Step Away from that Keyboard!

Step Away from that Keyboard!

I had the pleasure of participating on two panels at this past weekend’s Austin SCBWI conference, where we were asked for advice for writers. Very wise tips were shared: Read a lot, write a lot, find critique partners, attend conferences and workshops, be willing to revise, etc. While the mic slowly passed my way, I flashed back to the past couple of crazy-busy years and how the isolation of work, work, work, and school, school, school has taken its toll. All this sitting! All this staring at a computer! All this time away from life! Of course, it will all feel worth it once books are in my hand and I walk across a certain stage in a matter of months. We’re allowed to feel exhausted sometimes, right? My extended crunch time has been filled with so many wonderful things. But, it occurred to me that, though I have collected project ideas the way people stockpile batteries and water during wartime, even my ideas could be jeopardized by my hyper-focus.

Our best ideas come to us when we are NOT trying to create something. There’s a reason little gifts of wonder hit us when we’re driving, in the shower, at a yoga class, or miles away from our workspace. Creativity comes during down time, which happens to be when our brains stockpile sensory, logical, creative, and social memory. How else could we remember the thrill of our favorite childhood games, or the sound of wind through trees, the smell of rain, the velvety touch of a calf’s muzzle, or the thorny stems of the neighbor’s forbidden rose bush?  What does it feel like to zip-line down, climb up, run away? What are the emotions of seeing Niagara Falls, or riding a roller coaster, or the heartbreak of teen break-ups? And what about the many ways people act and react with each other? The more life we live, the more energized we will be. And, bonus, those experiences will infuse the stories we write.

My inarticulate advice to the 200-plus conference attendees was actually introspective advice to myself, and I’m determined to take heed:

Step away from that computer!

Experience new things. Allow yourself time to be aimless. Do something silly with your family and friends. Do nothing at all. People-watch. Embrace a new hobby. Get lost!

Cave

Explore. Allow yourself to imagine.

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Leap out of joy.

Goose friend

Make new friends

Bird's nest

Be awed by life.

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Be still and observe.

whimsy pen

Look for whimsy everywhere!

Give yourself a break, physically, emotionally, and creatively. When you return to the page, you will be more energized and full of the stuff of writing magic.

Be Brave

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? –Vincent Van Gogh

Writing is a scary endeavor, don’t you think? There’s that frightful
blank page staring at us, taunting us, daring us; then the first
sentence; the first paragraph; the first page; the ending; and all those
paramount decisions we make to fill the space between. Our nerves quake
against the inner critic with a dialog stuck on repeat: What if I can’t
do this? What if the world finds out I’m a fraud? What if I’m too
scared? What if the reviews are hurtful-or true? Every time we face the
page, we are taking risks. Big, potentially-career-changing risks. Damn
right, we’re scared. Or… maybe it’s just me?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I dip my pen in the blackest ink, because I am not afraid of falling into my inkpot.”

Well, good for ole Ralph! But I’m currently knee-deep in research for
two books I’m writing for an education publisher, and I am a tiny bit
afraid. Partly because of the reeeally short deadlines, and partly
because I’ve agreed to write about subjects that deserve the utmost
sensitivity and respect. And I know very little about them. Yikes!

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My declaration of independence/badge of courage

I instinctively reached for my version of the Cowardly Lion’s badge
of courage. Ain’t it purdy? See, a million years ago, in 1994, I
suffered a slobbery, whimpery, crushing heartbreak. You know the kind. I
was a weak-kneed wreck until I ran out of tears. One day, the cosmic
switch flipped and I found my sea-legs again. I dressed up in my
favorite white suit with a red belt and red pumps (you can tell this was
pre-writing career.) I trekked to the nearest jewelry store and zeroed
in on this pendant. The cute panda on the front wasn’t the draw. The
back, however, was engraved 1994. Sold! Originally, I called it my
declaration of independence. I know, I know… corny, right? This piece of
gold and credit card balance had a purpose: to remind me to never be a
human door mat again; to stop hiding behind insecurity; to take risks;
to be brave!
Gaining-Courage1
This symbolic shot of courage has been with me through tough times
and triumphant times, in my writing life, and my personal life. I tend
to reach for it when I’m feeling anxious, or vulnerable, or just plain
scared. Like when I hiked the glacial ice fields miles above Juneau,
Alaska; scuba-dived in various oceans; white-water-rafted; blew both
knees in skiing trips; submitted to agents; collected rejections; gave
my heart away again. I do think we need to step outside our comfort
zones sometimes, to remind us we are alive.

Andre Gide, recipient of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature wrote, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
I love that, don’t you?

I’ve struggled to push myself out of my comfort zone (aka the shore)
at the page. I’m not alone, right? The best stories come from weaving
our souls into the stories we tell. It would be easier not to dig that
deep. I am in awe of all you mega-talented authors who stare down the inner critic to test
boundaries.  Art takes courage.

