And Here We Go . . .

Author Dean Wesley Smith calls it The Time of Great Forgetting – that stretch between now and the end of August when writing routines get torpedoed because of outside influences. That could be anything from the lure of family reunions or friends visiting from out of town, the pull of the garden and all things outdoors, or even travel, depending on your Covid comfort level. Writing conferences and workshops, in spite of being a part of our professional life, can be a distraction too, especially if travel is involved. And if you have kids at home, it goes without saying that a regular writing routine is much harder to maintain during summer holidays.

Distractions aren’t limited to the spring and summer; they can happen anytime. On the upside, the writing life is flexible, making it easy to respond. But there can be a downside to that flexibility too. Lines can get blurred. For instance, someone who started working at home during the pandemic commented that his work and his other life bled together ‘like a tie-dye sweatshirt.’ Depending on the type of distraction you’re facing, and how you respond, creative routines can slide or even become completely eroded.

You might be fine with letting them go for a few months. But if not, here are a few things that help me maintain focus when life dishes the distractions.

Creating a schedule and (mostly) sticking to it. That used to be Monday to Friday, nine to three (a hold-over from when my kids were in school). I still aim for that, with a couple of exceptions: an early morning walk with a group of neighbourhood women once a week; and the occasional (once or twice a month) Friday afternoon lunch or coffee date with a friend.

Writing in the morning and leaving the business side of writing (research, social media, blogging) for the afternoon. It takes discipline and a little planning, but it’s doable.

Scheduling ahead when and where possible. I try to write, upload and schedule my blog a week ahead (or longer if I’m going away). Tweets can be scheduled in advance too, a bonus for getting a jump on promotion or simply trying to maintain a social media presence. But the latter can also be something of a gamble. If the tone of your scheduled tweets is upbeat and light, and they appear around the time something horrible hits the news (and you forget or can’t take them down), it could reflect poorly on you.

Grouping tasks and appointments. Some things like vet or doctor appointments inevitably crop up during working hours. When I can’t schedule them for the end of the day, I try for afternoon appointments, and I try to fit in another task (picking up a hold at the library or visiting the post office) at the same time.

Being satisfied with small steps. I may not have a full or half-day, but with thirty minutes, I can read over the last scene I wrote and make a few notes in the margin.  A few minutes a day on peripheral work can keep the story in my mind and make it easier to return to later.

Learning to say no. It’s not always easy, especially when you’ll disappoint someone. But there are times to be available to others and times when we need to be available to ourselves. We sometimes forget that.  

And finally, remember that everything is temporary. This, too, shall pass. Repeat as needed.

My May Reads

May is as busy as I suspected it would be. Everyone is grumbling about the weather. It’s been cooler and wetter than normal for this time of year; records have been broken. On the upside, the flowering dogwoods have been in bloom for much longer than usual, and the flowers on the rhodos and azaleas are slow to show and lasting longer than they usually do too. But the squash and cucumber I seeded have been lost to bad weather, and the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are still languishing in the greenhouse, waiting for the temperatures to climb. It sounds like perfect reading weather. However, if I’m not writing, I’m outside dodging raindrops and working in the garden. My reward at the end of the day is a good book. And here’s what I’m reading this month:

Eyes Like a Hawk by Lea Tassie

Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Books read to date in 2022: 30

Snakes and Slugs and Rabbits … Oh My!

 

A snake slithered across my foot as I walked to the greenhouse one morning last week. I felt it before I saw it, so I was a little startled when I glanced down and saw it slide off my toes and disappear under a nearby Hosta.  It made me smile. My cousins and I used to play with the garter snakes in my grandmother’s garden when we were kids, going so far as to bestow names and weave stories around them (yes, the storytelling seeds were germinating even then). So, seeing a snake in my garden brought back happy memories.

Some people hate snakes. They see them as horrifying, villainous creatures. But, for me, it’s rodents that I hate with an irrational passion. And these days, as the plants in the garden begin waking up from their winter slumber, I have a current hate on for the slugs and rabbits that are decimating the new growth. They are the current antagonists of my world.

