Keep Your Creative Flame Alive

This month on The Gift of Writing I’m exploring the challenges – and offering solutions – for keeping your creative flame lit, even when life, inevitably, gets in the way.

gift of writing

I was inspired by a quote from the classic book, Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. This book cracked open my creative life when I discovered it last year, and I return to it often, thumbing through the many dog-eared and highlighted pages.

Here is an extended version of the passage I quoted in my essay:

“Most of us would do better if we became more adept at watching the fire under our work… Too often we turn away from the pot, from the oven. We forget to watch, forget to add fuel, forget to stir. We mistakenly think the fire and the cooking are like one of those feisty houseplants that can go without water for eight months before the poor thing keels over.

It is not so. The fire bears, requires, watching, for it is easy to let the flame go out…

Without the fire, our great ideas, our original thoughts, our yearnings and longings remain uncooked, and everyone is unfulfilled.”

I have this quote prominently displayed on my writing bulletin board as a reminder, a warning, because I’ve let my flame go out before, more than once.

Read about my loss of fire on The Gift of Writing and how, over the years, I’ve come up with several practical ways to keep the creative coals hot no matter what else is going on in your life.

Hope to see you there!

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On NOT Playing it Safe

I have a tendency to (over)protect my characters. Call it a mother hen complex, or maybe a more modern term would be helicopter novelist. I hover over my characters’ every move and the moment I sense a bad choice coming on, I swoop in and rescue them. Close call, I think, that could’ve been really bad.

Oh wait, isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?

Make your characters miserable! You hear this often as a writer. Make them hurt, bleed, fall off trucks, out of windows, walk into traffic, stumble over vibrating train tracks.

Photo Credit: ahh phooey via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ahh phooey via Compfight cc
Only try this in fiction, please.

Often it’s metaphoric, but it can be literal (especially in the thriller and horror genre).

It makes sense because suffering adds interest, intrigue, and suspense. Playing too nice is boring, and the last thing you want is to make your reader fall asleep (the only time this is okay is if a reader conks out after staying up all night reading your book).

“Ask what the worst thing is that could happen to your protagonist and make it worse.” Classic writing advice.

Good? Yes. But be careful not to overdo it. If your character is miserable all the time, and for no good reason, it can turn your story into a different kind of (author) nightmare – predictable and annoying.

This, however, is not my problem.

My problem is playing it too safe. I rescue and avoid. I delete danger. I sense an oncoming train from miles away and I swoop in to save my character before the rails even begin to tingle.

I noticed this when I reread the first draft of my novel last year. Every time something bad was about to happen to my protagonist… it didn’t. She was always saved, either by me, or one of the other characters (um, also me). I didn’t do this consciously. I never set out to write a “safe” story, but apparently my instinct as a human being is to protect and defend. When I see danger lurking ahead I grab my characters and run for cover.

Maybe this stems from my actual mother hen instinct, which I believe can be a good thing despite the bad rap helicopter parenting gets these days.

Photo Credit: joannaro99 via Compfight cc Nobody messes with my chicks.

Photo Credit: joannaro99 via Compfight cc
Nobody messes with my chicks.

But in writing – and I’m talking fiction and creative nonfiction here (think about memoir, how tempting to write yourself in a more desirable light, to smooth out painful edges of your past) – it’s almost never a good thing.

Sometimes we must lead our most beloved characters in the path of a train or at least a fast moving cyclist.

Sometimes we must indulge their self-destructive habits, and perhaps even push them closer to temptation.

I’m keeping all this in mind as I head towards the final third of my (latest) novel draft. I have to make sure I’m not choosing the easy way out – for me or my characters.

As Miss Frizzle, the teacher and driver of The Magic School Bus, says…

“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

magic school bus

Pretty great advice for writing, and for living.

Are there times in your writing when you play it too safe? Or do you fall on the other side of the spectrum?

If you’re not sure, take this fun quiz by author and blogger Janice Hardy: “Do you Suffer From NWS (Nice Author Syndrome)?

typewriter-butterflies-badge-small

I’m joining the lovely Maddy over at Writing Bubble for her weekly link up, What I’m Writing. There are some great posts this week on Setting and Story Structure, as well as one writing mama’s list of Editing Essentials (hint, coffee is high on the list, and I must concur).

A Writer’s Dream

Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Maybe it started when I learned how to read, or before that, when I received my first journal at age five. It was a beautiful little red velvet book with the words, My Diary, spun in gold thread across the center.

With painstaking effort, I wrote one and two sentence entries, filling about half the book. Journaling would become a lifelong habit, but my deepest love was for fiction.

A small sampling of a vast journal collection.

A small sampling of a vast journal collection.

Books became my escape, my most loyal companion. I loved losing myself in someone else’s words, falling into another world. At mealtime, I almost always had a book poised in front of my face. Somehow my parents allowed this. Perhaps my devotion to reading amused them, but I know most of all it made them proud.

Me, age 4, getting a head start on my dream.

Me age 4, reading in bed, circa March 1979

Now here I am living the first part of my dream. I’m a writer. I write. Even during those hibernation years after having my first child, I wrote blog posts and kept journals. Writing is how I process life; writing is the mirror I use to see the world.

But there is another part of my dream. One that I’ve held onto since I was a young girl devouring Young Adult books in my room, collecting them on my shelves.

I want my book there, too.

When I was about ten years old, I knew this. On the inside of my dresser, which I had transformed into a bookcase, I wrote the following affirmation on an index card:

“I will publish a book by the time I am eleven years old.”

