The Care and Feeding of Art

I have a full life, like most everyone else. There’s plenty to do in a given hour, stuff that doesn’t feel particularly interesting or thought-provoking but has to get done. Well and good, but I need to feed my mind in order to create my best work, even when I don’t have time to “indulge” in things that aren’t making money or managing my family’s lives.

One way I keep my head full of stories is to listen to podcasts on subjects I’m interested in. I can usually do this while I’m running or unloading the dishwasher, so it feels like multitasking. It’s fertilizer for my thought life and doesn’t cost me extra time (or money).

Another way is to read a few pages of a novel before bed (and when I say a few pages, it’s sometimes two before I sink into oblivion). I’m always working through someone else’s book, even when I’m writing my own. I used to wonder if reading while writing would cause me to plagiarise another author’s ideas. As far as I can tell, that’s a groundless fear. If anything, reading someone else’s work reminds me to use my own voice and stay true to my vision.

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Yet another way to stoke my thought life is to notice the artwork on the walls of a favorite coffee shop. I imagine what an artist was thinking as she sketched half of a face in charcoal. Before I know it, I have the vaguest glimmer of a scene in the back of my mind. Maybe I won’t use it right away, but it’ll be there waiting for me if I need it.

Feeding my mind is something I used to believe would happen in my spare time. Now I know I have to work it into my day in order to stay creative.

What about you? How do you feed your mind and stay inspired?

 

On Getting Over Creative Angst

Creatives have to take their art seriously, or no one else will. If what we’re making/writing/singing isn’t important enough to take it seriously, then why not just get the laundry done and stop messing around? After all, we’re all grown-ups here.

The irony is that taking our art too seriously also ensures that no one else will. Plus, it will be boring and un-fun to create, and we will wonder why we started all of this mess in the first place.

The trick is to take the work seriously enough that we give it space in our lives, that we bleed and sweat for it if that’s what it takes, but not so seriously that we become miserable people who can’t tell a good joke. Because art, like life, is worth working for, but it also needs a little levity to keep it from becoming insufferable.

A good way to keep from taking our art (and life) too seriously is to gain a little perspective. I don’t know how you recalibrate when you’re feeling stuck or stuck-up or struck down, but I just saw this photo my husband took in West Africa, and, yeah that did it for me.

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I get to write because I have food to eat, clothes to wear, and I live in relative safety. I get to create. It’s a wonderful, luxurious privilege I did nothing to deserve. This is what I will tell myself as I sit down to edit my manuscript.

Accidentally On Purpose

I started running last year. It was new and hard, and I was 39. I got into a routine, raced some 10K’s and a one-mile dash that made me think my heart had exploded. Running changed my perception of my body and what it could do. It made me happier, more confident. My running momentum built with each month, and I kept at it until I turned 40. I ran for three weeks after that, and then…

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Me (right) with my two sisters before a 10K in Richmond, VA

…I lost my mojo and couldn’t figure out how to get it back. I let the giant running snowball melt and evaporate.

It’s that I wrote another novel this year, I told myself, and started a new job, plus all my kids were in high school, and I can only focus on so many things. I’d see updates on my runner friends’ progress, and I’d think, I’ll get back to that someday, and if I don’t, at least I know I can do it if I want to.

But my moods.

My middle son likes to jump into things without preparing for catastrophe. He is the anti-me in this way. Life has rewarded him with some prizes for his headlong behavior as well as some serious bruises. When he told me he wanted to run a Monster Dash 5K in two weeks, I said, you haven’t trained. He said, I didn’t train last year and I won my category. I wish you’d do it with me, he said.

I stared at him.

But then I thought, maybe I should do it. Even though I haven’t run in six months, and I’d only have two weeks to prepare, and I know enough about running to know this isn’t an adequate amount of time.

Because I also know that sometimes you have to forget the plan. You have to go for it.

I completed my second three-miler today, and I didn’t have to stop. I didn’t feel like death, though my legs hurt like a son of a gun. I’m euphoric because I accidentally started running again.

Sometimes, it takes a kick in the pants or a serendipitous moment (or a middle kid) to get me back on track. Sometimes that’s better than any plan I could have come up with.

