Inserting A New Routine Into An Old Habit

Well, the summer is almost over and as the cooler nights breeze over my sweaty skin (it has been a particularly HOT summer in The Greater Toronto Area), I am feeling hopeful that I may soon return to my beloved writing. After a challenging few months, my life is slowly but surely quieting, or at least approaching what I suspect will be my new normal and I expect to be pumping out regular posts in the near future. In the meantime, I have once again asked my friend, Heidi Croot, to share what she sees as her biggest obstacle in producing the kind of writing she yearns to produce.

Inserting a new routine into an old habit

By: Heidi Croot

As a business writer struggling to find my inner writer’s voice, I seek advice everywhere, from great authors to beginning writers alike. None of them tells me what I want to hear: that one day I will wake, lift my pen, and begin writing—the business mantle miraculously lifted from my shoulders, the creative mantle just as magically applied.

What every one of them does say, dag nab it all, is “write something every day.”

Much as I might wish otherwise, I know that business writing does not count.

Nor does journaling count: not my type of journaling anyway. Like many writers, I keep a journal for whinging and whining about life’s woes, and occasionally celebrating the many blessings in my life. These entries are rough and personal, meant to bleed off the darkness and stay in darkness. They are not meant for honing.

My other journals are even less appropriate: the one I keep to record my exercise workouts, for example. Another to catalogue what I serve guests for dinner, used to inspire future menus and avoid repeating mistakes. Another to corral compelling quotes from books and magazines. Another to capture elusive ideas at night. Another to keep track of conversations with, and activities in aid of, my mother. My copious travel journals. And perhaps the most functional of all, the journal I’ve been opening in Microsoft Office Word every morning for 15 years to record my business activities, and on which I depend to accurately bill my clients each month.

Clearly, I have journals aplenty in my life, just not one that fosters creative writing.

And that’s when it hits me, like a big wet fish across the chops. I have a habit that works. Why not insert a new routine into a decades-old pattern of activities that I’ve proved can meet my needs?

What, I ask myself, if I were to open a second Word file each morning? What if I call it, simply, Creative Writing: September 2012? What if I leave it open on my desktop—obvious, insistent, tantalizing—until I fulfill my promise to “write something every day”? And what if, at the end of each daily offering, I jot ideas to juice the next day, perhaps even craft an opening sentence if I’m feeling creative?

What if I tried that? After all, if it works for my business, why not for me?

Round one is today’s guest entry for my good friend and mentor Sharon and her blog. Tomorrow I begin in earnest.

Heidi Croot is an award-winning business writer who has been connecting the five essential dots of communication for employees, customers and the community for more than 30 years. As principal of Croot Communications, she writes magazine articles, newsletters, brochures, annual reports, speeches, strategic plans, and more.

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Stories In Old Attics

I was the kind of kid who happily sat with my grandmothers (both born in 1913) as they spun  tales of life growing up in Toronto in the twenties, surviving the Great Depression and World War II, becoming newlyweds in the thirties and young mothers in the forties.

With one Irish-Canadian grandmother and one French-Canadian grandmother, I learned my bard skills. I’m so grateful that both women lived into their mid-eighties and by the time they passed, we had clocked hundreds of storytelling hours together. (My first novel, safely stored in the bottom drawer of my desk and sadly not likely to see the light of day, was set in early twentieth century Toronto and loosely based on one grandmother’s life.)

Unfortunately, I know less about my grandfathers and their lives. Although my paternal grandmother was able to tell me where my Canadian born grandfather had lived as a child, his passing at age forty-eight meant I would never hear him tell about servicing in the Canadian Air Force during WWII or anecdotes from his life that only he would know.

My Scottish grandfather was killed in a work-related accident when I was eleven and at the time of his death, he had just begun to see me as a person rather than another noisy kid. One of my last memories of him was of sitting on the front porch and listening as he told me how he left his family’s Highland farm at the age of sixteen in search of a new adventure and of his plans to farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. As luck would have it, his arrival in Saskatchewan coincided with the harsh and unrelenting draught of the Great Depression and his new farmland refused to yield a decent crop. He died before he shared with me why he hadn’t simply packed up and returned to Scotland, but instead found his way back east to Toronto.

After his death, and knowing how we had begun to connect through his stories of the old country, my grandmother took me and my oldest cousin to visit his birthplace; Muir of Ord, Rosshire, Scotland. Every fibre of the romantic storyteller in me tingled the moment I clapped eyes on the centuries old farmhouse where generations of my family had lived, worked and died.

