What are you doing next Tuesday, May 19th? Can you spare an hour? If so, plan to catch this Facebook live event (find it under events on your Facebook page) at 4 pm, Pacific time. That’s when a group of us will be talking about writing and illustrating and all things children’s books. I’ll be answering questions about my latest YA, No Right Thing. Thanks to Crwth Press for setting everything up. We’re looking forward to it, and we hope you can join us!
The garden sent me a lesson the other day. It’s a lesson I’ve witnessed repeatedly in writing and gardening. But it’s a lesson I’ve yet to master. Everything happens when it’s meant to happen. The unfolding of life has its own rhythm. And as much as I’d like to think I’m in charge, I am not.
I’d seeded tomatoes and peppers and broccoli and basil. Sweet peas and eggplant and cilantro too. The broccoli popped up first, quickly followed by basil, tomato and sweet pea seedlings. The eggplant was slower, but it eventually germinated. The pepper and the cilantro seeds languished under the starting soil. I hovered and fretted and hovered some more.
Cocooned in their dark bed, the pepper and cilantro seeds paid no attention.
Meanwhile, the effects of the Covid-19 slowdown continued. I learned of more work cancellations and delays. I heard of more writer friends having their book releases postponed. Or having their books come out without the expected fanfare of a launch (if you’re a writer with a book releasing during the Time of Covid, email me and I’ll plug it on this blog).
Nothing was going according to plan, one friend wailed after she’d been hit with a particularly bad piece of cancellation news. Indeed.
In the big picture, she and I both know what matters is life and health and slaying the Covid dragon. We know it’s shallow to worry about book releases or cancelled tours when people are dying. We’re wearing our grown-up pants (yoga pants) these days. We have our priorities straight. But at the same time, we wish things were different. We wonder why things are the way they are. We worry that maybe if we’d made different choices or worked a little harder or taken a different route, things would be going according to plan. According to our plan.
But they aren’t.
Maybe they will eventually.
And maybe they won’t.
The peppers finally germinated. In spite of my very best hand-wringing, the cilantro never did.
Life has its own rhythm, my seedlings whispered. Maybe someday I’ll learn the lesson and won’t need the reminder.
Not long ago, a friend recommended we watch “Somebody Feed Phil.” The Netflix documentary series follows Phil Rosenthal, the creator of “Everyone Loves Raymond,” as he travels and eats his way through various countries around the world. The show is a wholesome, family-friendly version of Anthony Bourdain, only unlike the sometimes cynical approach Bourdain took, Rosenthal is unabashedly positive and overwhelmingly enthusiastic. We liked the first episode so much we quickly watched two more. Now, “Somebody Feed Phil” is a show we turn to when we’re ready for a TV break.
Around the same time as we discovered “Somebody Feed Phil,” I was asked to write an article about a local artist, Sheila Warren (if you haven’t discovered her art, go here https://www.sheilawarren.com/.) During our interview, Sheila talked at length about the passion she has for her art, adding that if she doesn’t have a strong emotional connection to her subject, it will show in her paintings.
As I watched Phil eat his way around the world and then later visited Sheila at her gallery, I realized that their passion was infectious. I felt happy and uplifted after only a few minutes in their presence. I also realized something else. Passion is fuel.
It’s hard work writing and producing a TV series, even though we don’t see the hard work when we watch a one-hour episode. It’s hard work painting a canvas, though we don’t think of that when we enjoy the results of that labor hanging on our wall. It’s hard work writing a book, which I know from personal experience, yet when I’m engrossed in reading a novel, that thought never occurs to me.
For creators, when passion is our fuel, work becomes like play. Hours are lost to the joy of the moment, to the creative process. Passion and play become intertwined and the process is often magical, transformative. Not only for the artist or the writer or the TV personality, but also for those people who enjoy whatever we produce.
Passion as play yields powerful results.
I’ve been reading about Feng Shui again lately. Probably because we moved last year and I’ve been spending more time thinking about my surroundings. Feng Shui is the ancient Chinese art of creating harmony in living spaces. Its literal translation means wind and water. It’s based on the principle that, like wind and water, you and your environment are two forces of nature, constantly interacting and influencing each other. When they’re in balance, chi or positive energy can flow and that, in turn, affects our health, wealth and happiness.
As simple as it sounds, the art of Feng Shui is surprisingly complex and doesn’t lend itself to a superficial approach. Feng Shui masters spend their entire lives studying the principles and helping others apply them. That said, there are some basic go-to rules we can utilize to bring harmony to our living spaces, and to our offices as well.
Here are some of the Feng Shui principles I introduced into my writing space years ago, ones I continue to utilize today.
* Simplify and declutter. Active chaos or temporary clutter (reference books or the visuals that pile up as we write) is the result of creativity in motion. But passive chaos or stagnant clutter – outdated papers or books not being used, old magazines and journals – needs to be eliminated.
