For the Writer Who Hasn’t Been Writing

 

In her smart and inspiring book, Lab Girl, geobiologist and author Hope Jahren writes, “A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed.” One of many gentle insights on the dogged perseverance of both budding scientists and plant life, this passage invites personal musings on dormancy, both literal and figurative.

Dormancy is a regular part of nature. At this time of year, we think of the world as “coming back to life,” but the innumerable seedlings and buds that finally emerge in spring have, in fact, been very much alive during the long, enchanted sleep of winter. They were never dead; they were just biding their time until the moment was right.

Even houseplants, which live in artificial conditions and are sometimes subject to neglect, have the ability to seemingly resurrect themselves. I have a small cyclamen plant that I saved from a holiday arrangement a few years ago. I did a passing fair job of caring for it until this winter when a severe cold trapped me on the couch for a week. By the time I remembered to water the poor thing, there was nothing left of the cyclamen except two dried leaves and one straggling bud that never had the chance to bloom.

Despite the sorry state of the little plant, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Not expecting any miracles, I gave it some water and a sunny spot on the windowsill. For months, nothing happened. It looked as if I was caring for a pot of dirt. And then one day there were signs of life.

Like the undulating arms of a tiny terrestrial octopus, several delicate, fuzz-covered shoots arched gracefully out from a tangle of dead stems and partially exposed roots. A few days later, the tips of several shoots had unfurled into beautiful variegated leaves that spread wide and began, imperceptibly, tracking the movements of the sun like an array of miniature radar dishes tuned into the songs of the stars.

There are parts of ourselves—dreams, hopes, beliefs—that are like seeds waiting to germinate or like neglected houseplants that seem half dead, but have really just drawn their life force back into themselves for safe keeping.

Maybe you grew up wishing you could be an explorer or an artist, but life led you down a different path, and now you can hardly recognize yourself as the child who dreamed of sailing the seven seas, writing poetry, or capturing visions in paint. That piece of yourself is not dead and gone; it is just dormant, waiting for the right time to stretch into the light.

You can often coax new growth simply by providing a little sustenance. Just like my cyclamen needed water and sunlight, your sleeping dreams need time and attention. For now, they may be curled up in the quiet dark, but there is no expiration date on their potential.

Our dreams can even benefit from time in stasis. Like a seed that must hold itself in limbo until there is enough space, sunshine, water, and nutrients to sustain it, sometimes our dreams have to wait until we have the right life experience, confidence, or motivation. While our Western sensibilities tend to encourage a state of constant striving, sometimes we would be wiser to practice a more organic way of becoming.

Jahren tells a story in Lab Girl about a lotus seed that scientists dug out of a peat bog in China. After the seed sprouted in the lab, the researchers radiocarbon-dated the discarded shell and found that the seed had been dormant for two thousand years. Truly, you can never say never.

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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How Writing a Book is Like Riding a Roller Coaster

Writing a Book is Like Riding a Roller Coaster.

Writing Roller Coaster

Writing a book is sometimes like riding a roller coaster.

It’s been a long slog uphill as I’ve worked on a long piece of narrative non-fiction on and off for going on three years. The on part has been the research and some published articles; the off part has been a heavy sense of guilt for dragging my feet.

But in the last few weeks, something’s shifted, and I’m coasting now.

Maybe it’s a decision not to be so hard on myself, or to give up feeling badly about the slow pace of my creative process, or finally getting some snow in March. Whatever the reason, I’m riding this wave of focus and forward motion. In fact, I’ve dedicated myself to it so thoroughly that yesterday I didn’t draft my post for Live to Write – Write to Live. And this morning, I decided that I had to work on my project first.

So, while I’m sorry to disappoint any readers who look forward to my posts (and honestly, I have no idea if there are any readers who anticipate my alternate Tuesday posts), my excuse is that I’m modeling the behavior of a writer dedicated to her work. And like writers and plumbers and workers of all kinds, and parents and caregivers and volunteers, I have only so much time, compressed by middle age, when the reality of time running out becomes tangible.

Like all of us, I’ve had to prioritize, and today I put writing Learning to Hunt ahead of my commitment to this blog.

