On fear, and how writing is like a guitar

Fear is fun­ny. Not fun­ny, real­ly. Mad­den­ing, frus­trat­ing, debilitating.
Ortega acoustic electric mini bassAfter a busy month or so, I had­n’t had time to prac­tice my bass gui­tar at all. I want­ed to. I missed it. So I took it out of the case and sat it next to my chair so it would be easy to grab when­ev­er I had a few free min­utes. And from there it mocked me. I was afraid to pick it up. Afraid I’d for­got­ten every­thing. Afraid I would suck.
Writ­ing is like that, too. I think the writ­ers who advise oth­ers to “write every day” do so for this rea­son most of all. The longer we go with­out doing some­thing the more room there is for doubt and excus­es, so we go even longer with­out doing it. It’s a vicious cycle that can be dif­fi­cult to break out of.
Some­times, the miss­ing doing the thing becomes greater than the fear and over­comes it. Oth­er times, we force our­selves past the fear. We have been here before and can see it for what it is.
I final­ly picked up the gui­tar today. I can still play. In fact, I think I played bet­ter today than I have in months. It felt joy­ous, both the abil­i­ty to make music and the let­ting go of the fear.
Soon, my sched­ule will allow me to get back to writ­ing again, too. And I am not afraid. In fact, I’m look­ing for­ward to it.
What goals are you avoid­ing because of fear? Per­haps it’s time to begin.

Creativity Lost… and Found!

For var­i­ous rea­sons (health, chron­ic pain, an aging pet, vol­un­teer com­mit­ments, and the Pacif­ic North­west weath­er), I’ve spent the win­ter pret­ty much chained to my desk. When­ev­er I had a spare moment I tried to force myself to sit down and write—right now! As you can prob­a­bly guess, I was supreme­ly unpro­duc­tive. And frustrated.
You know how if you keep doing what you’ve been doing you’ll keep get­ting what you’ve been get­ting? Well, today I decid­ed to try some­thing dif­fer­ent. I shrunk my man­u­script (with the gap­ing hole in the mid­dle) and my research notes so that they’d fit on one page each, I grabbed a pen­cil, and I went for a walk.
Wouldn’t you know it, my cre­ativ­i­ty was hid­ing in the woods! I found her right about here:

Once I found her, the man­u­script prac­ti­cal­ly wrote itself. And I got to walk (hooray, exer­cise!) in the sunshine.
We even stopped to make a few new friends on the way home…

Sheep closeup
A sheep, one day before shearing.


6 Lessons Learned from Doing the Picture Book Marathon

Pic­ture Book Marathon 2011 Logo, by Nathan Hale

I did it. I wrote 26 brand-new pic­ture-book texts in the 28 days of Feb­ru­ary! Now that I’ve had some time to relax and reflect, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the experience.

I start­ed out with great gus­to, then stum­bled in the mid­dle and took a bunch of days off, but man­aged to sprint to the fin­ish to make up for lost time. I fin­ished the last one with exact­ly 12 min­utes to spare before the clock struck mid­night on the very last day. Talk about close. But, still, I did it!

And I am so glad I took on this chal­lenge. Not only do I have 26 bright, shiny new man­u­scripts (sev­er­al of which have real poten­tial right out of the gate), but I learned some much-need­ed lessons along the way. I’d thought I’d doc­u­ment there here for any­one think­ing about doing the chal­lenge, for any­one think­ing about writ­ing pic­ture books, or for my future self when­ev­er I need a reminder!