Life is full of antagonists. Novels are too. The latter not only require antagonists, but they depend on them to drive a story forward. Without a great villain, the hero can’t shine. And the key to crafting a good antagonist or villain is making them well-rounded enough to be believable. Every villain should have at least one redeeming characteristic.

If I’m ever tempted to forget this, all I have to do is look outside. Snakes may be considered villainous to some, but they devour garden pests and even small mice.  Slugs are a great source of food for birds (thrushes love them), and they break down garden debris and turn it into nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  Wild rabbits are considered a keystone species, essential workers of a healthy ecosystem. In fact, populations are so low in the UK and parts of Europe that environmentalists are sounding the alarm and working to increase their numbers (too bad I can’t figure out a way to export mine; both my garden and my wallet would benefit). Even mice, creatures I will never tolerate anywhere close, link plants and predators in every terrestrial ecosystem.

Whatever antagonist you’re currently facing, whether it’s ravenous rabbits in the garden, a belligerent boss at work or wicked, uncooperative weather, a piece of advice: always wear shoes and watch where you step.

My April Reads

Spring continues to flirt with us. One minute the sun is shining, and the next minute, the hail falls. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a spring this cold. We’re weeks, if not an entire month, behind on outside tasks, which means May will be crazy busy. In the meantime, however, the cold, unpredictable weather leaves more time to read. And here’s what I’m reading this month:

The Keeper of Happy Endings by Barbara Davis

The Almost Wife by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

After by Bruce Greyson

Books read to date in 2022: 25

A Question of Light and Dark

An artist friend recently displayed two versions of a scene she’d painted – one was dark, rich and moody, while the other was a lighter, fresher portrayal of the same image. She asked us to state which we preferred. The feedback was mixed, but slightly more people liked the darker image than the lighter one. Artists particularly gravitated to the darker scene and, in one case, pointed to the depth of saturation as a reason for their choice. Both images were gorgeous, and it was hard to choose one over the other. But for me, having just lived through a dark and wet weekend that included a six-hour power outage, I craved something light. My need for sunshine and uplift reminded me of a recent newsletter written by foodie and cookbook author Laura Calder. You can read her post here:   https://www.lauracalder.com/april-2022

In part of her newsletter, Calder writes about leaving on vacation just as the Russians attacked Ukraine. She wrestled with whether or not it was in bad taste to post happy holiday shots on social media when there was so much pain and suffering in the world. Ultimately, believing that negativity needs to be beaten back with some delight or everyone would go mad, she decided to share some of her joy. “We have as much of a moral obligation to appreciate beauty, pleasure, and goodness when they’re presented to us as we do to confront evil and destruction when they show up on our path,” Calder wrote. “In fact, when we’re down in the dumps or anxious, it’s more important than ever to keep our senses sharpened for perceiving love and loveliness, because these can be the only things that keep us going.”

My artist friend who posted her work for us to see is just one of many creatives I know who continue to paint, play music, create mosaics and write books, among many other artistic pursuits. With the world feeling quite dark these days, it may feel indulgent or superfluous to do those things, and yet, as Laura Calder reminds us, there are times when a single touch of loveliness or one spot of brightness truly can keep us going.  

My March Reads

It was mild enough the first week or so of March that I was outside pruning, weeding, and doing some garden clean-up, which meant I didn’t have as much time to read. Now, though, the wind is blowing, the rain is falling, and sprinting from the house to the greenhouse and back again leaves me shivering. All I want to do is curl up by the fire with a cup of tea and a book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Quarks of Light by Rob Gentile

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

Books read to date in 2021: 19

Happy Spring

This Sunday, March 20th, marks the spring or vernal equinox.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, that means the days are getting longer, and daylight takes over the darkness.

In many cultures, the spring equinox is observed as the start of the New Year.  It only makes sense. Birds are nesting and starting families.  Trees are leafing out.  It’s a time of rebirth, regrowth and new beginnings.

Some creative types believe that the natural rhythm of this time of year – the increasing warmth of the sun and the equal length of day and night – actually gives us more energy to create. It’s a perfect time, they say, to plant metaphorical seeds as well as real ones.  