If only those walls could talk!

What foods did my great-grandmothers prepare in their kitchens? How many children were born in the upstairs rooms with the sloped ceilings? What thoughts ran through the men’s minds as they peered out those small windows cut into the roof? What conversations were had around the fireplaces? What good times and what bad times were played out behind the front door? Why had Grandpa left?

This past week, my sister made the pilgrimage to Muir of Ord and shared this picture of the Murchison farmhouse. Tonight, I find myself staring at the photo and am bombarded with the flood of a thousand stories waiting to be told using this farm as my setting.

I’ve asked before, where do you find stories ideas? Lately, I’m finding many of my ideas are coming from settings that pop out at me.

Has a real setting ever offered you a story idea? Do share.

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Imagine This

Imagination is more important than knowledge.  ALBERT EINSTEIN

Imagination, also called the faculty of imagining, is the ability of forming mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceived through sight, hearing or other senses. It is seeing something that is not yet here. It is seeing a different future. It is seeing a combination of existing products that has not yet been tried.  SIR KEN ROBINSON

Yesterday, I made puppy soup. (No live puppies were used or harmed in the making of said puppy soup although one Cocker Spaniel was asked to participate in the taste testing.) Today, using my super powers, I flew with two robins and collected twigs for our nest.

Playing with my two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter has reminded me of the importance of imagination. Through play children not only learn about themselves, their talents, as well as test their skills and abilities, but also discover what they need to know about the world around them. For bigger kids imagination is equally important. Imagination is the root of all creativity, problem solving, scientific discoveries and every invention ever developed.

The part of the brain responsible for imagination is located in the frontal lobes which is also responsible for facilitating reflection, empathy, play and creativity. There are two basic types of imagination: Imitative imagination and creative imagination.

Imitative imagination is the mind’s reconstruction of the past where we use our memory to picture something we have experienced and recreate it. Making puppy soup was my granddaughter’s way of recreating the experience of watching me chop vegetables, add them to a broth, stir the concoction and serve out bowls of homemade soup.

Creative imagination is the restructuring of past sensory impressions. Mental imagery of past images or experiences constructs sensations or conditions never before experienced. Without ever having been on a Caribbean cruise, we are still able to close our eyes and imagine a ship, cabins and turquoise water.

Like most children, growing up I had a healthy imagination—some called it overactive. To a daydreamer kind of kid like me, becoming a writer was a logical career choice. Writers know about imagination.

When my children were young, I watched their toy boxes fill up with dolls that crawled and robots that moved, then watched as these expensive, hard plastic, battery-operated, one trick ponies made their way to the bottom of the boxes, destined never to become the favourite toy. What were the favourite toys? There was Teddy (a stuffed Teddy Bear), Bunny (a stuffed bunny rabbit) and a doll named Irma. What each favourite toy had in common was it did absolutely nothing. Its appeal, and indeed staying power lay, in the invitation to imagine and create.

People lacking an imagination (I’m sure you know a few) are at best, dull and at worst, scary. I wonder whether the absence of imagination and abundance of people who grew up with automated toys that limited how children played might explain what is wrong with the world today.

What have you daydreamed about today? Did you seeing something that is not yet here? Did you let your imagination out to play?

Here’s a video from the Grande Dame of Imagination, J.K. Rowlings, as she delivers a commencement speech to the Harvard class of 2008.

 

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Is writing, writing?

Several months ago, I wrote about the value of surrounding yourself (and your writing) with good and trusted tribe members. Now, I would like to introduce some of my tribe to you. I have asked a few of my writer friends to help me with guest blogs as I take some time to refocus my energy on my family. Today’s post is from a very dear friend, Heidi Croot, who is transitioning between corporate writing to non-fiction and fiction writing. I know if the shoe was on the other foot and I had to transition from fiction to corporate writing, I would feel some of what she has expressed below.

Many of you have asked me what gives? Where are the new posts? How’s the book coming along? Did you ever send in your 75 pages for your final project? The short answer is I have not been able to find much time to write in the last month. Unfortunately, one of our children is unwell and my husband and I are caring for our young granddaughter. It is indeed a challenging time, but I thank everyone who is checking in with us regularly and holding us in their thoughts and prayers. I am indeed blessed to have such a large and supportive tribe and know we will get through this difficult time.

Sharon

Is writing, writing?

By: Heidi Croot

So, here’s the dilemma. And it’s a gnawer.

