writing process

Skiing the trees (and book writing)

For awhile now, I’ve wanted to hone my tree-skiing skills. But it’s daunting.

Standing at the edge of a stand of the woods, it can feel impossible to find a way in. The trees seem to stack up against each other, no room for a route through.

But it’s pretty in there, among the smooth, slender aspens and wide bushy evergreens. Quiet and still, with pockets of powder that last much longer than on the groomed slopes.

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So this year, I’ve started to point my skis into the woods and see where they take me.

And I’ve discovered something amazing. Often, as soon as I’m in the woods, the trees open up, spreading out. Letting me find my way through.

It reminds me of book writing.

From the outside - the moment before you’ve actually begun the work - the project can feel impossible. Too big, too unwieldy. A thick woods that you’ll never be able to traverse.

But then, after I spend hours and days, or sometimes weeks and months, whining and distracting myself and otherwise procrastinating (am I the only one who does this?), after the thought of putting the work off feels much worse than sitting down at the desk and staring at a blank page, I finally begin.

And just like slipping into the woods, a path opens up. The words may be halting at first, but eventually they begin to flow. Ideas build and grow. Paragraphs stack up, one after another, until there are pages, chapters… and eventually, a book.

Starting is always the hardest part. And yet, as any artist knows, creative work is full of starts. Over and over, we begin again. Anew. And pray that once we’re inside, we’ll find a way through.

Which somehow, amazingly, we do.

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For the love of plants

Alice Eastwood was a self-taught botanist who published more than 310 science articles, authored 395 scientific names for land plants, and once risked her life to save her plant collection.

Alice Eastwood, circa 1910

Alice Eastwood, circa 1910

Granted, these weren't just any plants - these were type specimens: an example of a species that clearly shows that species' defining features. And there were around 1,500 of them.

But still, she risked everything to save her work.

It was 1906 in San Francisco. Early in the morning on April 18, the massive earthquake struck, resulting in widespread fires that consumed hundreds of city blocks and destroyed thousands of buildings. A small group of staff and curators with the California Academy of Sciences worked to save what they could. For Eastwood, who was procurator and head of the Biology Department, that meant entering the burning building, climbing to the sixth floor on a metal railing, and saving her type specimens. The feat was possible not just because of her bravery, but because she had used an ingenious new method to store her specimens: she had segregated the type specimens from the rest of the collection.

She still lost years of work, years of effort in the fire. But afterwards, she wrote a letter in Science that said:

"My own destroyed work I do not lament, for it was a joy to me while I did it, and I can still have the same joy in starting it again."

I can't help but think that her perspective applies, in a small way, to writing. We can spend hours crafting and cutting and writing and revising a piece that never makes it past our own computer screen. It may not be destroyed by a fire, but it's abandoned to languish in a series of 1s and 0s, or possibly in a stack of papers stuffed into a closet. 

And yet, if we have Eastwood's perspective - that though a piece may be lost, it gave us joy while we did it - well, that changes everything.

It's especially motivating for me as I consider the six books I've written over the past eight years, all of which may never see the light of day. Joy in the process, joy in creating - there's value in that alone.

And by the way, after that fire, Eastwood kept collecting. By 1942, her collection hit more than 300,000 samples... three times the number of specimens that had been lost. 

 

Alice Eastwood may have seen views like this as she led Arthur Russel Wallace up Grays Peak.

Alice Eastwood may have seen views like this as she led Arthur Russel Wallace up Grays Peak.

Magical tidying and writing books

I came a bit late to the Marie Kondo phenomenon. But as soon as I started reading her book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, I knew I could never go back.

I've always loved organizing. Getting rid of things, decluttering. But often the process was tedious. I'd stare at my closet, unable to let go of that scratchy yet fashionable gray sweater I'd never worn, or the striped skirt that wasn't exactly my style but still very practical. 

Does all of this spark joy? Probably not...

Does all of this spark joy? Probably not...

Reading Kondo's work felt revolutionary. Instead of focusing on what to toss, Kondo teaches you to focus on what to keep. And to determine what to keep, you physically hold each object and determine whether it "sparks joy."

Kondo has a whole method, which I (more or less) followed. The process was exhausting, but did result in a tidier house. (Though it still gets untidy, and requires periodic analysis of the joy-sparking ability of new things that have pushed their way in.)

One surprising benefit: I learned to trust my gut and determine what I truly loved. Not just what I might need, or what I thought I should have - but what I loved.

As Kondo writes (both in her original book and her new graphic novel, The Life-Changing Magna of Tidying Up), each of us knows immediately what "sparks joy." You can just feel it. No analysis, no pro/con list needed. It's a gut-level reaction. For me, I may smile or feel a fondness or a lightness when holding something I love.

Not my office, but I wouldn't mind if it was.

Not my office, but I wouldn't mind if it was.

Learning to listen to that little voice, to give weight to that which I love, has been helpful in my writing process. I'm not writing just to create a good, marketable story, but rather, to follow a fancy or to dip my toe in something that interests me

Writing, painting, acting - all art depends on millions of choices, one made after another. Do I dip a brush into navy or aqua? Elevate my voice or lower it for emphasis? Start a scene here or there?

It's impossible to make every choice like a master analyst. You must often go with your instinct. And amidst my piles of clothing and old papers and pots and pans, I feel I have improved my skill at doing just that.

So thank you, Marie Kondo. Not just for a tidier house. But a happier, more creative life.

 

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pixabay.com

Feed that monster

Sometimes it’s hard to write. Things come up – work, family, vacation, illness, life – and writing isn’t the easiest thing to slip into the spaces.

That’s why each of us needs our own, personal, “art monster.”

I first heard this idea from Lauren Groff, award-winning author of the novels Arcadia, Fates and Furies and more. When speaking last year, she talked about sticking with the artist’s life, even through times of crummy jobs and uncertainty.

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“It’s hard, it’s so hard to be a creative person,” Groff said.

But what gets you through the bad times, she said, is waking every day with a commitment to your art, then practicing that commitment. Even if it’s not good in the beginning (because, as Groff said and as we all know, it’s never good at the beginning). You have to keep going and know that you are good. Have faith in yourself.

And that’s where your personal art monster comes in.

“Have an art monster inside of you, and feed it and let it live. Let that art monster stomp around the house,” Groff said.

And while it’s stomping and taking up space, rearranging your life for a bit, sprawling out over your chores, shoving your “real” work to the side for a moment, it’s telling you that you are good. Saying that you’re worth it, that you can do it.

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“It’s about knowing how good you are on the inside and having that faith,” Groff said.

I collaged the idea of an art monster soon after hearing Groff, and ended up with images that reflected a sneaky, creative force, one that slips in through the night and early morning, working without being loud about, though it's still insistent and real and hungry. And while I feel those images still hold true, I’m ready for a louder monster. One that wants to do some stomping. To yell and shout. To say it’s hungry. To jump up and down, and push things around.

It’ll be hard, especially with summer and its strange schedule and extra trips and other fun stuff. But today, at least, I’ll sit for a minute and listen to that monster. And make some space for writing. Because all of us – me included – are worth it.

 

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pixabay.com