Rumination

I have come out of the fog – not a fog in any kind of momentous navel-gazing brood spiral, mind you, but I have had the need to think, and in so doing, ventured into the foggy domains of my mind. At least that is what it felt like. I needed to figure stuff out, contemplate on options, chew on problems. And chew I did.

I can’t believe it’s been three months since my last post. I had big plans. My last post was about the pressure to be outside and as if the gods had wanted to make me a fool – not a hard job – I hardly did any of the usual outdoorsy things I do do. Yes, plans were made, but just as easily broken.  Which, truth be told, are always my kind of plans – those that are flexible and have no problem fragmenting into other plans. So I and my significant other did not get out and about. Not physically.

Instead, I wandered in the wilderness of my thoughts. I rambled through my stories, trying to discover the best path. I took serpentine perambulations, and trekked on rocky trails, all in an effort to find my way. Frankly, I was feeling lost with my writing. And, sure, I could have stayed in one place, like they tell you to do in wilderness training, but as I have as of yet failed to adequately train my stories to rush St. Bernard-like into author-rescue-mode, I didn’t think that a wise choice. After all, I could have been waiting out there twiddling my thumbs for a long time. I had to get myself out.

When the student is ready, the teacher will present themselves. These words have echoed through many parts of my life as of late and heeding the call, I enrolled in a class, sought guidance and information online and advice from my friends. I think of myself as a lifelong student. But the thing about learning, being a student, accumulating information, is the need to digest it all. Thus, to ruminate. Amazing that the definition of this means all at once to chew repeatedly for an extended period, and to go over in the mind repeatedly and often causally or slowly.

You may know about Nanowrimo, that upcoming yearly online event where writers commit to a 50,000 word first draft. It is a great way to challenge yourself and an easy way to gauge your success. You write, you count, you keep track, you get to 50,000 and you win. But other parts of writing are not so straight ahead. How does one quantify or qualify rumination? When someone asks, what you are doing and you say thinking, it’s hard not to flinch at your answer. What does that even mean? Sometimes thinking can come off like you’re just wasting time.

Now to be fair, my thinking also entails making notes and reading and then striking things out and then re-reading and reading some more as I bounce all over my work [or works] in progress. It also means studying and researching and trying to find solutions or other ways of looking at a problem. It can mean jumping from one thing to another to give my mind a break, going from a big problem to a smaller one and then back again. But ultimately, it is thinking and it is hard to calibrate the value of that work. Not until the end. And sometimes all you’ve learned at the end is the way you were thinking about the problem was all wrong so now you’ve got to try another tack.

Word count is a palpable method to monitor your progress, and come November you bet I’ll be counting. But story generation, plotting and editing for me, at least at this stage in my writing, calls for a more contemplative approach and keeping track of word count feels like a pointless exercise. So I’m trying not to have guilt about what might be perceived as wasted time. From an outsider, sure, it doesn’t look like you’re doing much but ‘butt in chair’ is ever one of the golden rules of writing. As long as I’m in that chair, pouring concentrated (see how I did that?) energy into my art, that counts. In the words of Albert Einstein – creativity is the residue of time wasted.

Shall I explore rumination further? Give you something to bite into? Well, without chewing on, chewing through, chewing into that food for thought, you cannot get closer to solving the problem. Or perhaps I should say solving the problem in a manner that can be replicated, something you might be able to recreate the next time. So let the word rumination play on your tongue. It is so much more active a word than thinking.

Next time someone asks what you’re doing as you stare off into space, or at your screen or at the page, say you’re ruminating. Because sometimes you just have to bite into a problem.

 

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Time Crunches and Opportunities

Did I tell you I live by two axioms. Well not just two … oh you know the rest.

There is never enough time in the day.

Things always take longer than you think.

But this blog post is not about making the time to take advantage of opportunity. No. This is about, when time is limited, seeing that limitation as an opportunity.