I’m a corporate writer, a business writer. Have been for more than 30 years. It means I write annual reports, employee newsletters, articles for trade press, even corporate communications plans.

Fine and good.

However, what I want to do, desperately, is break into personal writing: memoir, fiction, poetry.

Isn’t writing, writing?  If I can do it in one genre, shouldn’t I be able to transition easily to another?

Apparently not.

I am paralyzed. Have no idea how to get started on, say, a short story. What would I write about? What on earth would I write about? Does plot piece together like ideas in a non-fiction piece? Who is my character? And what the hell does she want? How do I select point-of-view, describe people’s faces, evoke a setting, create suspense?

I don’t fumble like this with magazine articles. I know exactly what to do. How to begin. How to organize my material (indeed, where to get my material). How to bridge paragraphs. What tone to take. When to use stories or case studies.

I turn to mind-mapping, an indispensable tool of my trade, but it lets me down. I don’t even know what to put in the centre cloud. So I put a question mark. That really helps.

There must be a bridge from genre to genre. Got to find it. Meanwhile, I tear around, choking on my own dust, mild hysteria mounting as I face the prospect of being stuck on this island forever.

Plunge in, just start, practice, practice, practice: I hear you, all you capable fiction writers out there.

I know my voice is in here, somewhere deep, buried under the detritus of dry corporate babblespeak. Going to get me a tractor and clear all that rubble aside. Let the music out. Soon, I’ll do it soon. First I’ve got to finish that business report.

Heidi Croot is an award-winning business writer who has been connecting the five essential dots of communication for employees, customers and the community for more than 30 years. As principal of Croot Communications, she writes magazine articles, newsletters, brochures, annual reports, speeches, strategic plans, and more.

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Make Good Art

This past week marked the one year anniversary of my leaving my day job and I am now taking stock of what I have accomplished with my writing. On the surface some might judge, not much, but the truth is I have leaved more in this past twelve months than in the previous decade of studying my craft. Although courses and workshops are valuable there is no substitute for butt-in-the-chair and trial-by-error. By trying different points of view, tenses, and storylines, I have been able to stretch myself as a writer. Last night, I had the opportunity to look over the first pages I worked on last July. I had thought they were pretty good, but now see everything that is wrong with them. For a moment I felt discouraged, then I recognized my growth and I now feel grateful. I’m grateful first and foremost to my family who have allowed me this time to stretch my wings and I’m thankful to my instructors and peers who have held my hand along the way.

So what’s next. Although I will not be getting another job in the immediate future, my time has been redirected and writing full-time is no longer possible (at least for the next few months). I have fought feelings of disappointment for the past week, but am now resigned, maybe even excited about the next chapter in my life. While working full-time I managed to write, a lot it seems in retrospect, and now I’m back to stealing minutes to work. Since I’ve resolved to hold tight to my writing dream, there is no turning back and I will do what it takes to keep up with my work. Who knows, I might become a more focused, and dare I hope, better writer.

Here is a video I have watched over and over again. I can relate too much of what Neil Gaiman speaks about in this commencement speech, particularly his point about making good art when life throws you a curve ball. A curve ball has been thrown my way and I intend to take it and make good art.

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4 Ways Gardening is Like Editing

This post originally appeared on Kate Arms-Roberts’ blog about writing and creativity on April 12, 2011. Now that it is summer and a year later, her garden is in a more mature stage of development and so is her novel, but the analogy remains a good one.

Irises and crocuses are blooming in my garden. Perennial herbs and vegetables are showing signs of life after the dormancy of a Northern winter.

Inside the house, I have completed the first complete critique of my novel. Pages of corrections wait for me to enter them into the computer.

And, as so often happens, these two simultaneous happenings have made me aware of connections I had not previously articulated: parallels between gardening and editing.

1. Location, Location, Location

Plants need the right conditions: soil, light, water all must feed the plant for it to grow. Sometimes you need to move a plant for it to thrive.

Scenes need to fall in the right place. Sometimes you write a scene for the middle of the story and then realize it works better at the beginning.

2. Treatment Matters

Too much water or fertilizer may kill plants as easily as too little.

Backstory needs to be dripped in like irrigation pipes bringing just enough water to the right plant to drive growth without flooding. Action without pauses for reflection may exhaust some readers.

