Growing

After my little hiatus, I’m returning to new and fresh ideas for this space. The winter offered me some time to hibernate, to grow, and to be diverted. I’ve been working on a new blog, The Winter Project, with my friend Jenny, and after that wraps up I’ll have the space and inspiration to pick up here again. Stay tuned for something a little new, and a little more fun.

See you in a few!

 

Are You Finished?

At the beginning of this summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland as part of my master’s program. I spent most of those two weeks in writing classes, learning about the craft and business of being a writer.

Each day for two hours or so, I sat down with a little group of fellow students and our mentor, and we workshopped each other’s writing. Workshopping, for writers, is always an inspirational and terrifying experience. It usually consists of sharing a story or a piece of one, and giving your colleagues free reign to say whatever they think of it. Thankfully, my classmates are kind people, but it’s still a fragile experience. While you end up learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in your writing, you are putting a piece of your life on a literal table to be dissected. Hours spent thinking, feeling, remembering, and writing are all boiled down to a few sheets of paper that can be marked up and crossed out, and it’s easy to feel judged as a person when the work is the actual thing being judged.

Workshopping, though, is a part of being a writer. Even if you never have a formal sit-down in a room somewhere on the campus of an Irish university (though I definitely recommend it), every writer has to send their work to someone at some point. It might be a friend, a teacher, an editor, or a publisher. In all of these situations, the work will be judged, and you have to learn to chant I’mnotbeingjudged I’mnotbeingjudged in your head the whole time.

For most creative pursuits, the principle is the same: the artist must separate herself from the work in order to take constructive criticism, and to offer constructive criticism herself. You can only grow as a writer if you learn to look at your work objectively.

When the day came for me to share my short story with the workshop, I selected a piece that was several years in the making, and had been written and re-written a few times. I liked the story; I felt confident about it, and that’s really rare for me, let me tell you. The workshop went well, with some good discussions and suggestions from the class, and afterward we had a coffee break.

Usually after a workshop, I stuff all the copies of my work, copies with the scrawled notes and opinions of other people, the teacher, and myself, into a folder. I forget about them for a few months, until I feel strong enough to look back and start working on the errors.

During the coffee break, our mentor, a celebrated Irish writer in her sixties, took me aside. She had a few thoughts about our workshop, and we chatted. Then she asked me,

“Now tell me, is the story finished?”

I felt ill-equipped to answer. “What?”

“Do you feel satisfied that the story is finished?”

“Um…” The truth was, I did. Despite some minor things the class had pointed out, I felt like the story was finished. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to say such a thing. Please tell me, celebrated Irish writer; you’re the expert.

But I answered truthfully. “Yes, I do.”

“Ah, good.” She smiled, satisfied, and we finished our coffee break.

It was a simple question, but it turned my perception on writing and workshopping and the endless cycles of editing on its head. So often in my experience as a writer, I’ve turned to whatever workshop I’m dealing with (formal or informal) to validate whether I’m a good writer or not. I come prepared to feel the burn of judgement, to feel foolish for saying this or that. The little morsels of “I really liked this part” and “you did that well” give me comfort. But at the end I still stuff my work in a folder, feeling rather inadequate, promising myself I’ll work on it later, when I’m ready.

Sometimes, yes, the work is trash. Sometimes other people are smarter than me, and find things to improve in my work. More often than not, actually. But the fact remains that I am still the writer, and as the writer I retain the right to be finished. I retain the right to open the door for suggestions, let a few in, and then shut the door and say, “The discussion has been closed. Thank you for your comments; your insight is very important to us.”

This is a tricky balance, because you don’t want to be too puffed up with the pride of creativity. You don’t want to be that person in a workshop that says, “Well joke’s on you idiots; this here is a finished story! Suck it!” But you don’t want to be a fearful quivering sap either.

I’m learning to go with my gut on these things. I can usually tell I need to pay attention to a constructive criticism when it stings, when it resonates with some deep sense inside of me that says, “Yes, they’re right; that was a bad idea.” Sometimes whole stories feel that way.

But there are times when a suggestion is made for my work, and a very tiny, calm voice in my head says, “No. I disagree.” This voice has thought about it, and is making a level-headed decision, with no hysterics or emotional pain. That’s the voice of the authority-bearing artist, and that’s the voice I can trust.

So for the aforementioned story, I made a few minor changes, and then I put it in a new folder on my computer: “Finished Work.” It was weird to see it so blatantly put. It seemed audacious.

But it also felt good to tell myself I had finished something, to tell myself and the rest of the world that I had worked hard and done well and would work no further. It felt good to think that no matter how ill-received the story might be in the future, that going back and changing it was not an option. From now on, if people didn’t like it, it was a matter of their opinion, and not of my own shortcomings as an artist.

