Revision is Like Untangling a Knotted Chain

When I write collaboratively, or for hire, I storyboard a book ahead of time. The creative limitations push me to work within boundaries, and honestly, cause me to take fewer risks.

On the other hand, when I write a book of my heart, I usually choose a question that beguiles and enchants me, which refuses to let me go. I follow my curiosity, tumbling through the drafting process, allowing the characters to be more than actors in my master plot. I find myself being surprised, challenged, pushed to consider alternate perspectives. I end up with a messy draft, but the final product is always a more interesting and original novel.

Recently, while reading Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I found that my experience is common to other creatives. One of the many insights the book shares is that often, smaller amounts of progress are made when a question is posed to a creative and he or she works within limitations. Larger leaps happen when the creative both defines AND resolves a question.

When I think about it, this reality makes sense. Once twenty people have identified the fact that we need a book that shows us what happens when x meets y… the eventual books written may end up having many similarities. However, if the question is one most of us hadn’t yet asked, the resulting book is likely to push us to think in startling new ways.

The reality of this in my own writing process is that revision feels like untangling a delicate chain. I find a starting place and work to loosen one knot, only to realize that I’ve created another. The line from beginning of project to end is not straight or predictable. And yet, the unpredictability of this approach, the joy of discovery, the fact that I learn and grow through the writing, makes the struggle worthwhile.

I believe the artist’s job is to spend time wrestling with questions. We aren’t required to have more answers than other people, but we do need to ask more questions. We also need to spend more time working through the questions. The more time invested, the more work that we can do. Through conversations with others, revision, reflection, and feedback, we become more of who we desire to be, and our work becomes more than what we, personally, could have made it.

Maybe it’s not the most efficient way of writing a book. However, for me, it’s the way to end up writing a meaningful book.

So, here are some questions for you. Why are we all in such a rush? What are we all missing, due to our impatience? What might be possible if we slowed down and learned to savor the process?

I’d love to hear about your revision process, and how you deal with that ticking inner clock. Share below, or tag me on Facebook or Twitter. Let’s find ways to take the time we need to make our very best work.

NaNoWriMo Day One

Today’s session was quick because the day was full.

When I started on my revision of this draft, I realized that my plot needed:

a. more humor

b. a subplot to drive the twists and turns of the story, in a nod to my source material, Midsummer Night’s Dream

c. more backstory

Many of the scenes have remained, but have required significant rewrites. Other scenes have needed to be drafted from the ground up. I’ve been working through the story sequentially, smoothing and drafting as I go.

In the past week or so, I’ve struggled to make progress. I’ve reached a section of scenes that haven’t yet been written. Up to this point, I’d been in deep analysis mode, weighing each word, action, reaction and gesture. Or, in other words, I’ve been deep in my Writerly Play Workshop. When I’m in this mode, I tend to be analytical in everything I do, planning my week, working on other projects, even in the various decisions I make through the day.

Today, I gave myself permission to close that door and head into my Writerly Play Studio. I was drafting a new scene, and I thought I’d play around a little bit with my character’s entrance. Sometimes the best way for me to move into a playful space is to put on my director hat and pretend I’m directing a scene. How would I want my actor to play this moment out? Often, I end up with a much more physical (and often, funny) scene. That happened today, livening up the beginning of my new chapter and giving me a running start. I haven’t finished the chapter yet–it’s going to be a challenging one–but I’m in the right mental space. I count that a win!

Onward to day two.

My NaNoWriMo Plan

NaNoWriMo is one of my favorite challenges of the year. Participating feels like giving myself an early Christmas present, the gift of allowing myself to prioritize my writing.

However, with November right around the corner, I realize that if I dropped everything to draft a new novel, I’d only be adding more crazy to my creative life. I don’t need more drafts of new novels. I need to buckle down and finish the one I’m working on.

I’m in the messy middle, with a manuscript that I’m now revise-drafting.

I wonder how many other writers find themselves in this place? For me, revision requires identifying problems, brainstorming solutions, drafting scene possibilities, making thousands of choices, and all the while, smoothing and refining as I go. 

