Finding My Center

Many years ago, I took a ceramics class to satisfy an arts requirement for my college degree. I made a lot of really bad bowls and figurines and stuff that have since all been smashed, disappeared, or distributed to family members who feel too guilty to get rid of them. It was an entry level class and I was awful at it, but it was fun.

However, I never used the pottery wheels. I probably would have broken them, and the more advanced students were on them all the time, and I was too garbage and well aware of it to properly beg for wheel time. To this day, I have never tried thrown pottery.

But my ten-year-old has. A few weeks ago, his class went on this weird mish-mash field trip where they went to a rock climbing club, and then a ‘50s style diner, and then a high school pottery studio. Not sure what the educational aim was here (or why this teacher is so set on expensive field trips and activities like all the time), but my son had a lot of fun making a little bowl that I’m probably going to have to buy off the teacher later, to prove that I love my child, in order to help fund further field trips. (I’m not bitter.)

My boy told me in such exquisite detail about the potting process that I think he might want a throwing wheel for Christmas. He told me all about tucking his elbows, and keeping his hands wet, and maybe most important of all, centering the clay.

When throwing pottery on the wheel, one of the biggest problems beginners have is failing to properly center their lump of clay. It might seem centered (enough), but once the wheel gets up to speed and you begin to craft your masterpiece, the wobbly tower of clay suddenly ruptures and flops over dead like an overwatered cactus in fast forward.

A lot of creative work is like that, including writing. Sometimes we start a project before we’re quite ready. Sometimes we don’t see the problems until we’re well along. Sometimes we have to scrap and start over, even when something starts out so promising.

I am the queen of false starts. And messy starts. And oh-gosh-I’m-going-to-have-to-change-all-of-this-later starts. Lately, I’ve been feeling like the empress, though. This last year has been a weird year for me. I’ve been reasonably productive, and pretty successful by some metrics, but I haven’t felt creatively centered, if that makes any sense. So I’ve ended up with some preeeetty wobbly stories, structurewise.

I think part of my problem may be in the sorts of projects I’ve been working on this year. More about this later, but a much higher proportion of my writing has been for either nonfiction or ghostwriting on other people’s creative projects. So a smaller chunk of my creative brain power has been spent on the sorts of projects I enjoy the most (which is mostly people running around getting stabbed in the woods, apparently). This has put me a bit off so that when I do get around to those projects, my head isn’t in the game. This is probably further exacerbated by how busy I’ve been with life in general. My time for art in any form has shrunk considerably as we welcomed a new foster child into our home late last summer. He’s an awesome kid, but takes a looooot of time and attention. I basically doubled my kid load, meaning that most of my time for feeding my creative soul now happens between ten at night and… whenever I go collapse into bed. Sometimes that’s ten, because I’m tired. Sometimes it’s one in the morning because I really want to work on something that isn’t kid related. But then I’m exhausted in the morning and I pay it back for days. So yeah, I’ve been off-balance lately.

So how to center myself a bit more?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing may be to accept that, at least for a little while, I’m just going to have less time for art. I can’t not take my kid to his appointments. I can’t ignore my natural children, either, who are needing more attention than ever as we navigate these emotional waters together. But rather than just settling for less art, I think I should also shift the focus of what time I do have for art. I’ll have to do a better job of reserving my art time for the art that I find most fulfilling. And I’m going to start doing more of my visual art out in the midst of the kids instead of only while holed up in my Tortured Artist Cave. (Writing will have to stay in the cave, though. I cannot write with any distractions whatsoever, unfortunately.)

Giving myself the breathing space to make art without the guilt is probably the key here. Maybe I can’t produce the same volume of work that I have in years past. And maybe I don’t have the same amount of time that I have in the past. But letting myself create for the sheer joy of creating, rather than worrying about deadlines and output and word counts and dollars, should help bring me back to center. I’ll write more in a couple weeks about my goals for this year and how those shaped up, and then I’ll roll out a shiny new set of goals for next year.

Until then, happy (happy, I say!) writing!

Trial Separations: When It’s Time for a Break

After writing last week about ways to keep your mind limber while on a writing break, I promptly went on a small week-long writing break. Thirty-one members of my immediate and extended family were in town, we were camping for days, and what had started as volunteering to pick up the food from the grocery story quickly morphed into me being in charge of all things food related. I had an absolute blast, but it just wasn’t feasible to be doing any writing work. (Thus I find myself last-minute typing this blog post up during my lunch break.) I hadn’t really planned be to taking a break, but it just happened. (Sorry, that-one-deadline.)

Breaks happen. Sometimes they happen when you plan for them to, like when I know I’m about to birth a human and I’ll need some time for my brain to readjust to endless screaming needs, or when I know I’ll be car camping on the side of the road without electricity for a week or more. At other times, breaks happen without warning or a plan, like when a computer suddenly breaks or there’s an emergency that needs immediate and full attention.

And then there are the in-betweeners. The breaks that happen maybe a little unexpectedly, maybe a little uncertainly. These are the breaks that don’t have to happen necessarily- you could probably keep writing if you really worked at it, but for one reason or another you don’t.

Deciding to take a break from writing is very personal and everyone does it for different reasons. I’m a big fan of powering through and writing every day, no matter how little, no matter what’s going on, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Heck, sometimes that doesn’t even work for me.