DSC03097Last month, I survived a sweltering weeklong Boy Scout camp in
Arkansauna with 150 sweaty Y-chromosome-beings, a bazillion ticks and
spiders, and nights full of creepy crawlies that wandered in and out of
my tent and my bedding. It was uncomfortable, but doable. But, when I faced the multi-stage high-wire COPE (Challenge Outdoor Personal Experience) course, I got scared. The voice of doubt rang in my ears, “You’re crazy! You’re too old,
You’re not fit enough, strong enough, tough enough! And, oh-my-gawd,
that’s high!”

I learned something from the effort, from teetering and wobbling on the edge: 1) always
look ahead; 2) tell yourself YOU CAN; 3) Remember that someone is watching your back, and 4) Breathe! Sounds a bit like a writing career, doesn’t it?

An unfamiliar scout dad left his son behind and followed my progress
through the various stages of the course. He hollered up to me at one
point, “I don’t know many women who would try that.”
“It’s my year to be brave,” I said.

And it still is.
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Let’s all be brave, my friends.

Madeleine L’Engle once quipped, “When we were children, we used
to think that when we were grown-ups we would no longer be vulnerable.
But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…To be alive is to be
vulnerable.

Smart woman, that Madeleine!

We Are Enough-With or Without Awards

It’s February now which means the two most
celebrated events of the year have passed. What did I think about the
commercials? Meh! But, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation,
rooting for my favorite players.  Yes, indeed! (Oh, and I hear Super
Bowl was pretty good, too.)

The ALA media and book awards featured
some impressive titles this year. If you’ve been around the writing
scene for any length of time, you know how much stock goes into earning a
gold sticker. The bragging rights, the added publicity, the bonuses.
Bully for winning authors and illustrators! Now, raise your hand if
you’ve ever fantasized about being on the receiving end of one of these
fancy-schmancy awards. Go ahead, don’t be shy. It’s human nature for
“what ifs” and “if onlys” to dart through our minds when peers reach a
pinnacle. Envy is empathy’s first-cousin, twice-removed. They will both
show up to public gatherings.
 There’s a big ole risk to paying too much
attention to awards, though.  It would be easy to fall into thinking
that we are not enough without one. But, at the end of the day, the most
important judges are young readers and they’re not looking for award
lists. They just know what they like. Sometimes, the books they love and
need reside in a different county from the awards table. Those books
will inspire and give hope to young people. Some will be
life-preservers. So, while award winners and honorees are announced,
let’s give a mighty salute to the books, authors, and illustrators who
are not mentioned. Gold stickers would be awesome, but our best
heart-felt works are enough. We are enough.
 I’m always reminded of a line from the 1993 Disney flick, Cool Runnings,
loosely based on the first Jamaican bobsled team to pursue the
Olympics. The coach, Irv, is asked by a team member about his own early
mis-steps in pursuit of Gold.
“Derice,” Irv says, “a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”

“Hey, Coach,” Derice asks. “How will I know if I’m enough?”

“When you cross that finish line tomorrow, you’ll know.”
Cool Runnings
In my mind, out ultimate finish line is our books in a child’s hands.

Just for the heck of it, I asked auntie Google the
greatest related question ever asked in the history of the world. Why do writers
write? Turns out, there are lots of opinions. One website, Authors Promoter,
apparently polled 100 published authors. They posted their statistics:
15% of authors write to express themselves, 13% write to help others, 8%
write because of their imagination, 6% write because they were
influenced by authors they read, etc. You can check out the full pie-chart here, but may I just say that I like that last category.
Auntie Google was such a hoot, I pulled a few craft
books off my shelves and thumbed through to find more answers to that
question, why do you write? Thankfully, I read with a highlighter in hand, so these stand out quotes were easy to find.
Journalist/novelist, Joan Didion states, “I
write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I
see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
  
Smart lady, that Joan.
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In her book, What’s Your Story? Marion Dane Bauer writes, “Stories
help us to make sense of our world. They teach us what is possible.
They let us know that others before us have struggled as we do.”
and
“The first and best reason for writing stories is to please yourself”
F. Scott Fitzgerald saw writing as a leap of faith when he professed,  “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”
Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “You have to write the
book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult
for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
 Amen, sister!
In his book, On Writing, Stephen King reveals, “I
have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on
the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on
the side- I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing.
And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
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And, as if coaching writers from afar, King adds a lesson about passion:
 “You can approach the act of writing with
nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair-the sense that you
can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You
can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed,
ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you
want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come
to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come
lightly to the blank page.”
I think John Erickson, author of the Hank the Cowdog series best sums up the importance of motivation in his book, Story Craft:
 “It often happens that when we try to write
something “important” such as a novel, story, or poem, we become
self-conscious. We try to be profound and authorial. We concentrate on
the elegance of individual sentences and forget that all writing is a
communication between one person to another.”
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So, there you go. It’s just us and the readers we
are communicating with. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s quite
enough.

This post originally appeared on the Emus Debuts blog, February 17, 2014.