I really do wish I could use the stage-by-stage wheel that I sometimes see in elementary classrooms, where writers move clothespins labeled with their names from step to step: idea generation, drafting and on to revision. However, once I enter the revision phase, I need to bounce back and forth into all of those modes of thinking. 

Wild bouncing may seem to appeal to a creative mind like mine…

It certainly is what comes most naturally. In actuality, bouncing can clog up momentum’s wheels. If I try to draft when my brain is deep in sentence-by-sentence analysis mode, drafting a few paragraphs can take hours. It truly does matter what I set out to do when I start a writing session, particularly when time is of the essence. Structure is absolutely needed, and yet, too much structure, and my creativity hides under the table. This conundrum–the need for structure that doesn’t suffocate–is the root of Writerly Play, the need that drove me to develop a model for mapping the creative process in the first place.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on the brain science of creativity, and have also spent a lot of time applying Writerly Play as a tool to help my students move forward with their projects. However, I’ve never documented how I use Writerly Play in my own revision process day-to-day. Aha! An opportunity to learn gain new insight.

Tomorrow, it will be November.

If you’re a writer (and in my opinion, we all have stories to tell, but that’s another topic for another day) I hope you’ve given yourself permission to prioritize your writing this month. Thousands of people participate, so you’ll be in good company. All you have to say is, “It’s NaNoWriMo, I’m writing,” and most people will understand why you need an hour or two a day to camp out in your favorite writing space. If they’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, you can send them to NaNo’s website, and nine times out of ten, they’ll be amazed and impressed and ready to cheer you on.

I’ll be revising my draft, which will likely involve drafting 20,000 new words, and will surely involve dealing with the 60,000 words that I already have. I’m using the last day of the month as a firm deadline. On November 30, I will send my manuscript out to beta readers for feedback. No excuses.

As you can imagine, I’ll be a little busy this month, so you won’t see posts like the ones I normally write. However, I will post on the blog throughout the month about how I’m using Writerly Play as I revise. I’m curious to map a project in real time. I know I’ll learn a lot about how I think and create, and I can’t wait to look over the project at the end and see what insights I gain that might be helpful for others, too.

Ready? Let’s go write!

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What Does Wandering Look Like?

How do you know if something is a waste of time?

A common definition of “waste” is “to use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose. “ Synonyms for waste include squander, misspend, misuse, fritter away, or throw away. No one wants to squander or fritter away time.

But, ask a creative person how she spends her time, and if she’s being honest, she’ll describe work sessions punctuated by time spent in activities which are more difficult to define. Oddly, this time outside work sessions often creates a leap-frogging effect, vaulting work forward in a way that doesn’t happen when one is sitting down at a computer or with pencil and paper.

Unfortunately, the effect doesn’t work if you cut out the work sessions altogether. I’m not arguing that one should wander rather than work. But, there is something to the art of letting go and wandering.

For me, the wandering is literal.

I need to walk around in interesting environments. I need to touch contrasting textures of fabric and smell a variety of loose leaf teas. I need to see interesting patterns and shapes, and listen for contrasting tones of laughter. From the outside, I’m sure this wandering looks like a supreme waste of time. Why am I walking aimlessly, poking into stores, looking through baskets of random antiques, and heading home without buying anything?

I’m collecting. I’m filling up my sensory toolkit so that when I sit down to write, I have words and images and access to the feel of things. Too much time spent at my desk, and my senses dull. Fog settles over my brain and I might stare at my computer screen for ten minutes before coming up with a lackluster sentence. After puzzling over this fog, and how it showed up every now and then, I started to see the pattern.

And I started getting intentional about wandering.

What might speak to your senses?

Don’t be afraid to carve out time to wander. If you need more encouragement, you’ll definitely enjoy Keri Smith’s intriguing invitation to the art of wandering: The Wander Society.

I’d love to know where you choose to wander! Share your ideas below, or tag me on Twitter or Facebook and let me know what you’re up to. I’m always collecting new ideas for where to wander next.