I’m still getting used to this feeling. It’s still frighteningly presumptuous to me. But that artist’s voice still rings in my heart, the one that politely disagrees with my doubts and tells me, “This is finished.”

 

 

Too Fine a Point

I always assumed I hated real pencils.

I remember long days in high school, spending all this time trying to sharpen my pencils into a fine point, hearing the shh shh shh of the pencil sharpener shaving away thin layers of wood and graphite. Then finally, the perfect point. Then pressing against it to test its strength, and snap. Broken. Or even worse, broken deep in the pencil shaft, gouging out a piece of wood with it. Ribbons of shavings stuffed into the pencil sharpener, the quickly dulling blade, fine flakes of graphite staining my hands gray, pencils growing shorter and shorter until they were the same length as my fingers.

I quickly switched to mechanical pencils. Finally, a point that was always sharp, and all you had to do was click click. I scavenged the best mechanical pencils I could find; I hoarded them. My favorite was the Mother of All Mechanical Pencils, with a retractable eraser you could screw up and down like lipstick.

Jenny, my best friend, has always loved real pencils. When she told me about her affection, I sighed in longing. I wished I could love pencils as she did. But all the promises they made of simplicity, practicality, and a certain quotidian charm, had proven empty to me.

But then Jenny got me a collection of lovely floral pencils from the Target dollar section. And you can’t not love something your best friend gets you from the Target dollar section. The pencils came pre-sharpened, which was a boon. I used them, and fell in love with them, and when the points finally dulled so much that they were useless even for underlining in books, the thought of going back to mechanicals was one I couldn’t bear. I had grown to love the feel of solid wood and graphite in my hand, and the flimsy plastic of a mechanical pencil can’t compare to it.

So, committed to the idea of loving these pencils, I bought a pencil sharpener for them. I figured, if it’s a new pencil sharpener, perhaps it won’t be like before. I had great optimism and began sharpening. But soon the old pattern emerged. Shh shh shh. Shh shh shh. Wiggle wiggle. Snap. Damn.

Once again, I had pencils as long as my fingers. But at least they were floral. At least they looked pretty in the pencil cup on my desk. We moved house, and I took the useless pencils in their pretty pencil cup with my desk and set them up in a new space. Every so often I looked at them ruefully.

Finally, one day I couldn’t take it any longer. I went searching through the new house, which we share with other people with belongings unbeknownst to me, for a forgotten and unused pencil sharpener that might magically help my ailing floral pencils. I found one, teal blue and gray. It was stuffed with ribbons of wood shavings, the blades caked with graphite. I took it apart and scraped off years of pencil sharpenings with a letter opener. I put it back together again.

I also found a single pencil with a tiny gaping hole where the lead should be. The sight was one I had obviously seen before. It sent shivers down my spine. But the pencil itself, I realized, was a Dixon Ticonderoga #2. And in case you didn’t know, Dixon Ticonderoga #2s are the best pencils forged by human hands. I was first introduced to them back in grade school when I took a standardized test at the public school. No homeschool or Christian school, which were the scope of my educational experience, ever had the resources to invest in Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. Only a public school, with government funding, could ever afford such a luxury.

But now I had one, in my hands, free for the taking, along with a teal and gray pencil sharpener. I sharpened the Dixon Ticonderoga #2, and the shavings slid off the pencil like slices of butter. The perfect point.

I took my loot to my desk and sharpened my floral pencils. One by one, the perfect point.

Now I have four pencils in use, and I occasionally line them up to behold their beauty. They have bewitched me, body and soul.

I realize this might all sound rather over the top. I realize not everyone is as excited with the nuances of office supplies as me. But my pencil issues taught me something, as office supplies can do. Things aren’t always as perfect as we’d like, be they people, situations, or pencil points. But that doesn’t mean the thing itself is wrong; sometimes it merely takes time, practice, and a new mindset to sharpen those things into what we’re searching after. The important thing, I’ve found, is to not give up.

Get you a best friend who loves pencils. Get you a new sharpener. Enjoy and adapt to every stage. Keep searching. Keep sharpening.

 

Writing to Myself

I love journals.

I’ve kept a personal journal since I was ten or eleven, and I have them all lined up on a shelf in my room. Every Christmas and birthday, I acquire journals as gifts, and I use gift money to buy more journals. Something about the pretty covers and blank pages of yet-unlived stories gets me every time.

I don’t recall how exactly it started, but I do remember starting to journal my thoughts, daily life, and memories with the conviction that these were all very important. I remember becoming so overwhelmed with each detail of life, so convinced that they were all significant, that I had no choice but to write my life down as I was living it.

