for your creative life and enjoying the journey along the way.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and – occasionally – trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.