I am fortunate enough to have a somewhat predictable ebb and flow to my busy times. The word, somewhat, being of course open to a very loose interpretation. But I can look at my year and reasonably predict when my time will get taken over by atypical onerous duties I have no control over.  The rest of the time, however my schedule gets eaten by the usual predators; household, family and job. Still these demands are by and large, reasonable. I have made certain lifestyle choices that allow this, choices that I know, having had some intense conversations about it, others are not keen to make. To each his own. Everything costs: time, money, sanity, soul. Pick what is important and what you are prepared to pay and pay it. Did I say I love axioms? Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands. Not likely.

My previous blog was all about managing the time you’ve got. Key elements are:

  • Plan, but schedule wiggle room – allowing an easy pace to your activities will not only help quell the stress, but may allow you to accomplish more.

  • Discipline not to act, is just as important as the discipline to stay on track.

  • Flexibility depends on knowing the demands of your individual activities – seeing the micro and macro and being able to adjust what can be accomplished in the time allotted.

  • Forgiveness is not making excuses – it’s acknowledging the limitations inherent in our lives.

My biggest fear is having time crunches pull me off track completely. I know. I know. I’m the one all about forgiveness and being easy on yourself… yadayadayada… But I worry that it will be so much harder to get back on the path again. So I try not to stray. That might sound a little exhausting and maybe a little unrealistic. Remember I myself wondered how anyone can keep the pedal to the metal indefinitely, but just because I’m going doesn’t mean I’m going at the same speed, all the time. This busy season I was determined to not stress myself out, but also not let myself down regarding my art.

I explored two challenges this past month. One was a version of NaNoWriMo, called Camp NaNoWriMo that happens in April and July. As you may or may not be aware, National Novel Writing Month occurs in November during which, writers attempt to write a 50,000 word first draft. The cool thing about Camp NaNoWriMo is you create your own parameters for success. Want to write an outline for a new novel or revise a draft, or create a world bible for your new fantasy story? This is your chance. You can use word count or even hours worked as parameters and you decide what constitutes ‘winning’.

I chose hours and committed to 2 hours a day of working on a draft of my current WIP [work in progress]. I did not get nearly as far as I wanted. Ah, axiom number two. How disdainfully you rear your head. I did however succeed with my hours. So, good on me. And again, was I religious about the two hours per day? No. My weekends carried the majority of the load, however even those few minutes during the week helped to keep me chugging along and feeling positive about my progress, slow as it was.  I could have so easily let my manuscript hit the back burner for the month and really been totally justified, but come May, the ole jalopy was going to sputter and steam and give me all kinds of grief getting back on the road. This May not only did I not lose momentum, I was rearing to go.

The second thing I did was the Writer’s Digest Poem a Day Challenge. More writing, I hear you scream at the screen. More?!!! What are you nuts? Now hear me out. While I have been working on short stories, my primary focus has been novels. You know novels – huge gargantuan undertakings, a kin to pushing boulders up hills? Yes. Novels. Poems I thought would be much smaller boulders and might offer a sense of completion far quicker than novels. So, challenge accepted. And completed! Yes, I did a poem a day, every day [except for one day – but I made up for it the next] for the entire month of April. Oh, it isn’t good poetry but it is poetry – some of it, atrocious, some of it, meh, some of it, not half bad. I also used the time to get to some lyrics for songs I have been meaning to finish. [Have I mentioned I’m also a musician – I know, I know – I’m a sucker for punishment]

As an AWADJ time management is crucial. Sometimes though, a crunch is inevitable. Instead of getting squeezed maybe try these [sorry – totally did not mean to rhyme – darn you poetry challenge]:

  • Look for inspiration; activities to galvanize action, challenges that will gently but firmly kick you in the butt to keep you going

  • Focus your efforts: work smaller projects to enhance specific skill-sets

  • Set time limits: narrowing your parameters can give you a manageable quantifier, while committing to a month allows you to get in the flow, make up time, if things get extra crunchy, and create distance from larger projects

  • Embrace change: adopt a flexible mindset to make use of, or create opportunities.

Art doesn’t have to be spelled ‘ART’. It can be ‘art’. A little bit is better than none. Besides, you can make excuses, or you can make art. Which will it be?

