A playful approach to revision

Lately I have been making tiny steps forward in my writing. The most effective strategy for me to be able to write anything is to NOT look at the news or social media. Because the news is so terrifying on so many levels (with the occasional flash of hope for something better in the future… which is almost painful given the circumstances), I can’t quit reading the news. But if I want to get anything done, I need to try to do my work before I let myself peek at the latest scenes from this slow-motion disaster. There are true villains in this drama, and I am also carving out time to try to change that by working with Vote Save America, which provides some solace, at least, to know I am not alone in wanting something better.

So anyway, that is step one for me to get writing done. But the other challenge is the same challenge as always: I just don’t feel as excited about revising my writing as I do writing first drafts. When I write first drafts, I am a rock star. I am creating something new and amazing. When I am revising, I feel like the lowest form of life imaginable. I can’t believe how much is missing or poorly executed. You won’t be surprised to hear that procrastination is a challenge right now.

I have found this blog a useful accountability partner, so I may start posting progress reports on here again. So for today, I want to remind myself of the ways I can make revision feel more creative and rewarding.

1. Journaling.
I love journaling, free writing, brainstorming. It goes hand-in-hand with my love of writing first drafts, I guess. There is no standard to achieve when I journal. It’s just a chance to let the ideas flow. And it seems to cheer me up if I tell myself, okay, journal a bit about what you are going to write or revise today, and then you can journal afterwards on how it went. If I journal specifically about the novel, I call it process-writing, and keep those notes in the same Scrivener file as the novel. If I journal more generally, that part stays in my journal file on Ulysses.

2. Timers
I know that timers are a source of torture for some people, but I have found it inspiring to set a timer to see how much I can get done within a time limit. This works with fresh drafts, yes, but it is a powerful tool with revision because it helps me commit to the moment rather than pondering ways to procrastinate. I can also count on the time running out, and then finding some small reward. Or even better, to get so wrapped up in the work that I keep writing, even though the time ran out.

That’s the irritating thing about my reluctance to revise. It’s so doable. If I can just start, I discover all sorts of ways back into the work, little fixes that are easy to make.

3. Reread my work.
Sometimes, when I feel most resistant to the work, I say, okay, that’s fine, why not just reread it? Just by reading over what I’ve written, I usually find myself making changes. It’s super easy and doable. It also helps to read the work aloud, but I tend to save that for editing, not revising.

4. Creative writing prompts
I love working on writing exercises from creative writing books. I think there are probably tons available online or via apps, now, too. It is perhaps what I miss most when I am trying to be disciplined about focusing on one main project. But creative writing prompts can be applied to revision, too.

5. Switching Point of View
If there is a section that needs work, I can try writing it from a different point of view to see what happens.

6. Conversations with the characters
I can write a conversation with a character asking them for advice on a section. Sometimes they are wiser than I am. And it’s just fun, too.

Takeaway: Be playful.

I have to admit that I prefer to approach writing with a sense of play rather than with some serious, grim Calvinistic demeanor. It is the joy of creative play that draws me to this work. It seems to me revising should be, or could be, just as playful as writing the first draft.

So my goal this week is to find ways to enjoy and look forward to the time I spend revising. I will report back here now and then on my progress.

I hope you all are finding ways to write, too, and possibly to find moments of joy in defiance of all that is so grim right now.

Image woman with burning paper

Writing during a pandemic

The appropriate content for such a title should be a blank space. How can I write while trying to make sense of the What If’s and the What Actually’s of this pandemic?

It is an irony that I now have more time to write thanks to an extended spring break at the university where I work part-time, yet it is harder than usual to write. I open up my laptop, intending to work on something, anything, but instead I find myself bouncing from Twitter, to Washington Post, to the New York Times, with a dash of NPR and the New Yorker. Hours pass. My daughter comes in, wanting to go to the climbing gym, and I jump. Doesn’t she know what’s going on? Doesn’t she know all the permutations of social distancing and how we are all supposed to act as if we might be contagious if we have any hope of preventing… I take a breath or two before I speak. But that was a few days ago. In less than a week, enough has changed that she knows almost as much as I do because everything is closing down. And everything that was normal to do even a day before is now inappropriate or somehow sinister. And as I both planned and feared, I can’t visit my mother at her assisted living center for the foreseeable future.