I still don’t know why the ins and outs of daily life have always been so significant to me, unless of course it has something to do with me being a writer. I always wrote with the conviction that people in the future would want to know what my life was like, and I wrote, at first, like I was writing a story.

As I got older, of course, my journals became more raw, more honest, more stream-of-consciousness. This shift has made each journal like a tiny time capsule of who I was at the time. Now, I look back at my numerous autobiographical tomes and see patterns in my life that led to where I am now. I read about an event that happened six years ago, and I see how that led to some of my present-day behaviors. It’s fascinating how my own words, thoughts, and feelings jog my present memory. They put me in situations long forgotten.

Reading a diary is like time travelling; you meet your old self, hear her hopes and fears, and tell her things you’ve learned, things you know now that you didn’t know then. It’s very therapeutic in a way; it closes a loop and completes a journey. The things I struggled with in the past find peace, or at the very least explanation, in the future. The older and wiser me can meet the younger with more knowledge, more grace. It makes you more forgiving of yourself, more aware of the process that life entails. And even this pseudo-time travel is a process, because someday I’ll be older and wiser than I am now, and the cycle, the journey, continues.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? While I thought I was writing for posterity, I was really writing for myself.

 

Reading Like a Kid

I remember reading a lot when I was younger. I gobbled up books one by one, reading whatever took my fancy. Most of them were children’s classics, cozy tales with female protagonists.

Little Women made me want to be a writer. The Secret Garden inspired me to sketch the plans for my own secret garden, complete with a wall and gate I would somehow craft all by myself in my small-town backyard. Anne of Green Gables reminded me it was okay to be a little odd and poetic, even if people looked at you funny.

But then somehow, as I got older, it got harder to find time and energy to read, even when I still counted reading as one of my main hobbies. It’s hard to justify sitting down and reading for fun when you have a job, or laundry, or reading for a college class, or—let’s face it—when you’ve already wasted enough time on the internet.

A lot of adults have a similar story. We loved indulging in literature when we were younger, but now recreational reading seems just that—an indulgence we can’t quite justify.

Ironically, I think my nearly five years of undergraduate education made me hate reading for fun. And I’m the biggest nerd I know. I love school. I didn’t mind reading for classes at first. But that mindset of reading-for-credit really gets ingrained, even when you don’t think about it. And it turns on you. When I graduated, there was no one telling me, “Read this by that date,” no counting pages til I could be done, no direction, even, of what to read and what to look for in it. I found myself a little lost, and a little miffed that my long-time hobby had been taken away.

I soon realized that my motives and justification behind reading had become twisted. I had taught myself that reading was a chore. I had reduced literature into page numbers I had to get through. Sometimes books were on my reading list because they were “good books to read,” something that had been recommended to me, or worse, books which everyone referenced with ease and I still didn’t know about. And sometimes I didn’t read because it felt trivial to sit on the couch and read a book I wouldn’t get any benefits from besides inherent enjoyment and perhaps some useless knowledge.

But the truth is that any writer needs to read. It is also true that life is too short to read a book you don’t like (thanks Leonard). And finally, it’s incredibly smug to assume you have nothing concrete or useful to learn from a book. Any book.

So this summer I let myself read like a kid. I picked what looked interesting even if it wasn’t my genre or usual choice. I had books gifted and recommended to me, and I enjoyed them and let them lead me to new fields I’d never considered before.

And you know what? I’ve never read so much in a summer, not since I was a kid. Something about taking away the boundaries and expectations, of letting the imagination wander if it wants, makes you explore and soak in. You learn, and you have fun doing it.

This summer, I’ve read children’s lit, adult fiction, self-help, theology, and poetry. My reading has been like a hike: I’ve walked alone, followed along with a friend, run off the trail and darted back, and walked a few familiar parts of the trail over and over again.

My hobby has returned to me, or perhaps I to it.

Writing Lessons from a Jock

I got a new book today and I am so excited to devour it! Enter To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while – it’s been the book I think of when I say to myself “I need to read some classics!” Last week while driving home I heard on the radio about Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s first book to be published since this one, written before this came out in 1960, but functioning as this book’s sequel-before-the-first-was-written (technically making To Kill a Mockingbird a prequel, a feat that even George Lucas himself would have trouble topping).

I figured I needed to get cracking, so I found the mass market paperback for five bucks with Amazon Prime (with eleven bucks conveniently in my checking account), and the deal was made.

I’ve been trying (miserably) to read more; I know that if I want to be a good writer it’s important to be a good reader. This idea has been hammered into my head through many a poetry and literature class, but oddly enough it came alive for me by watching sports.