* Your desk should be in your office’s commanding position. Ideally it should face the room’s entrance, but angled to the left or the right and not directly in line with the door. If that’s impossible, use a mirror to reflect the entrance door or, at the very least, hang a bell on your doorknob so you’ll hear someone approaching.
*Put the materials you use regularly within arm’s reach of your desk. If that’s impossible, gather whatever you need at the beginning of your writing session and have everything close.
* Avoid having an abstract painting on the wall in an area where you want to focus.
* Watch out for doors that stick. Feng Shui believes they can create sticky situations.
* Make sure your work area engages all five senses. This is critical for us as writers too. When you look up from your desk you should see something you love on the wall. Create a soundtrack for the book you’re writing. Add a scented oil diffuser to the shelf. Toss a throw rug with a beautiful texture onto the floor.
* Hang a crystal over your desk to stimulate the thinking chi and improve your work habits.
* Surround yourself with colors that personally resonate. The color blue activates the fifth chakra, or throat chakra, and can inspire creative writing. If that color appeals, put a few blue touches in your office. I’ve added red in my office to kick start my thinking. In fact, one of my favorite pictures is a painting from my aunt featuring red poppies against a deep blue background. I have half a dozen vibrant, creative images in my new office and they’re all framed in black. Black is grounding and helps with persistence.
* Keep a plant in your office and make sure it’s healthy.
* And finally, if you want things to change, relocate (or get rid of) 27 things in your working area. This is a powerful Feng Shui tool that can be used to sweep out the old and bring in the new.
I recently came across a saying attributed to Confucius: ‘The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak that breaks in the storm.’
It made me think of resilience. A few days after I saw the quote, I had a coffee date with a writer friend. We’ve been friends for decades. We’ve been writing for decades too, both as traditionally published and self-published authors. As we sipped our coffee and discussed the current ups and downs of the industry, she mentioned she was thinking of approaching a small publisher for her next novel. I’m going with Crwth Press, also a small publisher, for my next YA No Right Thing which will be out in April.
With the rules of publishing constantly changing, our ability to adapt and cope is constantly being tested too. And one of the best ways to survive is to develop resilience.
Resilience can be hard to put into words. Ask five people what it is and you’ll probably get five different answers. Even dictionary definitions vary. At its core, however, resilience is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to change or misfortune. Coping with stress (be that good or bad stress) in a positive way is known as resilience. One definition even said that resilience is developed through discomfort, to being exposed to experiences that push or challenge us in a variety of ways.
Well, publishing is made up of experiences that push and challenge us on a regular basis. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help develop resilience.
Remember why you write. Think less about the outcome and embrace the joy of getting words on paper. If you’ve lost that joy, how can you get it back? Maybe you need to fill the well by reading books or stories that spark your creative urge. Focusing on why you write in the first place can keep you writing when you hit a speed bump.
Have good boundaries. We all know the importance of having good boundaries with others, but boundaries extend to social media too. Many writers rely on social media to promote their work and to say engaged with others. How does social media make you feel? Is it helping or hurting you? Do a check in and see if the people/media you interact with leave you feeling energized or depleted. Set boundaries where you need to.
Consider possibilities. We write to get published, at least most of us do. And we have dreams and goals, or we should. But don’t be afraid to think out of the box or try a route previously untraveled. Thinking about potentials – playing ‘what if’ with your writing career – can sometimes lead to surprising opportunities.
Change the narrative. I don’t like the ‘put on the rose-colored glasses’ and ‘things happen for a reason’ mentality. As far as I’m concerned, a rejection is a rejection is a rejection. But sometimes reframing a situation can help. Perhaps the rejections are helping you develop the toughness and drive you need to survive in this industry. Perhaps they’re pointing you in a new direction. Accepting and cultivating a positive approach can help us change the narrative.
Develop social networks. Writers work in isolation by necessity. Many of us are introverts by nature. That’s not a bad thing. We need alone time to incubate our stories and get them written. But we need people too. Find your peeps. They don’t have to be writers. They need to be people who get you, who support you, and who encourage you to be your best self. In an ideal world, they need to be people who also model resilience. People who know how to bend instead of break . . . and who can help you learn to do the same thing.
If you love books – whether as a reader or a writer – and if you can spare 20 minutes, have a listen to this TED talk by children’s author Mac Barnett. His premise? A good book is a secret door into another world. Be prepared to smile . . .
For writers who don’t write quickly, it can be hard to justify taking a break. Instead, we often push ourselves to write more, while mentally beating ourselves up for not being as prolific as we’d like. However, the research is clear: taking a break from what we’re working on can actually improve productivity. A new and growing body of research outlined in the New York Times shows that strategic renewal – daytime workouts, coffee breaks, time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations – boosts productivity, job performance and health.