I would say it is distracting if it weren’t such a failure to find the right word. All-consuming? Immobilizing? Unlike an approaching hurricane, this disaster inches forward, and in my country, invisibly until testing is universally available.

Yesterday I took a break from pandemic news to read a nice NY Times Article about how to manage procrastination. The author shared the theory that we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. And he shared other tips to manage procrastination that reminded me of some of my favorite strategies. What was most helpful for me was to journal about the emotions that are interfering with my writing right now. Nervousness about what is happening. Even more than that, a FOMO (fear of missing out) in which I worry that there will be some important announcement that I need to know that I won’t know if I don’t constantly check the news and Twitter. Even worse, sometimes that seems to be the case. I took a much needed nap the other day and woke to find out that the governor was closing schools for the next two weeks.

So how to get myself to write when I am torn between staring at my screen with dark circles under my eyes or hiding under my covers? I will fall back on some of my old favorites. Write first. When in doubt, write first. Even if I cheat and look at one or two headlines, stop and write first. Looking at Twitter, for example, could be a reward after I get some work done.

Right now, I can’t stop thinking that I should check news reports more than once a day, but I could deliberately limit how long I allow myself to do so.

Finally, I have been remembering my first year of teaching middle school, years ago. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, and for the first few months, I would replay almost everything that happened in my head, constantly trying to figure out what I should do differently. At some point, I realized that I was obsessing about work every minute of the day. While I am all for reflective practice, I had to admit that I wasn’t gaining any benefit from endlessly worrying about how my job was going. So I made it a goal to stop work at a certain time each day, including thinking about work. And what helped me the most in stopping the overthinking was to pick up a favorite book to read and force myself to dive into another world.

So, that’s my plan for now. Write first, set time limits each time I peek at the news, and read for fun once I declare my work day over.

Write on, my friends. And hang on. May we find reason for hope in the face of so much to fear.

Path

Clearing a path forward

I am glad to report that I am finding my way back to the words, though my progress could best be described as uneven. After spending a few weeks mostly journaling and blogging, I have decided to shift priorities. My top priority each day is to spend time revising my YA SF novel and to train on how to use my newly purchased Serif Affinity Designer app to help me, eventually, develop a new nonfiction project. Or perhaps it will just be a hobby, in case I’m not satisfied with what I’m able to create. I’ve realized that it may take some time to feel comfortable with this app, and I’m more motivated if I can approach this learning process with a sense of play rather than a sense of urgency. So call it a chance to dabble with an artistic tool each day, regardless of where it leads.

Now that blogging is less of a priority, I’ve decided to save time each Monday so that I post at least once a week. It seems like an achievable goal. Maybe?

At least it’s achievable today, and that counts for something. It is Monday, and the week lies before me, glimmering with opportunity. I take one step forward. And another.

Crumpled papers

Don’t overthink.

So today I will write on my most recent affirmation, which is “Don’t overthink.”

Which means, I guess, I should end this post right now so I avoid overthinking about why I shouldn’t overthink. Perhaps like many affirmations, success is not guaranteed :).

Why this affirmation? Recently I was second guessing all of my choices as a writer, as well as questioning the wisdom of submitting my writing for publication. There are many good reasons for doubt. There is no perfect choice of what to write or where to submit. Rejection is not much fun, especially because it is often justified yet simultaneously a result of the randomness of the selection process.

Indeed, I have been on enough hiring committees to know that wonderful candidates can be passed over mostly due to the random alchemy of views and biases of the committee members, of the way one quality is sought over another, and a lot of what I might call the quirks of the moment. It is not really a logical process, though we all go through the motions of trying to be logical and fair. We try. The people who reject my writing (and there aren’t many because I don’t submit my writing often) try to make the best judgement based on the moment. It’s not them. But it’s also not necessarily me. So  I stare at this random mix of meaning and meaninglessness, and think, hmm, maybe I shouldn’t play this game?