Growth Mindset

Maybe it’s the impending spring but my mind is turning to new beginnings. Cleaning up the winter windblown debris collected against fences and the sleepy sluggish corners of our minds. Throwing open the once frost locked windows, finally thawed, to invite a breeze to sweep away the stale overheated air trapped inside homes and souls. Time for to-do lists with little check marks all crisp and decisive. For goals to be set. So, what if you set out to fail? I don’t mean that you’re setting yourself up to fail. No. I am asking you to give yourself permission to fail.

Have there always been things you wanted to try but thought, I’m not good at that, I don’t have any talent in that area, it’s not my strength so why waste the time… The reasons go on and on. Some might even make practical sense. I mean, in this day and age when time is a precious commodity, why waste it on something you aren’t good at? But how do you know you aren’t good at something if you don’t try it? And therein lies the crux of the problem. Fear of failure might be at the core of these reasons. And that is the biggest obstacle between a fixed and a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D. one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, talks about growth mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Watch this Ted Talk or for more information check out her site. In her book, Dr. Dweck explores the concept of ‘not yet’ a way of measurement that does not focus on failure but on the process of learning, improving, bettering ourselves, evident in a growth mindset. Adversely, a fixed mindset prevents us from discovering previously unknown territory. It keeps us safe in the familiar, never risking venturing off the path. It gives us every reason to say no.

So if a growth mindset is a way to deal with the fear of failure, what can you do to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? Here are the four main points from the book and a few quotes to perhaps help anchor them deeper in your mind.

Learn to recognize when you are holding onto a fixed mindset

  1. Becoming is better than being. Carol S Dweck
  2. Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort? Carol S Dweck

Recognize that you have a choice

  1. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. Albus Dumbledore
  2. Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future. Deepak Chopra

Realign your thinking to a more growth mindset track

  1. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. Albert Einstein
  2. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Wayne Gretzky

Take the growth mindset action

  1. Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. George Bernard Shaw
  2. Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

So, what will I attempt while exploring and hopefully developing a growth mindset?  Writers Digest is promoting a Poem a Day in April. This of course is not a random undertaking, but a focused effort to better my language skills. I will push myself, explore my gifts, and improve my skills. I will be disciplined and committed. I will be brave. But most importantly I will give myself permission to fail.

So, if you are a writer or someone who has always wanted to write, or someone who’s had that hidden, secret desire that you couldn’t voice, even to yourself, you might venture forth this April. Of course, it’s an opportunity to improve your writing, but maybe that’s not the point. At least not the only point. You might learn failure doesn’t kill you. It doesn’t define you. You can not only survive it but thrive because of it. So fail. Fail magnificently and beautifully. Fail and learn and grow.

Whatever you decide to try, perhaps a purposeful exercise in courting failure will help to deal with not just the fear of failure, but those moments in life when failure is all too real. Because failure is more than academic or theoretical or just a word on a page. It is not just an idea but at times a presence that is a formidable as a six walled room. Failure is that niggling little hand that plucks at your heart one string at a time, calling you to hear a strain you want to silence. It’s that finger that pokes you in the chest and says not you. It’s that fist that closes around your heart until you can’t move.

Maybe that’s when you need a growth mindset the most. To keep moving, one foot in front of the other. To tell yourself, hell, why not you. To remind yourself, it’s okay, maybe you aren’t there.

Not yet.

Advice You Give Yourself

I’m a big believer in lists, plans and notes to self. Ironically not because I necessarily follow them, but because when I’ve got something down on paper it’s easier to make a change. And often that change is in my own approach to the problem.

Case in point, last post I mentioned my appalling lack of get up and go [it got up and went – again I’m dating myself – thank you, School House Rock]. I found however that writing my angst down in a blog post helped me to work it out. In actuality, I was forced to take my own advice and in that moment I had an epiphany. A blog can be advice you give yourself.

So over the past few weeks I have been trying to change my perspective, challenge myself and shake things up.