So here is a short list of some perfectly legitimate times when it might be appropriate to take a break.

Your life is busy and you have rent to pay.

The sun is shining and you haven’t left your cave in three days.

You’re feeling burnt out and are bored with the sound of your own writing.

You want a break.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, it’s totally fine to take a break. That’s right, even just wanting to take a break is a totally legitimate reason to take a break, and you don’t have to plan for it and schedule it in for it to be ‘allowed’. We writers can be a pretty miserable bunch- frustrated when we’re writing and frustrated when we’re not. I am the queen of hurling abuse at myself whenever I’m not living up to my own high standards.

It does not have to be this way. We would never treat other people like this, so why should we treat ourselves so poorly?

There are a lot of really good reasons to take writing breaks and sometimes those breaks are actually more beneficial than just powering through. Taking a break allows you to see your work with fresh eyes. It can refresh you mind and allow you to approach writing again with new ideas. It can fight burn out and help you relax (or pay for groceries, or visit your grandbabies, etc).

A break does not mean that you are quitting writing forever, or that you’re not a ‘real’ writer, or that you lack willpower. It simply means that now isn’t the best time for writing and you’ll get back to it when you have something to say and the time to say it. And until that time rolls around, don’t feel bad about taking a break. After a little recovery time, you’ll be back at the races and stronger for the time you spent on the bench.

Take care of yourself! Be kind to yourself! And- if it works out- happy writing!

Of the Atrophy of Brains and Brawn

(Oops. I have family visiting and we stayed up until one playing dice last night and I completely forgot to post this thing. Sorry!)

Summer always seems to hit me like a golf club. Smack! And we’re off!

I never seem to transition well between the quiet lethargy of winter to the frenetic busy-ness of summer. In particular, my physical activity goes zero to sixty once summer starts. I do basically no exercise during the winter, but in summer, I bike commute and play rugby and generally cavort around with my family- canoeing, hiking, minor home construction projects, the works. These first few weeks of summer can be pretty rough until my body adjusts. Soooo much soreness…

Getting back into writing again after a break can feel a lot like that too. I mean, I never completely stop writing- like I never totally stop walking around and lifting things during winter- but there’s definitely a difference in pace between when I’m actively pursuing writing with a love-of-my-life passion and when I’m doing it just because I know I should be. Take this summer for instance. As I mentioned last week, I’m not doing much fiction writing. And by “not much,” I mean hardly any at all. I’ve also been known to take breaks like while vacationing for weeks or months on end, or after having a kid or going through some other massive life changer. These breaks aren’t always avoidable, and you might not always want to avoid them completely. Sometimes breaks can be a good thing (more on that later).

But to go back to the exercise example, just like I always tell myself all through winter, I shouldn’t just stop everything. Yeah, cutting back might be a good idea for a variety of really good reasons, but I always plan on getting back on the wagon, and it really would be better for me to just do some exercise throughout winter. And so I usually talk myself into doing an ab workout here and there, or maybe a few squats- just enough to make sure I realize how pathetic I’ve become. But as pathetic as these efforts are, they are really truly better than nothing. Every little bit is going to make the summer transition that much easier (and my overall health that much better).

There are little writing things you can do even during a writing break that will help make the transition back into full-steam-ahead writing a little smoother. Here are a few things that I like to do even when I’m technically on a fiction writing break.

Write Blog Posts I don’t know why I am so do-until-I-die dedicated to blog posts, but I really like them. I love the steady schedule and the public accountability of them. I like that they force me to constantly come up with fresh content. Even if they’re not fictional and sometimes not even fun, they keep my writing muscles limbered up.

Jot Down Story Ideas It’s true that you get more ideas as you work on the ones you already have, but that doesn’t mean that all ideas completely stop when you’re taking a break. And some of these ideas are really great ones that should be revisited later. Keep writing down all your cool ideas, and then you’ll have plenty of material to play with at the end of your break.

Read Books Nothing keeps the brain fed and well nourished quite like a full and varied diet of good literature. Whether or not you’re on a writing break, you should always have a ready answer when someone asks you what you’re reading right now.

Tell Stories Even if you’re not writing them down, keep telling people stories. Tell folks about your day, about that funny lady at work last week, about when you lost your phone and where you finally found it. Tell them about something you’re proud of, or something super cool you saw someone else do. A pause in writing does not mean a pause in storytelling.

Learn New Things Some of the funnest stories I’ve written have come about because I was learning about some wacky little nonfiction slice of life (human or otherwise) and I thought, “Huh! What if this, but with that?” My brain is not happy unless I’m constantly learning new things. And when it’s happy, it poops out little story ideas (that I of course write down). So nourishing!

There are tons of things that I could share about keeping your writing brain in shape, and I’m sure you fair readers have a bunch that you like to lean on in those hard times when, for whatever reason, you can’t write as much as you’d like to. None of these things (except maybe the blog post writing) take up that much time. They’re simple and easy and fit neatly around the rest of my day. That makes it easy to keep doing all these things with all due diligence! And if you have any writing brain limbering tips you’d like to share in the comments, I’d love to give those a try too!

Until next week, happy writing (or not)!