But then I come back to this. I need to write. Every day is better if at some point I spend even a few minutes with the words. So I can’t choose what to write based on what might be published. Instead, I need to write what I need to write. Don’t overthink it. And now and then, submit into the void, remembering it’s a void. Just because I don’t know what will happen, or that there are risks within both rejection and success, doesn’t mean I should back off. I have to tap into my courage, tinged with humility. I offer my ideas, my hopes, my reflections, my jokes, and even my grief into the void. I don’t have to be in control of what happens after that.

Just write, I whisper to myself, and to anyone else who is listening. Don’t overthink.

Balloon hovering above water

Courage + Humility

Writing about my affirmations must have been helpful because I have found my way back to the words lately, spending more time revising my novel than posting on my blog. Still, I would like to continue to share some affirmations that have aided me in the past and perhaps present.

This one is not a catchphrase as much as a juxtaposition: Combine courage with humility.

Courage makes sense as a value to embrace, especially for a writer. So often, writing involves the effort to capture ideas in print only to be disappointed by how my words fall short of my vision. It can certainly be discouraging, and then the editing process involves hitting my head against flaws in my writing again and again and again and again… I can look a thousand times and still find more to fix. And that doesn’t even touch on the experience of submitting my writing for publication, which involves what feels like endless opportunities for rejection.

Courage is essential. Yet humility is essential, too. I have to keep in mind that whatever vision I bring to my work will always be partial. There will always be something I am missing, either in my understanding or in my efforts to share this understanding. Any amount of success can do more harm than good if I lose the ability to listen and watch for what I don’t know or for where I am falling short. Indeed, the more I come to know, the more I become aware of what I don’t know.

Humility is what brings the greatest insights to me, the greatest opportunities for transformation. Yet humility exists in tension with courage. Courage requires a boldness, a devil-may-care attitude that is the antithesis of humility, which suggests hesitation and observation.

Within that tension, perhaps, is the energy necessary to tackle the many obstacles inherent to writing… and living a meaningful life.

mountains

Where you’re meant to be

Yesterday I set to work editing my novel after leaving it alone for several months, other than a short research trip to study possible locations for the setting. It felt good to revisit the words, even though I know I have my work cut out for me to fix this rough first draft. Blogging about past affirmations has helped me get to this point, even though the doubts I have been experiencing didn’t have much to do with this specific book, but rather the larger project of sharing words with a world that may find good reason to criticize those words and/or me for writing them. It’s not an unreasonable fear.

Today’s affirmation is one that came to me in college when I was second-guessing all of my life’s choices, including being at that particular college. I certainly believe there are times when we need to evaluate our situation and make a change, including moving away or starting over. But this was not that kind of moment, just a more general worry that I was supposed to be doing Something Else Somewhere Else, an existential FOMO (fear of missing out) that the life I was supposed to be living was passing me by.

What helped me was listening to the Beatles’ song, “Love is all you need,” which, dear Millennials, was not my generation’s music because I am an okay Gen Xer :), thank you very much. But the Beatles are worth a listen no matter what generation you are. Love is an essential lens with which to view the world, but the line that helped me the most was this one: “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”

Maybe I didn’t have to question every choice. Maybe I didn’t have to have all the right answers or make all the right moves. Maybe I could find my way where I am rather than look for it somewhere else. Maybe the journeys that call to me have nothing to do with my physical location. Maybe I am meant to be here right now doing what I am doing. Maybe I will start to see why and what as I move forward.

It helped then, and it helps now. The risk of criticism and rejection is part of the writing life; whatever happens in this process may be meant to be. Criticisms and rejections can teach me something that I might need to learn, sometimes to revisit what I have written to see how to make it better or to revision what I choose to write in the future. And sometimes what I learn is to grit my teeth, dig in my heels, and write anyway.

Slow Down

Today’s affirmation arrived over a decade ago. I was attending a professional development workshop that included an optional visualization activity in which you identify an obstacle to your success. For me, the obstacle itself was unclear, but my reaction was to whisper to myself, “Slow down.”

