Momentum, mo problems

If I had to choose a theme for my life in the last five years, it would probably be “keeping up.” Keeping up with my kids, keeping up with our hectic lifestyle, and keeping up with my expectations as a partner, a parent and (one day, again, hopefully) a professional writer.

I wouldn’t choose the theme “balance,” because that would imply I’ve found some. I wouldn’t choose the theme of “failing miserably,” even though I feel that way sometimes, because despite the many delays and mistakes and missteps, I’m enormously proud of how life has unfolded. Also, my husband hates it when I say I’m failing. (I’m sorry.) But he loves it when I mention him on the blog. (You’re welcome.)

Five years ago, I joined a creative writing class while working full-time at the university. It was a rewarding return to writing after a hiatus from my journalism career. Since then, I’ve kept writing, attended some workshops and conferences and, most recently, was selected for the mentorship program with the Alberta Writers’ Guild.

The momentum has been slow, much like the excruciating pace of my four-year-old fastening her seatbelt while I rev my minivan’s V6 because we’re late AGAIN, but at least it has been building. With momentum comes more opportunity, and with opportunity comes more pressure.

I’m working furiously on my apprenticeship project in the short time I have left with the WGA. I’m writing and editing and (soon) submitting and (likely) getting rejected but at least I’m doing it. And there is so much more I want to do.

I want to revamp my website. Like, a total overhaul. I’m so excited about it. I also want to blog more, with structured themes, services and features.

I want to finish my works-in-progress. I want to make the most of the amazing writing community right at my fingertips. I want to do a lot of things.

What I don’t want to do is to give up. Sometimes I feel like I’m already operating at full capacity, like there’s no way I could do all the things I want to do, in the time I want to do them, and do them well. But what I really, really don’t want to do is grieve a dream without ever really going for it.

So I won’t.

Laws of Distraction

Only one month remains in my apprenticeship with the Alberta Writers’ Guild. And while I’ve learned a lot, and wrote a lot, and cried a lot, I have so much more to do before the program ends. This is not the time to be distracted.

So naturally I find myself totally, utterly, inopportunely distracted. Now is the time for attention and detail. Now is the time for focus and fastidiousness. Now is not the time for Facebook. (Oh look! More Easter photos.)

I need help. And since I can safely assume you’re also distracted from something much more important (since you’re reading my blog) here are my top three distractions and how I deal with them:

1. Social media

The other day my husband and I wanted to research some summer flights to Nova Scotia. I opened my laptop with this fact-finding mission in mind, but by the time my screen illuminated I was elbow-deep in a Twitter thread about the verdict in a certain Canadian trial. This is the sinkhole that is social media. Time evaporates (as do brain cells), you achieve very little and your husband eventually gives up and searches the flights on his phone while you mumble something about the justice system.

I used to think I could temper myself when it came to social media, but for me it’s like a chocolate Easter bunny. I can’t just nibble on the ears. In fact, I can’t eat just one. I eat one and then another and another until my gut is grumbling and my kids are crying because all the chocolate is gone and it’s only 9AM.

I can’t just slip into Twitter for a quick refresh when I’m supposed to be writing. I have to log off, hide the chocolate bunny deep inside the pantry and go completely dark. (Mmm, dark chocolate.) There are lots of helpful apps for keeping you on track and off social media, but I’ve been using just an old-fashioned timer. I glue myself to my work for a determined amount of time, then take 5-10 minute breaks to check my email and newsfeed and watch videos of sloths giving really slow hugs.

2. Real life

I wish I had the time to myself during the day to write (or watch sloth videos) but that’s not my reality. My reality is that I have three young kids who seem to rely on me for stuff. Like, a lot of stuff. They have needs, and I am their need-meeter. Along with the million other responsibilities that come with being a full-time human. That’s not to say that stay-at-home parents can’t write full-time. Many do, and many do very successfully. But these people are super-human and I a mere mortal.

For me, any leftover items on my to-do list, any outstanding chores or commitments or bathroom disasters take precedent over my personal time to write. Otherwise I’m far too distracted, or feel far too guilty to find a creative, peaceful space.

What helps me with this is routine. During the week, I follow an exact routine, cornering pockets of time to slip into writing between drop-offs, pick-ups and laundry. (SO MUCH laundry.) I also track my writing progress, which led me to discover that I am most productive in the wee morning hours. This has challenged me to get up before dawn each Saturday and Sunday, drive down the street to my local coffee shop, and plop myself in front of my laptop before the baristas have even made their first brew. I write for two hours and make it home in time to join the rest of my family for breakfast. Not only do I feel superior to everyone who’s still sleeping, but it also gives me an excuse to drink lots of coffee. (Does anyone really need an excuse to drink lots of coffee?)