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What Keeps Us From Paying Attention?

Too often
On my morning run
The neighborhood blurs
My mind far away

I stumble over
Unseen cracks in the sidewalk
Run straight into
Low-hanging branches

My mind circles
Rehearsing how I’ll do what’s next
Or reviewing what I did before
I’m in a tug of war—
Pulled forward
Tugged back

Or, my mind tumbles from request to request
Commitment to commitment
The way it was at summer camp
With campers in costumes
Set pieces scattered across the stage
Everyone calling, “Naomi, Naomi, Naomi!”
Between the words of one response
Another question is shoved
I can’t hear myself think
And no one gets their hoped for answer

We’re reminded about Deep Work
About The One Thing
About deleting, delegating and automating
But too often these spaces of clear and calm
Feel as impossible to reach as the Island of Long Ago and Far Away
Rather than a possible reality in the here and now

What keeps us from paying attention?
Our hearts.
They’re lured and captured and ransomed
By ideas of who we should be
Of what we feel responsible for
And where we wish we could be
(Anywhere but here)

In order to take back our attention
We have to take back our hearts
And hold them gently
Whispering the story
Of who we are
Untangling the true story
From the knots of should and ought to
Until we’re free

The Art of Paying Attention

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”

– Pablo Picasso

“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”

– Dorothea Lange

“Every human is an artist. And this is the main art that we have: the creation of our story.”

– Don Miguel Ruiz

 

I’m collecting other quotes and images as I continue to investigate the art of paying attention. Check out my collection on Pinterest.

On Paying Attention: Questions to Take You Deeper

I find it interesting that when we speak about the art of paying attention, we use financial words: paying attention, spending time.

What is your time worth?

This question often sends us down the road of calculation. How much do we make annually? How much does that work out to as an hourly wage? These are helpful time-management questions, but they fall short when it comes to attention management. Here’s another question for you.

How do we make our time count?

Again, this is a quantitative question. The line of thinking sends me down the rabbit hole of a “quantified life.” How many hours did I spend writing? How many minutes running? How about working? Playing? Commuting? Suddenly, I feel like a bean counter in my own life. My attention is spent on counting, not on being present.

Articles like this one explain that negative experiences imprint more deeply on our minds than positive ones do. Understanding this tendency is important not only for mental health, but also as insight into the art of paying attention. What if we were able to treasure each moment as the pearl it truly is, rather than counting or weighing or measuring it?

  • How might we notice our lives more fully?
  • How might we open, unlock, unleash our attention?
  • What might be possible if we noticed just ten percent more of the world around us?

Paying attention isn’t a separate activity.

Like most creative habits, it’s more a way of being than an item on a to-do list. No matter what we’re physically doing—eating, working, playing—our life’s moment can be treasures, or they can blur past, lost in fog. It’s a practice, a muscle we can build, and though it seems simple and possibly even unimportant in the larger scheme of life, the fact is, it IS life.

Your day awaits. How might you bring your attention more fully into its moments?

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Keep Learning and Growing

 
 
“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
 
― Abigail Adams
 
“The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.”
 
― B.B. King
 
Would you like more learning inspiration? Check out the images, quotes, ideas and more on my developing Pinterest board.

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Three Superpowers You Might Have Misplaced

It’s terrifying. You arrive at home after having commuted for a half hour (or more, ugh!) only to realize you don’t remember the drive. Auto-pilot happens to everyone sometimes. Too often, it settles in, a thick fog settling over our entire lives.

What’s going on here?

Our brains, in their complex way, are kicking in to save us calories and time. Why waste precious energy noticing something we saw yesterday and the day before? As far as survival goes, these instincts are absolutely helpful.

For living fully, not so much.

One of the reasons I love spending regular time with young writers is because kids are a constant reminder of what is possible. Kids have superpowers. Actually, we all have these superpowers, but as adults, we often misplace ours.

Have you misplaced any of these superpowers?