As you can imagine, this story did not end well. The next year I crossed out “eleven” and wrote twelve,” and so on, until I finally ripped the card off and threw it away.

Looking back, I feel such empathy for my younger self, so full of big dreams. Isn’t that one of the beautiful things about childhood? How we believe anything is possible?

My little reader and budding artist.

My girl, reader, dreamer, and artist.

After graduating from college as an English major, naturally, I applied for and was offered a job at the local Barnes & Noble. I loved this job, and it was with regret that I gave my notice several months later when I got a publishing job in New York City. But working there, surrounded by books, I superimposed my name on the spines I arranged. My index card dream was still alive.

Here I am, nearly two decades later, writing with more confidence and joy than ever. I’ve had stories published in journals, which is thrilling, but I haven’t made it inside a bookstore – yet. That dream remains to be seen.

The truth is I have little control over this part. It’s based on the whims of others, on the now shaky venue of traditional publishing.

It may not happen.

All I can do is reach for it with my words. All I can do is keep writing.

What are your dreams? If you’re a writer, is traditional publishing your goal, or is self-publishing a viable option?

 

the prompt

 

I’m sharing this post on Mum Turned Mom’s The Prompt, whose word this week is Dream. Click here to see what other writers have to say…

 

Winter: A Love Story

A strange thing happened.

I realized, just recently, that I like winter.

I might even love it.

winter field

This is a crazy revelation for me because for most of my life I’ve been a staunch spring and summer supporter. I have a summer birthday and my daughter and husband have spring ones, and there is nothing I love more than seeing the first pink flowers bloom on bare winter trees.

I was so happy that my first child was due at the end of April. Spring felt like the perfect time to give birth. Just as everything was awakening and blooming, there was my baby, in my arms, her sweet bow lips as rosy as those blossoms.

By the time my second child was born in early November, I had come to appreciate fall, a season I had formerly dismissed as simply a precursor to winter. My mother had always loved autumn and as a child this baffled me. Perhaps it was because I associated fall with the start of school and the end of summer’s freedom. I only began to enjoy it when I became a mother myself.

Maybe my new appreciation for winter is a natural shift.

In my old mindset, winter was the death of everything beautiful. Trees were bare, plants looked skeletal, and the cold was unbearable. I still don’t like the cold. That fact will probably never change. But what I realize now is that you can still love the winter.

This first dawned on me a few months ago when I watched the first snowfall of the season. I sat in my office as the flakes fell thick and wet, quickly covering the grass and frosting the tree branches. My heart thawed as I witnessed this transformation.

There is something to be said about winter’s stark beauty.

Photo Credit: DIDS' via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: DIDS’ via Compfight cc

The blacks and whites of tree branches and snow, the crystalline sparkling of ice, the glistening of icicles. One evening my daughter called me over to look outside. I ran to the window. Every surface of the backyard was sparkling as though dusted with glitter.

Maybe it’s the recent move from city to country that has opened my eyes. It was hard to appreciate winter in Brooklyn. The beauty of snow is quickly diminished by snowplows, boot tracks, and well, dogs.

There’s also the whole stroller problem. Have you ever tried to push a stroller through thick slushy snow, or slick patches of ice? Not fun. At all. Winter with small children in a city can be isolating and lonesome. You spend many hours holed up in small living quarters, and when you do venture out, it can be treacherous. I shouldn’t complain so much, we had a car, and that helped quite a bit, but I still struggled to get through the winter months. I ached for spring, counting the days until the first flowers pushed through the cold ground.

But here, in the country, surrounded by farmland, the snow is a thing of beauty. I no longer have to push my child in a stroller while the cold wind bites into my face. I can drive. The other day when I drove home after dropping my children off at school, I was struck by the loveliness of sleet.

Yes, sleet! It was not rain, not snow, but this strange amalgamation of the two. It looked like snow but melted the moment it hit the windshield. Another day I drove along the same road and watched snow blow in gusts across the street. It looked like sand or dust, flying over the fields. It was a little like magic.

In winter, things only appear dead. Beneath the snow packed ground there is life. There is energy in the branches of the apple tree, in the trunk, and in the roots. We just can’t see it. That energy, that life, is what will bear fruit in the spring. This season is about waiting. It’s about trusting. That can be hard to do.

As I look around the snowy landscapes on my many drives to and from school, to the museum, to play dates, to the café where I write some mornings, I realize that in some ways, this season represents my creative life after I had children. My writer self went into hibernation. But it was not dead, though I worried at times it might be.

I understand now that it was there all along, like the lifeblood of the trees in the orchard, waiting for the right moment to bloom again.

Photo Credit: roddh via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: roddh via Compfight cc

Now, finally, I can appreciate winter. The way it looks, the purpose of it. It makes so much sense for me, personally. I’m a homebody, a Cancer crab (in the astrological sense). I like hunkering down. I like warming up by the fire and drinking hot chocolate with my children, their red cheeks still cold from playing in the snow.

night snow

I like the forced solitude of the season, the inwardness of it.

I used to be the first to jump in with complaints about winter, and some days I still do, out of habit, but I understand now that while I may have claimed spring and summer as my own for most of my life, my personality has always leaned toward the other side.

What seasons do you feel most comfortable in, and why? Have your opinions of them changed over the course of your life?

I shared this post on Mum Turned Mom’s The Prompt, whose word this week is Winter. Click here to see what other writers have to say…

the prompt