3. Dormancy Can be Good

Last year, I planted rhubarb in my garden. A friend divided hers and gave me half. I knew nothing of rhubarb, but she said it was hard to kill. I planted it, and watered it. A few leaves died, and a few stayed green all summer, but there was no new growth. In the fall, it died back all the way to the ground. Having no understanding of the ways of rhubarb, I watched, wondering if this was, indeed, a survivor. A few days ago, I noticed bright red growth in the midst of the dead material. This morning, there are leaves coming out. This rhubarb will live!

I wrote the first draft of my novel last November. In December, I read it once and noted a few sections that needed to be cut and a few sections that needed to be fleshed out. Then, before I could revise it properly, I needed to let the project go dormant. For three months, I focused on directing a play. As the play neared production, I went back to the manuscript. By leaving it for a time, I was able to come back with a sense of perspective and a deeper understanding of some of the story elements I had glossed over in the first draft. This novel, too, may live!

4. Start With What You Have

The first house I lived in had an overgrown front yard and a mess of a backyard. To quickly beautify the landscaping, there was nothing to do but dig out the front and start again in both areas. So, we did.

Like that house, my first NaNoWriMo manuscript is a mess. Having looked at it through several editing lenses over the past few years, I have concluded there are no more than 3 scenes that might be worth saving, and those probably won′t be usable once I rewrite the rest. If I want to tell that story, I will be better off starting again from scratch.

Our current house had been cared for well by the previous owner, but featured plants I find boring or actively dislike. I have made changes slowly, looking at what is already in place and deciding how to convert it into something I like better without ever going through the completely dug up phase.

My current work-in-progress is similar. The first draft was strong enough that it holds together as a story. It needs major revision, but the core is strong. Editing what is there will work.

Editing a manuscript and gardening are both about looking at what already exists and making changes to bring that reality closer to an imagined goal.

I planted iris bulbs last fall after clearing space in an uninspiring flower bed. Seeing them bloom this year makes me smile. There are small clumps of them now. I hope they naturalize well and create bigger groupings for the future.

It may take time, but editing a garden or a manuscript produces results eventually.

Kate Arms-Roberts is a Toronto-based writer, though she has hailed from various locations in the U.S. and U.K. before landing in Canada. She blogs at http://www.katearmsroberts.wordpress.com and is currently working on a fantasy novel for teens.

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Love It or Leave It

There is no grey area here. If you hate what you are doing, do something else. Life should be enjoyed not endured. Now, I am not advocating ditching a job or a project just because you’re having a bad day. What I am saying is if you dread facing something, if you feel anxious and think you’re going to throw up if you have to face it/them one more time, you owe it to yourself to get out. I grew up hearing life sucks and then you die. What a very sad philosophy! Sometimes life does suck, and other times it doesn’t. When any one chunk of life sucks, you owe it to yourselves and everyone around you to decide how you can make it not suck, or at very least suck less.

As I have shared before, last year I did the uncommon sense thing and I left my paying job. My decision to leave was not an easy decision and did not come as the result of any one thing. What finally spurred me on to walk in that day and hand in my resignation came after I heard myself complaining to a friend yet again about work. I was sick of hearing myself and I realized in that moment that I had to do something about it. Again, that isn’t to say everyone who has a dream should go for it the moment they discover what they would rather be doing. It took many years to get myself in a mental and physical state to even consider leaving work. But when the time arrived, I knew it was the right time.

Now I’m home writing every day. Some days I’m extremely productive, and others not so much. Some days I think I am the most brilliant writer to ever be sent down to earth, but most days I think I’m a shoddy hack who is, at best, delusional and, at worst, a fraud. But at the end of every day, I’m happy. And the next morning, I arrive at my desk with a sense of wonder not dread.

The reality for writers is that we are, as they say, opening a vein and bleeding over our pages, day after day after day. So you better be able to stand the sight of blood and you better think you look okay with no clothes on, because you’re pretty much running down the street naked.

I have other interests, some of them even other arts, but I’m not willing to get on an emotional rollercoaster to experience them, and none of them make me feel like I’m losing my mind and at the same time make me worry I will implode from sheer joy. My other interests, my hobbies, make me happy, when I’m already happy, but aren’t where I turn when I’m less than happy. Writing is something I regularly and eagerly climb aboard the crazy train to experience. That’s how I know I’m doing the right thing.

Whether you are able, or even interested in, writing full-time, my wish for you would be that you are able to access your creativity with joy. Love what you are doing and do it to the best of your ability.

Life should be enjoyed, not endured.

Here is a video featuring John Irving who speaks to this love it or leave it point.

 

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