Imagination:

Recently, I’ve been watching Anne with an E on Netflix. Among other things, the show is reminding me about Anne’s singular perspective on the world. Time spent outside offers any number of “What if…?” possibilities. What if we coined names that fit the beauty of our local redwood grove or nearby flowering meadow? What if we looked for hints of magic in our everyday lives?

Imagination is a superpower because it turns the mundane into an adventure. All it takes to tap into the imagination is a choice. We choose to ask “What if…?” And while imagination can be silly and whimsical, its power reaches far beyond bringing happiness. Imagination is what allows us to see what’s possible, to imagine innovation and solutions to complex problems and opportunities beyond our current situation.

Belief:

Imagination allows us to dream up possibilities. Belief invites us to roll up our sleeves and bring our vision to life. We’ve all seen a child tugging on an adult’s sleeve asking “Can I …?” (or if they are grammatically savvy, “May I …?”) Adults are so quick to say no, to give reasons why not. We’ve learned through experience that the world can be full of danger, and disappointment is always a possibility.

When kids ask, “Why not?” it can be difficult to hold back the list of reasons that spring to mind. Too often, those same reasons cause us to not try. Last weekend, I hopped on my bicycle for the first time in years. I hadn’t ridden for a litany of reasons: cars, the possibility of crashing, looking silly. We rode 22 miles, to a local town I’d never visited, and the whole trip was a grand adventure. Why not? Exactly.

Laughter:

There’s a widely quoted myth that children laugh 300-400 times a day, while adults only laugh 17.5 times per day on average. While research doesn’t back this wide discrepancy, in general, most of us know that we laugh less as adults than we did as children. Why? Like imagination and belief, laughter is also a choice. And it’s a third superpower that we all can access anytime we choose.

Laughter changes everything. Just try staying gloomy after a belly-laugh. It’s nearly impossible. Finding laughter when we feel gloomy can be a challenge, but once we start laughing, the impact is immediate and powerful. Hopefully you don’t need any more convincing that laughter is good for you, but if you’d like to study quotes from scientists on the topic, you can find eight here.

If you had a superpower, would you forget about it?

Would you forget to use your super-speed, for instance, or your invisibility? Why, then, do we forget to use our actual superpowers? Maybe all we need is a tiny reminder every once in a while. Hey, there, Naomi. Don’t forget … You have a superpower. You have at least three, in fact.

I’ll be using mine today. How about you? 

If you dust off those superpowers, I’d love to hear what adventures ensue. And I’d also love to hear: What other superpowers would you say that we all have, and often misplace? I’m sure these three aren’t the only ones.

Feel free to comment below, or, as always, connect with me on Facebook or Twitter. Your stories are an inspiration!

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Choreograph a Happy Dance

Visit the Writerly Play Studio and play your way into creative discoveries. Never heard of the WP Studio? Learn how Writerly Play thinking strategies supercharge your creativity here.

No one can stay in a funk when they turn on a happy song and dance. When you need a creative kick-start or have a happiness SOS moment, you don’t want to have to come up with a solution on the spot. Preparation is key! That’s why taking some time to choreograph your own happy dance is such an excellent creativity-boosting strategy.

When you’re designing your dance, you’ll have a blast of fresh energy that comes from thinking with a different part of your mind. Chances are, choreography isn’t one of your daily tasks, so the process will feel novel and will likely remind you of being a kid. After you’ve designed your dance, you will have a solution in your back pocket anytime you feel your energy lagging.

Try This:

  1. Choose a favorite song.
  2. Clear some space to move.
  3. Turn on your song. Experiment with different steps as you listen.
  4. Go through the song piece by piece, adding movement. Simple movement is perfectly fine. Remember, this is a happy dance! You’re supposed to have fun with it.

Hints:

  • Big movement tends to be more fun than small movement.
  • Repeat patterns to keep things simple.
  • Listen to the words for inspiration. Many words or phrases provide excellent ideas for simple gestures.
  • If you have kids, make your dance together! Your happy dance can be a gloom-buster for the whole family.