3. Inner demons

Even if I’ve weaned myself from Twitter, even if I’m kid-free at the coffee shop or library, even if every other element is in place for me to have a productive writing hour, there is one more distraction that seeps into my brain, my thoughts, my screen: self doubt. This is the biggest distraction of all, and it can be more crippling to my creativity than my three-year-old yelling from the bathroom about a “big, big mess.” After almost every sentence I write, there follows a chorus of “boos” in my brain. Sometimes I’m stuck on the same scene for weeks, praying that someone else will say that it’s good enough because I can’t even tell anymore.

I don’t know how to fix this one. I try to deal by simply moving on. Switching between scenes, switching between projects or just taking a break all together. Reading really good writing helps when I’m feeling really bad about my own. I lose myself in a book or a blog or an article. I pick myself up from under the crushing weight of my own expectations and dust myself off. I try to forget my biggest fears by remembering my little wins. And then I start writing again.

So there you have it. Now tell me, how do you overcome your distractions?

More importantly, have you seen any good sloth videos lately?

Trying, at times

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You can do it!

I have many recurring thoughts. Some of them are pretty banal: “I need coffee.” Sometimes they’re rhetorical: “Should I have another coffee?” Other times they’re a bit more existential: “Who am I without coffee?”

When I have thoughts about my writing career, however, they usually hover around one recurring, discouraging theme: “HOW do other people do this?” (Also but less often, “HOW do some people do this without coffee?”)

Which always leads me to my least favourite, most threatening thought: “Can I do this?” And inevitably: “Am I good enough?”

I try really, really hard to avoid comparing myself to others. It’s toxic and useless and altogether artificial. But when I do fall into that trap (there’s just way too much bait out there to avoid it all together), I remind myself of how lucky I am. I remind myself of how hard people work for their successes. And that I can be successful, too, if I work hard.

That being said, could someone please tell me exactly how hard? No, really, give me a formula. There are days when I’ll write for an hour, file a few hundred words (I write sllooooooowww) and instead of feeling relief or accomplishment, I’ll feel incredibly guilty for not writing more. (Don’t even get me started on revisions.)

Every minute of my time is scheduled, squeezed, synergized, capitalized. (Just call me Mom Corp.) And writing between chores sometimes makes writing a chore. I’m exhausted. My brain is fried. Coffee doesn’t even work for me anymore and I can’t help but think HOW DO PEOPLE DO THIS? CAN I EVEN DO THIS?

Maybe I can’t. That’s a terrifying thought, but that’s ok if I gave it all I’ve got. I have a bad, bad habit of listening to my fiercest critic. And my fiercest critic (me) is starting to have doubts. I sometimes need 10 supportive voices for every one negative thought I have about my own abilities. (I’m so lucky to have those 10 voices.)

But maybe I am capable of doing this, and doing it well. I’m halfway through my writing mentorship, I am working hard and my work is getting better. There MUST be a reason I’m chasing this writing life, that I feel compelled to chase it.

I don’t know where I’ll end up, I don’t know what working even harder will bring, and I don’t know for sure if I am good enough.

What I do know is, I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t try.

In the meantime, there’s more coffee. (I’ll always forgive you, coffee. You’re the best.)

Plotters, pantsers, pokers, poppers

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Yet another thing J.K. Rowling and I have in common.

In the writing world, there is often only one p-word that matters: published. But to get there, you actually have to write something. From beginning to end. Sometimes in that order! And while the path to published can have many different bumps, brusies and (hopefully) breakthroughs, the approach you take to getting there falls neatly into one of two camps: pantsers or plotters.

Writers who are pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They start with an idea, nothing more, and just write until eventually, hopefully, miraculously, it turns into a fully realized story or novel. Margaret Atwood is considered a pantser. (As a writer. I’m not sure if Margaret Atwood has, you know, pantsed someone. But who can be sure.)

Plotters, on the other hand, work with an outline. They have plot structure, characters sketches, and perhaps even a planned novel ahead of time. I think of complex works when I think of plotters (like J.K. Rowling), but I’ve heard many writers of every genre tote the merits of plotting, just as I’ve heard many authors swear only by pantsing.

I first heard these terms debated at a writing conference in Edmonton last May. I was attending a session on structure, and the accomplished panel of authors began by outting themselves as pantsers or plotters. I immediately identified my free-flowing style of writing as pantsing. Then I considered the pages and pages of outlines, character sketches and plot structure I had developed for my manuscript, and I thought, “No, I’m a plotter.” Then I realized the session had ended and I was sitting alone in a hotel conference room talking to myself.

(Of course, because everyone loves making up words, even writers, there are indeed plantsers. Those who both write by the seat of their pants and follow some sort of writing plan.)

It’s now a year later, I’m still working on that same manuscript, and I’m no longer sure what type of writer I am. Flying by the seat of your pants seems to imply some sort of accelerated motion forward, as if you’re writing at great speeds. That’s not me. That’s definitely not me. And sure, I plot (usually against people who have wronged me). But plotting doesn’t seem to increase my word count where it matters. Instead I’m spending time revising my very detailed sketch of a tertiary character. (This may actually be called procrastination.)