…or rather, by watching sports with my husband. Alex is a sports guru. (We met at a basketball game). He plays or has played golf, soccer, baseball/softball, basketball, track, and tennis. He also succeeds at them all, while I just played my first game of golf (and thus my first legitimate game of any sport) yesterday.

I’m becoming more acclimated to his adrenaline-pumped world, but I still don’t understand how he can play in a softball tournament all day and then come home and (willingly!) watch the Pirates game. By then I personally am exhausted and need to go read poetry. But that’s him, and I love him. (I like to say that our love breaks all stereotypes. The nerd and the jock togethah forevah!)

One reason Alex watches so much sports on TV is to see how the masters do it. They may not always play well or even win, but he can still learn from their technique. He can learn from them by observing what they do, and then taking that with him the next time he plays whatever sport it happens to be. It’s a far cry from the mere goal of entertainment that I initially thought was his sole reason for watching televised sports.

Watching sports for education and not merely entertainment is what sets apart the athlete from the fan. Similarly, reading a book for education and not merely entertainment is what sets apart the writer from the casual reader. I’ve found that for a writer, it’s important not to just absorb a story, but to absorb how the story was crafted, and to take those techniques with me the next time I write.

Isn’t that inspiring? I used to think sports were a necessary evil in the world, but I’m not so sure about that now. Being married changes you I guess ;)

So have you ever read To Kill a Mockingbird? Can you give me a spoiler-free comment on what you think? And when you read (or watch sports), do you do it more for entertainment or to learn?

Happy End of Wednesday folks! Enjoy your week!

Thoughts for the Creative Juices

“Here, these ought to get your creative juices flowing.” my aunt presented me with a box of vibrant purple glass beads. I was twelve, and in the middle of a jewelry-making phase. Heck yeah it got the creative juices flowing. For the next few years I made necklaces, bracelets, and key chains with those heavy purple glass beads. I paired them with leather cord, silver charms and glass seed beads. It was grand.

The jewelry making craze has passed me by, but the phrase “creative juices” still comes to mind every now and then. Now they pertain more to writing for me. I’ll have bursts of creativity where my cup of juice runneth over and I crank out writing like crazy (today was one of those days). Other times, however, the cup is dry and it’s a struggle just to put a post on this blog.

So, in an attempt to get creative juices flowing, for me and for you, I had some questions and I’d love some feedback. Whether you’re a writer, a painter, a seamstress or any other kind of artist, I hope these thoughts help to spur you on to more creativity and love for what you do! Let me know your thoughts in the comments. We’ll have a bit of a party! :o)

What subject or item do you most love to write about/paint/create?

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Is there a particular theme that always pops up in your writing? Does some kind of symbol always show up in your art? Do you really like to sew the same thing over and over? For me as a writer, I love writing about nature, at least in poetry. To me there’s something about every day that’s beautiful. Nature has so many facets, so many hidden pockets just waiting to be discovered. Even the most dreary, soggy days can be so beautiful. I call them “poetic days” because of their potential. :o)

What emotions/situations cause the desire to create?

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When you feel lonely, do you head for the knitting needles? Does elation make you want to write until kingdom come? Does anger fuel inspiration at your piano? I can get in these really thoughtful moods where I contemplate and question everything (usually on poetic days). These times are best for burrowing deep into my thoughts, usually with a good cup of coffee or tea, and writing what I find. It’s like mining. Other days, though, I skip around clicking my heels and can’t wipe the silly grin off my face. My writing grows whimsical and sweet. Gosh, I’m a very emotional writer, aren’t I? How very womanly of me.

What do you want to use your art for?

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You devote yourself to your art, whatever it is, for hours a day. You gain knowledge and make mistakes. You soar and you plummet. The question is, what do you do it all for?

A lot of people see art in its various forms as a way to express oneself. Some people see this as the only reason for art at all. That reason has never sat well with me. Yes, creative people have to express their inspiration, but just regurgitating your inner creativity for the heck of it doesn’t feel like a good enough reason for me. To me, art is a way to take and interpret the world around us, and to cause others to think about it in a different way. It should build up and encourage the artist and audience, not destruct or discourage. It should bring something new and good to the world. That’s how I want my writing to operate. What do you think? Why do you create what you create?

So, let me know your thoughts! I’d love to get a discussion going on creativity, writing, and art in general. This isn’t usually the kind of post I write, but I don’t hear enough from you folks out there. :) I’m excited to learn more about your art, whatever it may be (and trust me, it can be anything). Hopefully this discussion will inspire you and get your creative juices flowing!

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