Shaking things up

I had just come out of a November that had me elbow deep in words and story, and while that was successful, the burn-out was inevitable. Not to mention the previous months of plotting and planning for NaNoWriMo, that is a different kind of exhausting all together. Then December hit with a month load of work to be done in three weeks. Then there’s Christmas vacation that offers its own pressures. So what did I do to shake things up? I didn’t write. You might be wondering about that. That’s shaking it up? Doing nothing is shaking it up? Exactly. And for me that is a big shake.

I don’t do nothing. Nothing is hard for me. Please understand. This is not one of those job interviews where they ask ‘and tell me what’s your biggest flaw’ and you give some lame answer like ‘I work too hard and am too devoted to my job’. No. I only do nothing when I’m sick. Bed-ridden sick. So the fact that I wasn’t sick and still didn’t write is about as unusual as if I walked around on my hands all day and cooked dinner with my feet. ‘Cuz I don’t cook. The outcome? I ended up coming back to my WIP with a revelation about the ending that I don’t think I would have arrived at without the break in my writing routine.

Shaking things up means just that – doing something against your grain – that you don’t normally do – you being the operative word.

Challenging myself

When you go from your day job to your career, day in and day out, every night, and on the weekends, maybe the last thing you need is yet another challenge, but the problem is that everything you do carries with it an enormous amount of weight. I love to craft and for me engaging my hands crafting is a welcome change from all that typing. Playing around with something tactile is a break from all the mental gymnastics that my brain has to do. So when I found out about this abstract painting using what they call a ‘dirty pour’, it felt like just the thing to try.

You can check it out yourself if you google ‘fluid acrylic painting’. It was just the right amount of planning and chaos that I needed. So I watched how others did it and followed their instructions. Bought the supplies and got to it. My hands got all gunked up and I got to play around mixing paint and putting it on the paper and canvas. I challenged myself to make something, but I didn’t get too hung up on the results. I challenged myself with learning something new and focused on the act of creating. I challenged myself to not listen to negative self-speak and to be kind to myself. That was a big challenge.

Challenging yourself does not mean succeeding – it means doing something you’ve never done before – or that you find difficult.

Changing my perspective

One of the best ways to change your perspective is to see the world through another’s eyes. As writers, we sort of have to do that to write engaging characters. We employ empathy and our imagination but even then, we are still stuck in our heads. One thing I have been doing over the past little while is listening to a podcast at Story Grid. This site is, in my opinion, one of the best for writers. The podcast is, in its own words – a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. And how do they do that? You get to be a fly on the wall as Shawn Coyne, the creator of Story Grid and an editor with over 25 years’ experience helps Tim Grahl, a struggling writer, figure out how to tell a story that works.

This is a rare opportunity. This is a beacon to all those writers who have submitted their stories and received a form rejection, or worse, no response at all and are left wondering what am I doing wrong. While Shawn helps Tim craft an outline and then scenes you hear not only what could work for Tim’s particular story, but what works in story in general. Changing your perspective from the understandably narrow view of your present WIP to someone else’s story and also getting the perspective of someone like Shawn with his wealth of knowledge and experience is eye opening.

Changing your perspective – to see something from a different vantage point – is an opportunity that must be sought out – it takes effort and mindfulness.

Now I just want to say, I promote other sites because I am just another artist looking for inspiration and information and when I find them, I want to share. And perhaps like me, you are finding these gray winter days hard to take and are in need of a little inspiration yourself. Why not try shaking things up, challenging yourself or changing your perspective. It just takes a little gumption from you. Those opportunities are out there.

Happy searching.

Better Beginnings

At this time of year my thoughts turn to beginnings.

Beginnings are hard. There. I’ve said it. Stated it right up front. Right from… well… the beginning.

And if you’re a writer who has decided that this is the year you are going to start that novel you might know what I mean. You might be sitting there staring at a blank page or more likely a blank screen and wondering shouldn’t this be easier than this? Well, the answer is no. Beginnings are hard because they have a lot to accomplish in not a lot of time.

Beginnings promise.