I know I’m lucky: I’m choosing one writing project over another. I know that many writers have to choose between making their kids breakfast or sitting down at their desk. I’ve been there – at that desk at five in the morning so I could write before the kids woke, and I taught them how to make their own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as soon as they were counter height (with the help of a step-stool, I might add).

And while kids grow up, parents age. I’m now caring for my 93-year old dad. But I still make it a priority to write. And now, I’m making it a priority to advance the first draft of this book.

I’ve achieved a critical mass on this project, climbed up the steep slope of trying to figure out how to start. I’m now in one of those sections of composition where each decision I’ve made up to now makes the next one more evident.

I know this roller coaster, though. I’ve been on it before. And I know that there will be other steep hills ahead. But I’m making the most of this exhilarating ride where the words flow and the story takes place.

I’m counting on your forgiveness for posting a few hours late, and I’m wishing you all equally joyous rides where ink flows from your pens, forming just the right words on your page.

Deborah Lee Luskin makes her blog deadlines most of the time: every other Tuesday here with thoughts about the business and craft of writing, and essays every Wednesday at Living In Place. Thanks for reading.

Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2)

Last night, a plot point that had been nagging me for days dropped into my head while I was dicing onions. Last week, a perfect turn of phrase for an essay sauntered through my head while I was on the train. I am grateful for these breakthrough moments, and also started to wonder, why couldn’t I think of these while at my desk?

Why is it that I am least creative when I am working hardest?

In my last post, I my advice was: If you want to write, write (more).

Today, my advice is: take a break!

And yes. That advice is contradictory. Here is why.

There is an emerging interest in the science of creativity, and researchers recently tackled the question: why do people get their best ideas in the showers? The answer is straightforward.

You have better ideas when you are relaxed.

image of a busy brain

A busy brain can be a writer’s enemy

Decision-making, e-mail-writing, and schedule-juggling is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex controls association and emotional response. Some studies suggest that when artists are improvising and most creative, there is almost no activity in the prefrontal cortex. The part of your brain that balances your checkbook does not write poetry. Not only does creativity need a quite prefrontal cortex, it also thrives on dopamine. What’s dopamine? The neurotransmitter that relaxes the body.

In other words, your writer’s block is not because you are not focused, but because you are not relaxed.

Image of a brain at rest

When your frontal cortex is resting, your subconscious is at work.

Thinking about a problem can keep you from creating a solution. Dopamine quiets the chatter, and lets your subconscious get to work. When I was dicing onions, I was relaxed, which let my subconscious knit together the ideas that been slowly forming.

So how do you access this magic drug? Take a break. Bake a cake. Take a bath. Walk around the block. Draw a picture of your brain.

It can be hard to follow this advice. After all, my writing time is precious to me, often squeezed between other jobs, or carved out at the end of the day. When I find myself staring at the screen, faced with a plot problem I can not untie, I remind myself that creativity does not have a time-clock.

I find that by writing more frequently and taking breaks when I get frustrated, I am able to make daily progress.

Do you ever feel like your best – or only – ideas happen when you’re away from your desk?


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Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting. You can learn more about her work here.

 

Spell Against Self Doubt

This summer, I almost turned down a writing residency.

Before fully considering the offer, doubt crept in. A friend pointed out that I was more focused on my self-doubt than the opportunity in front of me. And so, I cast a spell against self-doubt.

The spell was quite simple; it was to complete four actions before starting work.

Those actions were:

  • An act of kindness
  • An act of strength
  • An act of creation
  • An act of bravery
FLATspellagainstselfdoubt

My Spell Against Self-Doubt

In the weeks leading up to the residency, and during the residency itself, my spell against self-doubt became a daily practice. Each action was an antidote to my most frequent doubts.

The manifestation of my casual witchcraft was to:

  • Make coffee for my partner  (Act of Kindness)
  • Bust out 30-50 Pushups (Act of Strength)
  • Sketch a quick cartoon (Act of Creation)
  • Scribble three pages of automatic writing (Act of Bravery)

The culmination of this practical magic was that when I started work on my play I was energized, centered, and eager to tap into the fictional world I was creating. Whenever doubt started to murmur, I refuted it, with my proof of kindness, strength, creation, and bravery

Centering my writing practice on acts of kindness towards others (and myself) let me shed my fear that writing is a selfish pursuit. The adrenaline rush from my act of strength let me draw with energy and abandon. I started sketching because it was a form that had no repercussions on my sense of self as a creative.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction: holding a grudge / letting it go

I gave up on “learning to draw” in seventh grade when I was unable to render a realistic bouquet of flowers. Last July, when I decided to start drawing, I was unencumbered from any pressure to be good. Unlike writing, it’s not something I’ve practiced.Surprisingly, I fell in love.