 

A Soft Answer

So much of life is about getting down to business, doing the work, not waiting for inspiration in order to accomplish tasks, etc, etc. This is true in our jobs and in our parenting.

Also? Our creative pursuits won’t find expression if we don’t commit to them. We know we have to Just Do It.

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But sometimes you “need” to do something, and you feel overwhelmed by the thought of doing it–as in you actually cannot make yourself start the thing in the first place. Even though you know the sinking feeling is only your weak mind keeping you from being disciplined. It’s Resistance, you tell yourself, as if naming it will pull out its eye teeth or something.

I’m a Christian, not a Buddhist. But I like what this guy has to say about gently accomplishing the thing you really want to get done in a day. Just that thing and nothing more. Just that thing, while breathing and letting yourself find joy in the moment you’re doing it. Just that thing, while not being driven by anxiety and dread.

So will I work on novel edits today? Will I smile at Resistance instead of trying to trick or outrun it?

Could be. Yeah, maybe I will.

 

*photo by my creative, procrastinating son

On Waking Up Again

My husband is in Africa, and I am in the U.S. with three teenagers and three dogs. I don’t worry when he’s gone, am not resentful to be the one holding down the fort, am used to a global life, etc., etc. Besides, sometimes it’s me halfway across the world, wondering if someone back home remembered to get more toilet paper.

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This time, though, I’m trying to keep the home fires burning while developing a proposal to send to literary agents. While teaching Chinese kids English in the wee hours of the morning. While teaching American high school students medieval literature and essay writing. While being a friend (and sometimes an enemy) to my own kids. While being 40.

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I’m tired.

But I’m getting good at letting things go when I need to. To wit: my kids are eating Ramen noodles and ice cream for calories, and I let my son pierce his ear at the mall yesterday. I’m not scared to use Z-quil at bedtime (if, for example, I happen to eat a large handful of chocolate covered espresso beans for “snack” and find myself alarmingly alert at 9 P.M.).

This is real life. It’s possible to keep going strong if I let it be what it is: imperfect and good enough.

On Surviving ‘Big Opportunities’ Part Deux

I’m back from the ACFW conference. After going to bed at 9 p.m. for the last two nights, I feel like I might be getting back to normal (it’s a process that involves a little crying here and there). The conference was rewarding, but it pushed this introvert fairly far as I shook hands, flashed my lanyard, and explained what my novel is about to people waiting to tell me about theirs. Each night I fell asleep with my mouth open, Golden Girls blaring on the hotel TV, while other conferees partied and swapped business cards.

Some takeaways: be prepared that your best laid plans might not be the ones you stick with, and that’s okay. Be nice to people, just because, and let them be nice to you. Don’t keep eating the spicy dessert because you can’t think of anything to say to the table full of strangers.

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More takeaways: my novel is interesting to agents. I will have to write a proposal. It’s good to be humble, but it’s also good to put yourself out there. Just because you want to keep “creative control” doesn’t mean you can’t compromise in order to get some help. Everyone defaults to Facebook when it comes to social media and building a brand except for one person, and she said YouTube was better. I’m trying to decide which of those I find more horrifying.

Final takeaways: my teenagers got taller in four days. God is good to me. I really, really like my own bed.

Choosing Which Stories to Tell (And Which Ones to Leave)

As a writer, I can tell my own story, but what if I want to write about someone else’s life, and they don’t want me to? Is that okay?

Recently, I attended a talk by author Ann Patchett where she discussed both her fiction and non-fiction works. She said her friends and family never really “discovered” themselves in her novels, though their shadows haunted her literary landscape. But in her non-fiction? Hoo, boy. People saw themselves, alright. And some of them got mad.

Patchett had to decide how much to tell when she wrote about real people, had to weigh the cost of telling the truth as she saw it. In the end, she’d decided to write no holds barred, and it cost her some relationships.

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Me? I’m not sure it’s okay to write about someone who’s still living without asking permission first. Even if their life affected mine. Even if I I know big things. (There are exceptions. Another topic for another day).