When a reader starts in on a story, they enter into an unwritten contract with the writer. The writer says come along with me. I’m going to take you somewhere. The tricky thing is the reader doesn’t want the writer to come right out and tell them where they’re going. Where’s the fun in that? Why would the reader keep reading? The writer is going to hint. The writer is going to with tone, and imagery, with sentence structure and form, illustrate that promise. At the same time, the promise is full of expectations that, if not significantly met will disappoint a reader.

Beginnings are hard because you make a promise without saying exactly what it is, but hinting enough that the reader is trusting that it is a promise they are going to appreciate, and that you are going to keep.

Beginnings introduce.

When a reader starts to read, they want to know the main character. They want to know what he or she is like, what makes them tick, what they want, what they’re afraid of. They want to care; to be engaged in the main character’s story. The reader wants to know what the story is about; what is the theme. They don’t however want you to tell them these things. They want to be shown why they should care, why they should invest the time and energy to read what you’ve written.

Beginnings are hard because while the reader wants to know about the main character and their story more importantly, they want to want to know.

Beginnings entice.

Whether through exciting action or intriguing mystery, witty dialogue or engrossing setting, the reader is compelled to turn that first page. But you only give them just enough. A reader wants to be teased into reading. The reader wants their curiosity piqued. You give away just enough to have a question form in the reader’s mind. The final kicker is you must determine what that just enough is.

Beginnings are hard because there is no one way to entice a reader to read on. There is no paint by number or magic formula, no ‘cool button’ that you can press.  Doubt me? Do a little digging. For every ‘rule’ you want to hold tight to, for every ‘don’t’ you avoid, for every example of a successful beginning, another, doing seemingly the same thing, falls flat.

How do we accomplish a beginning that is promising, engaging and compelling? Frankly, that is the main cause of much hair pulling and bad language on my part. One thing I’ve discovered is that to work on your beginning, you need to have a whole story. You need to know what your story is about.  Yes, to write an effective beginning, you may need to know how your story ends.

Great. And here you are staring at a glaringly blank page one and I’m telling you to write a whole novel so that you can write page one. Thanks. For nothing. But hey, doesn’t that put the whole stymied page one issue in perspective? Think about it this way; you have a whole novel to help you figure out what your beginning is.

Written your novel and still need some help with your beginning? Read other writers’ beginnings and analyze which ones you think work. The more you can recognize a good beginning in another’s stories, the better chance you have of analyzing whether yours is working or not. A great website that does just that is Writer Unboxed with Ray Rhamey’s Flog the Pro blogs. Check out his site for a checklist that you can use to help guide you toward a better beginning.

Good luck and happy writing.

EQ – The Holidays – and You

What would it take to successfully get you through the looming holiday season. The perfect gift? The best turkey? The ability to be in two places at the same time? Instead of looking for outer solutions (or impossible ones) what about inner ones. Exploring your EQ might just give you the skills you need. Emotional quotient or EQ is a term used to gage one’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence covers key aspects in personal and inter-person skills. Just the thing you might need to foster healthy happy relationships. And isn’t that what the holidays should be about?

So what exactly are the characteristics of emotional intelligence?

Self-Awareness

In the heat of the moment are you capable of determining what has set your blood to boil? Can you pin-point the reasons behind feelings of frustration or anxiety?  Are you able to step back and analyze what you are feeling and why you are feeling it?  This is often the most emotionally charged time of the year. We are fraught with worry and anticipation about plans to come and burdened with an over-packed Louis Vuitton set of baggage from our past. Being able to sort through your jumble of emotions and accurately evaluate the feelings you are experiencing may help you to deal with them in a more constructive manner.

Self-Regulation

Are you able to stay in control when you are angry or jealous? Do you become overwhelmed, caught up in your intense emotions, or can you pause and think before you react? The ability to self-manage your emotions means that you are not at their mercy. For instance, instead of lashing out at your significant other because they haven’t wrapped the presents yet, can you acknowledge that you might actually be feeling frustration and inadequacy that yet again here’s another Christmas and you are overwhelmed?  At this time of year when the pressure comes from so many angles, it’s important to work toward equilibrium for your sanity and for the sanity of everyone around you.