Armed with paints, I was full of stories. Freed from any understanding of technique, I was able to let go of my bias that realistic is good. Drawing in my own perspective, freed me to write in my own voice.

After the joy of splashing my thoughts into colorful cartoons, I was able to face myself on the page and write.

By the time the residency started, the spell had taken hold. Instead of bringing my toolbox of doubt, I brought my watercolors and a play I was excited to share.

ToolsFlat

Ready, Set, Draw!

Over the past six months, the spell has stuck. I continue to count acts of kindness, feats of strength, and drawing as an essential to my writing. What started as an act of desperation has become a source of inspiration.

Do you have your own version of the spell against self-doubt?

Have you ever tried drawing/dancing/singing as a way to warm-up before writing?


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Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting.

 

Defeating the December Doldrums

December Doldrums

The doldrums refer to the five degrees of latitude on either side of the equator where the wind dies and sailing ships are becalmed.

Every year, I stall in the December Doldrums, when moving my pen across the page feels like trudging through wet, ankle deep cement. Instead of climbing out of my chair, I sit at my desk longer than I can be productive – behavior that can trigger a cascade of discontent.

The doldrums refer to the five degrees of latitude on either side of the equator where the wind dies and sailing ships are becalmed, sometimes for weeks. The term has been appropriated into the common language to describe a period of inactivity, listlessness, or stagnation.

I’ve been becalmed here before. As the calendar winds down and the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, my thoughts can turn as dark as the day is short.

In early December of this year, I submitted a novel to my agent. Now, I’m waiting. Submission is an act of yielding to another’s judgment, and it often elicits a sense of helplessness in me. I’ve done all I can, and now the fate of my work is in others’ hands.

Doldrums

Self doubt comes to roost.

I wait and I fret. Self doubt perches in my soul.

To wait in the dark of the year only intensifies my feelings of being unsettled, listless, itchy in my own skin.

But I’ve been around this bend before, and I’ve learned that the wind will pick up. In the meantime, there are activities I can do to make waiting for it more bearable. Here are five ways I navigate through the doldrums.

1. Declutter

One of my favorite ways to wait out the doldrums is to clear clutter and organize the nests of papers, piles of books, and tangles of string too short to be saved. The number of places in my house where I could apply this organizing energy attests to how infrequently I’m becalmed.

2. Get Outside

I also know that even better than cleaning is getting outdoors. This year, we’ve been blessed with early snow followed by bright, cold days. I’ve skied myself stiff, replacing psychic pain with physical aches.

3. Give Gifts; Volunteer

Last Sunday, I offered Writing to the Light, a free writing workshop. Fifteen people showed up, wrote and shared their stories. They enjoyed stepping out of the holiday circus for reflection, and they all expressed appreciation for my efforts, which made me feel good.

4. Check the Data

It’s easy to see only what’s lacking while in the doldrums. This is why I keep a daily account of my time.  All I have to do is look at my records for the year for a solid reality check of the work I’ve produced: weekly posts at Living In Place; bi-weekly posts for Live to Write – Write to Live; and publications for my paying markets, including broadcasts on Vermont Public Radio. I also taught grant funded literature and writing courses; gave a dozen public talks for the Vermont Humanities Council; and hosted the Rosefire Writing Circle throughout the year. This is all in addition to revising one novel; rereading another; and continuing research for a piece of non-fiction. I’ve increased my readership and my income. By all measures, 2017 has been a good year.

5. Have Faith

The sun will turn the corner, and the earth will begin its journey back to the sun. The wind will pick up and I’ll leave the doldrums. This too shall pass.

By engaging in a combination of these five activities, I’ve already caught the wind and started sailing toward the sun.

Wishing all of you light and love to carry you into the New Year.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly about Living in Place.

Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom

WRITING
Writing and Walking

Writing is an act of discovery. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was a girl. Photo courtesy of Leadership’N Motion

My colleagues here have written eloquently about the value of journaling. Lisa describes journaling as A Method for Creative Discoveries, and Jamie lists 10 Ways Journaling Makes You a Better Writer.

Like both of them, I’ve been journaling since I was quite young. As an only girl in a household of boys, writing was sometimes the only way I could make myself heard. It’s still sometimes the only way I can hear myself.

WALKING

But now that I’m a professional writer, I sometimes need a break from my desk; that’s when I walk.

Walking is a lot like journaling. Instead of unspooling my thoughts in ink, I hike over the uneven terrain of my mental uncertainty. Before long, my footsteps shake my ideas into place, and I return to my desk with mental clarity.

writing and walkingSometimes, it’s emotional upset that blocks the words, and walking helps calm me. Being in nature changes my perspective with a long view. I’m reminded, “It’s not about me,” one of The Four Agreements that I find so helpful since reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s book about personal freedom and Toltec wisdom last February.

I read The Four Agreements in preparation for attending two-day “aWALKening to Personal Leadership Retreat” that deepened my understanding of how walking aids my writing and my life.

The Retreat was sponsored by Leadership’N Motion, co-founded by two dynamic coaches with international experience: Kate Lampel Link and Marjine van den Kieboom.

MOVING FORWARD

The retreat affirmed how walking literally and metaphorically helps me move forward.

One of the unintended consequences of that retreat was connecting with Kate – with whom I’ve crossed paths for years, usually on local cross-country ski trails.

Since February, we’ve been walking side-by-side in a deepening friendship. Our walks through the forest have led us to understand better the synergy of walking and writing, two activities that reinforce our personal leadership and help us to live mindful, fulfilling lives.

A WALKING & WRITING COLLABORATION
writing and walking

Kate Link Lampel and I are collaborating on Women Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom on 11/4/17. Photo courtesy of Leadership ‘N Motion

Kate’s a coach and I’m an educator. We both work primarily with women pursuing self-empowerment, whether pursuing a dream of entrepreneurship (Kate) or reframing the narrative of their lives (me). We hadn’t walked very far together before we started collaborating on a way to bring our knowledge and skills to others.

So it is with great excitement that we’ll be offering Women Walking and Writing toward Wisdom, and all-day WALKshop on November 4, 2017.

Please note: Space is limited and Registration is required.

walking & writing

At the end of the Long Trail, 9/8/2016.

When she’s not walking, Deborah Lee Luskin is writing and Living in Place.

 

 

 

 

A New Strategy for Writing in Summer

Writing in Summer

I used to think that playing outdoors in summer interfered with writing. Now I know better.

Summers used to interfere with my writing. There was so much to do – both farm work and fun – that I used to despair about advancing narrative projects and meeting deadlines.

But I do.
I changed my attitude about writing.

Instead of heading straight for my desk after morning coffee, I’ve developed a completely different strategy about these lovely long days, where I’m busy from dawn till well past dusk.

I’m writing all the time – just not at my desk.

I’m writing as I drive to the river where I scull on the flat water at sunrise, when the air is sweet and cool. I slide through the water, the rhythm of my oars lulling me into the effort. I see, hear and smell the wild world while I’m out, notice changes from one day to the next.

Close observation of the world – natural, urban, indoors or out – is a key skill for a writer, one I practice in my boat, in the garden, and on the porch.

Living In Place. Deborah Lee Luskin

A detour through the garden on my way to work can delay me for hours.

After breakfast, I detour through the garden on the way to my studio. Some days, that’s as far as I get. I allow myself to become distracted by weeds or feel obligated to harvest the berries that have ripened behind my back.

I used to resent the need to stop everything to pick and process and pickle when I thought I needed to be writing. But now I know that I am writing while I engage in these summer activities. I’m expanding both my experiences and my store of metaphors. Both on the water and in the garden, my mind is freewheeling, and when I do finally get to my desk, my fingers are itching to press the keyboard.

In summer, I’m efficient at my desk.

How do you negotiate the challenges of writing and play in summer?

Deborah Lee Luskin, photoDeborah Lee Luskin is a recreational sculler, amateur farmer, and professional writer. Read an Essay Every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com