As a gardener and a writer, I love that idea. But something I sometimes forget is that seeds need time and the right conditions to sprout. Some require a cold stretch before the warmth nudges them to shoot out, while others want only heat to emerge. Creative ideas seem to be the same. While some come on quickly, in the heat of the moment, most creative ideas require a bit of percolating before they’re ready to germinate. And then, once those ideas do sprout, they need careful tending.

Right now, I’m tending metaphorical seeds (of a book) I planted a while back. This particular story has been a struggle but I’m hoping that if I prune and shape and carefully tend it, it will flourish in the same way a plant damaged by winter wind and cold comes back. And as I do that, I’m also planting some new creative seeds to tend over the coming months.

Because who can resist the promise of new beginnings? Happy spring, everybody.

Freedom to Read Week

 This is Freedom to Read week. While we may not give it much thought, the freedom to read can never be taken for granted. Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, books and magazines are banned at the border. Schools and libraries are regularly asked to remove books and magazines from their shelves. Those requests rarely make headlines – they often don’t even make the news – but they affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they choose to read. They also have a direct and sometimes devastating impact on the livelihoods of writers.

If you have the time and the inclination, you might like to check out the following links.

Here, Victoria author and friend Robin Stevenson details what happened when her book was banned in the middle of a book tour in Illinois. Ultimately, the experience gave her more of a platform to get her message out:   https://www.freedomtoread.ca/articles/canadian-author-of-kid-activists-speaks-up-about-school-cancellation-controversy/

Next, is YA author Bill Konigsberg responding to parents who have called to have his books banned from school libraries:  https://billkonigsberg.com/an-open-letter-to-parents-who-wish-to-ban-my-books-from-school-libraries/?fbclid=IwAR3VxJkkc4E3Kg_dJfvhkTYe-3QeseXYmvsi7H7YNEU7_Rsv8sbOxxrkeas

And finally, if you’d like to dig a little deeper, here are additional details on some of the challenged works in Canada.  https://www.freedomtoread.ca/challenged-works/

Happy Freedom to Read (whatever you choose!) Week.

My February Reads

The heather is in bloom, the snowdrops too, and the primulas are strutting their colours on the windowsill. We’ve had sunshine the last few days, and though it’s cold and we have another month of winter, it’s starting to feel like spring. Even the seeds I ordered have arrived, which means I need to get them started. It’s a busy time of year, but not too busy for a good book. And here’s what I’m reading this month:

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant

Honey From a Weed by Patience Gray

Books read to date in 2022: 14

Creative Risk-Taking

                       

Dolly Parton turns 76 today. Whether you like her singing or don’t, and regardless of how you view her campy, glittery style, I think it’s fair to say that Parton is a force to be reckoned with. She’s a singer and songwriter, an actress and author, a businesswoman and lately a humanitarian. Her Imagination Library book gifting program has given away almost 1.5 million books to children worldwide.

I find Parton inspiring. I love her sense of humour and willingness to poke fun at herself. I’m awed by her songwriting skills. She can tell a story and make us feel deeply in just a few hundred words. The Coat of Many Colors, written on a dry-cleaning receipt because that’s all she could find when inspiration struck, is a timeless song about how rags feel like riches when they’re stitched together with love and worn with pride. I Will Always Love You, which was written as a farewell to her business partner and mentor (and made famous when it was sung by Whitney Houston), is about holding onto love even after saying a final goodbye.

Dolly wrote her first song when she was about five. She called it Little Tiny Tassletop, and it was about a doll she made from a corn cob, dressed in corn husks and topped with corn silk for hair. She began writing in earnest when she was seven or eight. Today, it’s estimated she has written over 5,000 songs.

However, despite her formidable talent as a songwriter and singer, what inspires me most about Dolly Parton is her creative risk-taking and her willingness to give things a shot, even if she might look silly doing them. She lives by her own standards and follows her own North Star. Dolly says it best:

“You never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.”

“The magic is inside you; there ain’t no crystal ball.”

“I’m very real where it counts, and that’s inside.”

“I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist, but I do think of myself as a ‘professionalist.’ I always strive to simply be my very best.”

“Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”

“I’m not going to limit myself just because people won’t accept the fact that I can do something else.”

Happy birthday, Dolly.