5 Lessons I Learned From the Pic­ture Book Marathon:

  • PB Marathon Les­son #1: When I set my mind to it, I can be a LOT more pro­duc­tive than I thought I could. I was find­ing stolen moments in the pick-up line at school, while wait­ing for kids to get out of lessons, scrib­bling on receipts at stop­lights, etc. I dis­cov­ered I have been wast­ing a lot of time on things like self-doubt, think­ing I need­ed a big chunk of unin­ter­rupt­ed time to write, or try­ing to fig­ure out the whole sto­ry before I start­ed writ­ing. I wrote more in this one month than I have in the past year. Yes, I was most­ly work­ing on revi­sions, but still–yipes! We need to keep the cre­ative wheels turn­ing, even when we’re focus­ing on more ana­lyt­i­cal tasks. This has unex­pect­ed ben­e­fits, like…
  • PB Marathon Les­son #2: Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty begets pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and pro­cras­ti­na­tion begets pro­cras­ti­na­tion. The more I wrote, the more I felt like writ­ing, AND it car­ried over into oth­er things as well. I man­aged to get some long-stand­ing to-do’s around the house done, sim­ply because I felt so super­charged about get­ting my books writ­ten! Typ­i­cal­ly I would­n’t let myself tack­le those kinds of chores, because I always felt like I should be writ­ing instead. But I often did­n’t do the writ­ing because it was so easy to get dis­tract­ed by lit­tle to-do’s and inter­rup­tions. So, every­thing would stag­nate. Now that I learned #1, it’s much eas­i­er to avoid the down­ward spi­ral of #2.
  • PB Marathon Les­son #3: As pro­duc­tive and ener­giz­ing as that month was, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber to recharge! I think I crashed in the mid­dle because I was writ­ing every day. It was fine on week­days, but on the week­ends I real­ly need­ed to get away from my com­put­er and play. Doing that and then feel­ing behind and rush­ing to catch up was­n’t help­ful either. So, out­side of the chal­lenge, I’ll try to be pro­duc­tive every week­day, and I’ll reserve the week­ends for rest­ing, read­ing, and spend­ing time with family.
  • PB Marathon Les­son #4: Writ­ing fast and short is the best way to cut to the heart of the sto­ry. I tend to over­think book ideas before I ever get to writ­ing the first word. And, if I do start writ­ing, I tend to be research dri­ven and over­ly wordy (which is the kiss of death for pic­ture books!). So, my first drafts usu­al­ly read like real­ly bad ency­clo­pe­dia entries, and then I spend all my revi­sion efforts try­ing to resus­ci­tate them and bring back the life that inspired me to write about them in the first place. The marathon forced me to just get it out there in all its pas­sion­ate chaos. It’s much eas­i­er, and more suc­cess­ful, to start with a strong heart and add the nec­es­sary limbs lat­er than it is to start with a bunch of limbs and try to find a place for the heart! The PB Marathon allowed me to final­ly get to the core of some big ideas I’ve been think­ing about for years but did­n’t know how to con­tain. I think this approach would also help me with longer projects, as a sort of outline/synopsis/summary to keep me on track as I flesh out the details.
  • PB Marathon Les­son #5: I need to work on end­ings! If I could work a cir­cu­lar end­ing, great. If not, though, all of my end­ings felt either rushed or drawn out or just plain trite and stu­pid. Clear­ly, I need some work here! So, I’m going to be launch­ing a major self-edu­ca­tion unit, study­ing the best of the best pic­ture books and their end­ings. Maybe I’ll post my dis­cov­er­ies here someday.
  • PB Marathon Les­son #6: Final­ly, the biggest, most impor­tant les­son learned: Despite my weak­ness with end­ings, I don’t total­ly suck! Okay, so not all of the 26 are going to end up on any­body’s award list (or even book­shelf), but that’s no sur­prise to anyone–least of all me. What I was­n’t expect­ing was to find a hand­ful of real gems. There are sev­er­al man­u­scripts in the pile that I love, can’t wait to revise, and know I will hap­pi­ly and con­fi­dent­ly sub­mit in the not-too-dis­tant future. And there are quite a few oth­ers that are, at the very least, a good idea worth pur­su­ing to see if I can devel­op it into some­thing sol­id. Very pleas­ant sur­pris­es indeed, and great con­fi­dence boost­ers besides.

After all those valu­able lessons, I would’ve felt like a win­ner even if I had­n’t com­plet­ed the 26 man­u­scripts. The whole expe­ri­ence was def­i­nite­ly worth­while for me. To my friends and fam­i­ly, thank you for the encour­age­ment and cama­raderie: they were a huge help, and I am extreme­ly grate­ful for your sup­port! To my amaz­ing and won­der­ful cri­tique group, thanks for wel­com­ing the del­uge of new man­u­scripts com­ing your way! And to those of you con­sid­er­ing the chal­lenge, DO IT! And let me know what YOU learn. 🙂

No, no, no #NaNoWriMo for me!

The big top­ic in the writ­ing world this time of year is NaNoW­riMo, Nation­al Nov­el Writ­ing Month, in which aspir­ing writ­ers are encour­aged to churn out 50,000 words of rough draft in 30 days. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, but after weeks of con­sid­er­a­tion and days of ago­niz­ing, I’ve final­ly decid­ed NOT to do it this year. I’m extreme­ly tempt­ed to push myself to attempt some­thing I’ve nev­er done before (fin­ish a novel)—I am very com­pet­i­tive and I do love a good chal­lenge, after all. Plus, I know I’d learn a lot about myself and my writ­ing in the process, which would be both excit­ing and use­ful. And, you nev­er know, at the end of it all I just might have some­thing worth pur­su­ing further.
So, what’s hold­ing me back? Well, besides a nice help­ing of typ­i­cal writer­ly fears (which is just anoth­er rea­son TO do it, of course), there’s a nag­ging lit­tle bit of actu­al self-knowl­edge that can’t be ignored. It feels so inap­pro­pri­ate that I’m embar­rassed to admit it, espe­cial­ly here, in such a pub­lic forum. But, I sup­pose it’s time to come clean and be hon­est with you all: I’ve nev­er had a burn­ing desire to write a pure­ly fic­tion­al novel.
the magic of first booksI am most drawn to two par­tic­u­lar kinds of lit­er­ary mag­ic. One is help­ing a child learn to read by pro­vid­ing some­thing inter­est­ing enough for them to work through at a lev­el that is acces­si­ble yet just chal­leng­ing enough to increase their skill (begin­ning read­ers: fic­tion and non­fic­tion). The oth­er is help­ing a child under­stand the world around them through books that are meant to be shared with a par­ent or teacher, books that will open up a dia­log between young chil­dren whose val­ues aren’t yet defined and the adults help­ing to shape those val­ues (board and pic­ture books: fic­tion and nonfiction).
I love read­ing all kinds of fic­tion, and I am keen­ly aware that a well-writ­ten nov­el can expand a reader’s world­view in ways that short­er works often can­not. Good fic­tion can illu­mi­nate truth with a spot­light effect that can be dif­fi­cult to achieve in non­fic­tion. I admire nov­el writ­ers immense­ly and feel blessed to call many of them friends. Per­haps some­day I’ll even decide to try to join their ranks. For now, though, the audi­ences I most wish to con­nect with just aren’t ready for nov­els. I’ll have to fol­low my own kind of magic.