I think I’m a picker. I slowly pick away at writing. Or a poker. My story just pokes along. Or maybe I’m a potter. I plant a great idea, fail to find the time to water it and hope to the high heavens that it will eventually grow on its own. If there were a magic pill I could take to finish writing this book, I would be a popper. (Oh how I wished for this while writing my masters thesis.) Maybe I’m a prayer-er. As in, when it comes to finishing this novel, I haven’t got one.

Who knows. I’m starting to realize that how I write isn’t as important as what I write. And you’ll never get to the what if you don’t make time for the when. It seems simple so I will treat it as such, and just keep writing. Eventually, I’ll get there.

At least I’m not pessimistic.*

*It’s quite possible that I am also pessimistic.

Blockhead

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Hoping for a triple word score.

I like to read about writing. (I even blogged about it.) And while I enjoy reading about writing for the simple sake of reading about writing, most often I’m reading about writing because I’m having trouble writing about… anything. That sounds like writer’s block, you say? Yes, I’m familiar with the term.

During a recent writing rut, I came across some interesting advice that compared writing a shitty first draft to running a marathon. Of course my first thought was, I have never actually completed a marathon so this comparison is completely useless. My second thought was, I have never actually completed a first draft of book-length proportions, so any and all advice will do. Also, I’ve tried running and I’ve tried writing and attempting to do too much of either almost always ends in me collapsing on the floor. So in the midst of my writer’s blah (when you’re writing, but it’s all very blah) I decided to give it a try.

The gist was this: you run a marathon from start to finish (I’m told). Considering this, you wouldn’t turn around and re-run sections of the race if your pace wasn’t perfect, now would you? (Would you? I dunno.) So, when writing your shitty first draft, write from start to finish. Don’t stop, turn around and re-write certain sections of your work. Perfection is not the point when it comes to finishing your first draft. Head down, forward motion and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. (Can you hydrate during a marathon with red wine? Again, I dunno.)

This made sense. And a few wavering edits notwithstanding, this is what I’ve attempted to do. The funny thing is, it’s starting to work! The further I ramble on into my story, the easier it is to keep writing. (This is not my experience with running long distances, however, where the further I ramble on, the harder it is not to die.)

I still stumble, stop, and sometimes fall. I often have to force myself to keep going, no matter how slow the going is. Much like running, I find the anticipation of a scheduled writing hour or two much more anxiety inducing than the act of writing itself. But now that my ideas are flowing more freely, I’ve started to look forward to each new run at this writing thing.

Who knows what this means for me. Maybe I’ve found a solution to my writer’s block? Maybe I can finally finish this first draft? Maybe I should run a marathon? I don’t know, but I’m excited.

(Actually, I do know, and the answers are maybe, hopefully and not bloody likely.)

The elevator pitch

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Going up?

A funny thing happens when people learn that you’re (attempting to call yourself) a writer, and that you’re currently writing something specific. They tend to ask, “What are you writing? Is it a book?”

Of my many rambling responses, the following usually make the top three:

-Uh, I’m not sure what it is.

-It’s just silly.

-It’s nothing, really.

Then, perhaps as some form of torture, they ask, “So what’s it about?”

-Uh, I’m not sure what it’s about.

-It’s just silly.

-It’s about nothing, really.

If this sounds stupid, it’s because it is stupid. And not just because I should probably know what it is I’m writing about. (My husband says I need to work on my ‘elevator pitch’, which is apparently not the same as my desperate barrage of apologies when my kids press all the buttons in the elevator.) It’s stupid because if I can’t comfortably call myself a writer, if I can’t even talk about what I’m writing, and if I can’t imagine eventually sharing what I’m writing, then WHY AM I WRITING?

The other weekend, my husband came home from our daughter’s hockey practice and said that we should probably teach her how to accept compliments. One of our daughter’s coaches had approached her after ice time and said, “Wow, your skating has come so far!” to which she said, “Blerp-dee-blee-doo.” She may have also said, “You’re welcome.” I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but that awkward feeling of being acknowledged in any way is all too familiar.

Of course, writing isn’t exactly like receiving a compliment. It’s like punishment, actually. Someone saying, “Wow, you’re writing a book? Cool!” is like someone saying, “Wow, you’re sticking your hand in a garbage disposal? Cool!”

But still, I need to develop some level of comfort when it comes to talking out loud, to people, about writing. Keeping it bottled up inside will only lead to an explosion of sorts, like the time I met my writing mentor for the very first time. She said something like, “Hi, are you Shannon?” and my mouth erupted with every thought I’d ever had about my plot, subplot, my protagonist’s hair colour and (bizarrely, truthfully) cell phone towers.

It was like the time my husband and I took our ten-month-old to a fancy restaurant and she barfed all over the table, but instead of a seemingly endless stream of regurgitated breast milk, I was spewing random words. Either way, It’s just not healthy.

Thankfully, astonishingly, my mentor has agreed to meet with me again, in public, word spew and all. Maybe she can even help me work on my pitch.

(Our family is never, ever allowed back at that fancy restaurant, though. Like, ever.)