Those words made sense to me. In order to achieve goals that matter to me, I need to slow down rather than hurry up. Not stop. Not avoid. Not hide. Keep working but accept that it takes time for the work to unfold. It reminds me of when I took art classes and the goal was to look again and again at the model to see what I was missing in my attempt to draw what was in front of me. It took hours.

I’ve heard and read similar advice in recent years for writers specifically. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard not to feel a bit sulky about this advice. I don’t want to slow down. I want to be some kind of super-writer, soaring across the pages, generating enviable daily word counts that amaze every reader. Every reader! (Ha. I had to rewrite that phrase because it reminds me of another thing that makes me sulky as a writer is the fact that I won’t be able to connect with every reader. In fact, the only way to connect with every reader is to say almost nothing, and that seems, um, pointless.)

This advice also reminds me, at least as a caution, of one of my favorite pieces of advice from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He describes a man leaning his ladder against a wall and climbing up the ladder as fast as possible. The man appears to be moving quickly, but what good is this effort if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? In time management terms, you have to slow down at least long enough to find the right wall. Make sure that your efforts are leading you in the right direction.

I suppose this affirmation relates well for where I am right now. I have been taking stock of my writing and re-assessing next steps. It makes me feel restless and uprooted. I am much happier when I am in the thick of a longer writing project. The direction is set, and I can move forward, sometimes quite rapidly. Even then, though, I reach a point when the work grows unwieldy, and I have to navigate more choices and search for changes to make it better. No matter where I am in the process, I always observe other writers generating a constant flow of polished, published works while I move at what is sometimes a snail’s pace within an endless round of not-yet-finished drafts.

Our culture is not a fan of slowing down. I am a bit amused by the memes of people outraged that someone in front of them in traffic is moving more slowly than necessary. The sight of someone paying by check rather than a card seems to wound the people waiting in line at the grocery store. The assumption is that if we aren’t moving quickly, we are falling behind.

But what if the only way to do something well, to say what you mean to say, to fix a problem rather than put a band-aid on it, is to move slowly, thoughtfully, forward? Of course there will be moments when the best response is a quick response, especially in an emergency. And then there’s the siren song of procrastination, so I guess I need to remember that slowing down is not the same as NOT doing the work. It is okay to be slow. This is not a race, not if “this” is something meaningful.

Let others pelt down paths that might lead nowhere. Find your own path. Take one step forward. Another. Breathe. That one step forward is the destination, no matter how small or gradual the movement.

Fear happens.

I continue to review affirmations from my past and how they might support me in the writing life.

When I was teaching middle school long ago, I often pondered the role of fear in attempting something new or challenging. There is a slogan “Feel the fear and do it anyway” that seemed to describe that point in my life, teaching and writing, both of which included a healthy amount of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of looking incompetent in public. All of which I nailed, dear reader.

I don’t know where I first heard that phrase, so I googled it just now and discovered a book by that title, which I have not read. I also found an article in Psychology Today discussing pitfalls that can accompany embracing this strategy without nuance. So… let’s leave that slogan aside. I admit I did not find it the most inspiring of affirmations. I like the “Do it anyway” part. I’m all for trying new things and taking calculated risks. But focusing on my fear wasn’t always beneficial.

So looking back on it, I will rename this affirmation to “Fear happens.” It’s not great. It’s not always what we want to feel. But it is neither unusual nor insurmountable. Sure, fear happens. As a police officer in a TV show might say, “Move on. Nothing to see here.”

So when I write, perhaps I can just accept that sometimes there is reason to feel fear. Breathe. Then get back to work.

You are a rock star

Today again I want to blog about one of the affirmations that helped me in the past. I have to admit that this title is actually a G-language version of the actual affirmation.