We need more truth in this world, not less. But truth seasoned with love and, often, restraint.

Stories are powerful, and they can be true even when they aren’t. In my novels, I can call things like I see them. I can tell a true story in a way that keeps hurt feelings out of the mix. I can be honest without burning the town down.

This is important because, in the end, writing isn’t ultimate for me. It can’t take the place of flesh and blood people, and it’s often not worth hurting others for. So I’ve decided if I really need to say something sensitive, I’ll put it in the mouth of someone I (kind-of, maybe) made up.

 

The Novelist

If everything is story (and I believe it is), how do we make sense of the thousands of narratives we encounter?

When my hairstylist tells me about a teacher she knows whose son was killed in a school shooting, that’s a story. But what does it mean?

How I explain stories to myself reveals a lot about me. What you do with the stories in your world says something about you, too.

To wit:

Are we all living in a giant, super-complex novel with thousands of tiny subplots? Are all the little stories part of one grand narrative? Or are they disconnected snippets that lead to nowhere?

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If they’re connected, then someone, somewhere, is the Novelist, and we are mere characters. Which means, of course, that while our lives feel extremely important to us, they can’t be the Ultimate Meaning of the Universe. They are part of a bigger story.

Furthermore, if there is a Novelist writing our lives, we characters won’t understand or accept everything that goes down in our worlds because we aren’t as in charge as we’d like to believe. Which sounds positively unAmerican, I know.

Of course, if our stories are disconnected and random, they only have the meaning we assign to them–nothing more.

What say you?

Do you chafe at the idea that Someone might be writing your story? Your neighbor’s story? If there is a Novelist, are we characters responsible for what we do? Are we to blame when we do bad things?

Do you blame characters in the books you read?

 

 

 

On Teaching Students (and Myself)

I teach writing to high school students. Yesterday was our first day back to class, and I gave my freshman a little assignment to start things off. Nothing heavy. Just a topic sentence derived from something about which they already know a lot and three sentences that support it.

Everyone knows something about something, I said. You can write about Fortnite.

I could tell within a few minutes which of my students will fight the writing process this year, and which won’t.

That seems a little presumptive, you say. You don’t know them yet.

Right, but–here I go again with my groups–there are two kinds of students : 1). the kind that dive in and try, haltingly, maybe, even if they don’t really know what they’re doing, and 2). the kind that stare at the teacher in mental anguish (or boredom).

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I have compassion for these kids. There was a time when I didn’t because I taught what I wasn’t doing on a daily basis–i.e. staring down a blank page and pushing past the nothing.

Now I know how hard it is.

It’s going to be okay, I want to tell my kids. There is no way out but through. You will learn by doing, by giving yourself permission to be bad at something for a while. It will hurt, but it will make you better.

(You might even like it).

I will say all of those things, and more, probably. Most of my students won’t believe me, and that’s okay. We learn through experience. And, sometimes, we don’t notice the learning because it happens while we’re trying to escape our own weakness.

But it happens.

 

From 40 Years Old, With Love

Two of my kids are enrolled in high school and college at the same time. This wasn’t a thing when I was in school, but it’s all the rage now. Since my oldest only has a driver’s permit, he can’t take his younger brother to their college campus without a licensed driver (read: mom) in the car.

So here I sit on a blue chair in a recently painted hallway, watching college students act bored before class. I feel one million years older than they are and, yet, I’m surprised when they ignore me and my laptop. Because, seriously, I’m as cool as they are, and maybe even cooler. I dress cute, and I dye my hair, so they can’t know how much gray I have.

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But then I catch a glimpse of myself in the window and, yes, okay…

I’m working through edits of my novel, a chapter at a time, while I wait for my sons to get out of class. I may not be young (Are the 80’s back? because that’s what it looks like from this chair), but I know what to do with my time. I know how to be productive.

How many of these kids have no idea what they’re doing in school or life? Which, fine. They have time to figure it out.

But if this saggy face is the price I had to pay for finally figuring out what I want to do when I grow up, and how to do it, I’ll take it.

Yes, my nonchalant kiddies, I’ll take it.

And I hope the same happiness for you, someday.