Motivation

Do you easily get stalled or de-railed? Are you filled with anxiety when tasked with something new? Can you step back and see a set-back as momentary, a problem as an opportunity and a challenge as a chance for personal growth? Can you stay focused on the goal through the difficulties? Keeping motivated for the long-haul, and deferring immediate results for long-term success is another indicator of emotional intelligence. The last point may be the most important one to keep in mind in the next few weeks of holiday shopping. You might try reminding yourself that, though that sweater looks really great on you, it pales in comparison to the peace of mind you’ll get paying off all your bills come January.

Empathy

Do people say you are a good listener? Perceptive? Understanding? If you engage in active listening and observe body language well, you are on your way to honing your empathetic abilities. These skills enable you to get out of your head and into the heart of the person in front of you. Being able to imagine, understand and empathize with other’s feelings is a fundamental people skill and an important step toward emotional intelligence. And at this time of year, here’s an opportunity to see if you’ve been paying attention to the people in your life. After all, the present you’re buying isn’t for you. It’s for someone else. Being empathetic and getting someone a gift that speaks only to them is the greatest sign that you truly care.

Social Skills

The previous four elements culminate nicely in the final category of social management. If one can recognize the emotions in themselves, and regulate them, that person becomes more appealing, approachable, and amenable to others. If they can see your positive outlook and motivation, you can better inspire. If you can recognize the emotions in others, being empathetic to their situation, you can better relate. Strong social skills of rapport, effective communication and developing trust are all signs of emotional intelligence. These, hopefully, can lead to better relationships with loved ones throughout the rest of the year.

By these indicators, the development of your emotional intelligence would go a long way to making you a happier and more productive person in all facets of your life, but especially at this time of year, when you might need it the most.

Want to take steps towards being more emotionally intelligent? Perhaps start here at MindTools. You might have noticed it over on my blog roll. They have a great quiz to test your EQ.

Or get yourself (or perhaps someone who you think might benefit) the book by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. Check out his site for more information.

I’m wishing you all peace and joy!

Effort

Feet. Huh? How do they do it. How do they get their feet there. Right up to their chins so that they can actually put their toes in their mouths. It’s a marvel. It’s a miracle. It looks impossible. It looks effortless.

And okay, okay. Don’t start. I’m sure there’s some perfectly reasonable explanation. For you doctors out there, cool your jets. Don’t bother getting into some long winded diatribe about the nature of babies bodies and distances between said feet and mouths of said infants and it’s all perfectly normal and blah, blah, blah….

No. Quit it. It still looks amazing because frankly, I can’t do it and can’t remember I time when I could. And I’m not the only one. You always hear adults comment on that whenever they see a baby do that. Or really whenever we see anyone do something we can’t. We want to believe that they’re just lucky or that the hand of God just came down and touched them on the forehead or that the distance between their mouths and feet aren’t as far as ours. We want to believe that. We have to, because we need to understand, why is everything so darn hard for us.

But what might seem effortless is really a lie hidden behind a fear. The truth is those feats of daring do, those amazing successes, and heart-stopping works of art happened because of effort. Someone decided that it was worth it to take the risk or learn that task or sit in that chair and just put their head down and do it. They decided that despite the failures and disappointments and things they had to learn that they didn’t already know, it was worth the effort. October 31st you said to yourself that writing 50,000 words in a month was worth it. And nothing has changed.

So as you round the corner, two-thirds of the way through, and start to speed wobble your way down towards the last leg of NANOWRIMO, keep putting in the effort. And even if it looks like you won’t make the 50,000 or your story is an abysmal mess, or you’ve actually ditched the one you started on for another, keep going. There is nothing more crucial to be gained than exercising the discipline to engage in effort. Effort is what gets you over the hump, around the block and through to the end.

And as for the babies? Don’t worry about it. They’re looking at you and going, feet. Huh? How do they do it. How do they just walk around like that. How do they not fall over. And running? Wow that looks impossible.  But it isn’t. ‘Cause soon there’s some toddler running all over the place and getting into all kinds of mischief. All with a little bit of effort.