It might help to explain that I was at a point of transition in my life, shifting from one attempted career/life path to something new that I hadn’t yet fully identified. I didn’t quite articulate it then, but one source of concern was the awareness that I was not meeting the unstated (but well-advertised) standards of success for an adult. I didn’t have a car, let alone a fancy one (I didn’t want one). I didn’t live in an exciting city (I had, but I left). I didn’t go out for cocktails each night or brunch on the weekends with a group of dynamic, articulate, sparkling friends (I had a small circle of wonderful friends, and sometimes we played cards together). When I told people the jobs I had done as well as what I was considering for the future, I received blank or confused looks. My career/life goals didn’t fit their expectations.

I spent some time reflecting on why I had done what I had done, what I valued and what I didn’t value (cars and TV-viewing are actively harming our planet, imho), and how I had taken risks that led me to new and interesting places. Instead of feeling bad about myself for not fitting into other people’s expectations of success, I started to see what was courageous and ethical about my own choices. So I realized I should tell myself every day, girl, you are a rock star.

I have to admit that I’m a bit uneasy with this affirmation right now. I am still happy with what I have done and the choices I have made, but I also know I don’t like to be the source of anyone else’s envy. Indeed, I am always reluctant to go into any kind of competitive situation with an advantage. But maybe I need to remember that this was not about my telling myself I was better than anyone else. We are all rock stars… we all get to define what rock star status is, and we do not have to accept anyone else’s definition.

If I try to lean into this affirmation to aid me in rekindling my faith in myself as a writer, well, maybe that could work. I am a rock star writer because I am bold enough to spend time writing.

Maybe. It is a struggle right now to imagine writing with confidence. Even worse, it seems to me that when I do so, I generate cliches rather than subtle insights. A lack of confidence helps me interrogate my word choices.

Then again, maybe it’s similar to the mindset of drafting versus the mindset of editing. When I write fresh drafts, I am a rock star. When I am editing, I am a rock star’s manager, rolling my eyes a bit and trying to see what we can salvage.

Either way, I am following my dreams.

Why not embrace the metaphor? I picture myself now standing on a stage, thankfully one of my own creation. I am bathed in the lights, energized by the feeling that this moment could last forever. I am lifted aloft by the words, one after another. When I write, there is nothing else I need.

Rock on.

laptop

Relaxed and happy

So one of my oldest affirmations, or perhaps, quasi-affirmation, or well, if I am honest, this was my mission statement in 1994, so I was young, and this sentence is now violating so many grammar rules that I think I will start again. Ahem. One of my oldest affirmations is “Be relaxed and happy like that woman we met in the grocery store.”

Impressive, hmm? Clear as mud. So a mission statement is a statement of what you want to be in the moment, not what you want to accomplish or possess. Around the time I was developing this mission statement, my now-husband and I ran into this woman he knew in a grocery store, and she was super relaxed and laughing as we chatted with her, and I thought, yes, that’s how I would like to be.

It wasn’t all I wanted to accomplish, but there was something admirable about not tackling every activity with a turbo charge but rather taking a breath and appreciating that which brings joy rather than focusing only on that which elicits sorrow, rage, or despair.

As I mentioned, I am revisiting my affirmations to bolster my commitment to writing, so I might explore briefly what this affirmation could mean for me as a writer. Relaxing instead of writing would not be what I want, but relaxing as I tackle my writing projects could be beneficial. What if I allow my writing to be a way to relax and smile, to celebrate the moment?

Can I make progress on anything if I am relaxed and happy as I work? Such an approach defies the Puritan work ethic. Can the act of writing be something positive and fulfilling? Can some of the issues I want to unpack be serious and consequential, at least to me, yet the work itself still allow me to be relaxed and happy? Can I be a caring, engaged part of the greater community and be relaxed and happy? At least, some of the time?

I know that my being stressed and miserable does not help anyone else, and it tends to undermine my ability to support others or create anything worthwhile. Being relaxed and happy does not mean I am not pursuing ongoing growth and improvement. Nor do I have to pretend that it is possible to be relaxed and happy all the time, nor that writing isn’t sometimes a difficult and frustrating activity. Indeed, as I think about it, what I most need is not necessarily to feel relaxed every time I write, but to relax rather than worry about what I am writing or where it is leading. Or how long it takes to get there.