Many writers rely on the routine of a daily walk. Stephen King gets in about four miles a day; Charles Dickens logged about three hours every afternoon. Walking leads to more creative thinking than sitting does. Researchers from Stanford University found it boosted creative output by 60 percent. That’s significant. We walk Team Sheltie once or twice a day and I look forward to the break. It often sparks story ideas or helps with my work in progress.
But a walk is just a walk. And unless you cycle or drive to a new destination every day, the same old walking routine can become stale fast.
That’s where the artist’s date comes in. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The brainchild of Julia Cameron, the artist’s date is a weekly solo expedition to explore something that interests you. It need not be overly ‘artistic.’ Cameron says it’s more ‘mischief than mastery.’ It’s meant to fire up the imagination and spark whimsy.
To be worthwhile, an artist date must happen every week and it must be taken alone. No friends, spouses, children allowed. It should involve leaving the house. What about being housebound because of bad weather, you ask. Cameron believes that an occasional in-house date if you’re alone and devoting yourself to something that ‘fills the well’ is acceptable but the goal is an excursion out of the house. Essentially, it’s a two-hour play date where you indulge your inner child.
It doesn’t have to cost anything, other than time. Some ideas:
Visit a shop that has nothing to do with what you actually do – an art supply store, a music store, a fabric, bead or (my favorite) a yarn shop.
Visit a U-pick farm.
Go to a graveyard and read the tombstones (it sounds morbid but this is great for writers who want story ideas).
Explore a neighboring town, or a part of your town you aren’t familiar with.
Take a hike.
Walk around town and take pictures of what inspires you.
Watch the birds.
Go to Home Depot with $5 in your pocket. See what cool things you can find to create an art project with five bucks. Go crazy.
Visit a plant nursery and plan your perfect garden.
Go to the library and find a book on a subject you know nothing about. Check it out.
Spend some time at a furniture auction.
Go for a bike ride.
Listen to live music.
Take yourself out for afternoon tea and people watch.
Visit a rock hound shop.
See a movie that appeals to you.
Go to a museum.
Watch a sunset.
Visit a farmer’s market.
And my personal favorite: walk on the beach and watch the waves crashing on shore.
I received a lot of feedback on last week’s blog post about writing slowly. Most people who reached out seemed rather regretful that they don’t write faster. While it’s true that writing quickly can sharpen our skills and lead to more published books, the most important thing is consistent productivity, whether you write slowly or quickly.
Here are some tips for staying productive even in the slow lane:
Choose your writing project carefully. Committing to a story you’re excited about will give you forward momentum and provide motivation.
Consider your personal time factor. Look objectively at how you currently use your time. Acknowledge the very real demands you face (outside work, children, aging parents) but also be realistic about where and how you waste time.
Set realistic writing goals. Base your goal on what you know will work, given your lifestyle and time constraints. Don’t overreach. Figure out what you can comfortably write in a week and schedule it in. Whether you set a weekly word or page count, or whether you commit to writing at a certain time, commitment is the key word in that sentence. And that leads to the next tip:
Be accountable. Share your goal with a partner, another writer, an online or in person writing group. It’s even better if they have a similar goal; you can motivate and encourage each other.
Keep your story top of mind. Have a copy of your work in progress readily available on your laptop, tablet, or in print form. Open the file so you see it first thing in the morning. Pull it out on your lunch break at work. Reading what you’re written, even if you get pulled away and can’t meet that day’s (or that week’s) goal, will pull you back into the story more quickly when you do return to it.
Minimize distractions as much as you can. Shut the door to your room or find a quiet space. Turn off social media. Wear noise cancelling headphones (it worked for me when I lived next door to a band!)
Bite off small chunks. Write for fifteen or thirty minutes. Set a timer and don’t stop writing until it goes off. Chances are, when it does, you won’t want to stop.
And speaking of stopping, one of the keys to consistent productivity is taking regular writing breaks. Yes, you read that right. Scheduled breaks help with productivity. More on that next week.
The final few pages of a novel should bring a sense of completion and ideally some satisfaction or fulfillment too (which is why I love a well-written happily ever after). At the same time, a good ending should be logical, appropriate and have a sense of inevitability about it. It’s an art, hitting those perfect notes when writing a book. But it’s an art that allows for revising and tweaking until you’re satisfied with the story you’ve written.
Life isn’t like that. Endings come whether we’re ready for them or not. We can’t always control the outcome and they’re rarely as tidy as we’d like them to be. Endings have been on my mind a lot lately. Spring has ended and summer has started. This year, the end of spring brought a couple of things to competition in my life. And they were the best kind – happy endings.
The e fraud and stalled royalty issue I wrote about in a previous blog post https://lauralangston.com/the-royalties-that-failed-to-arrive/ has been resolved. There was a big, black moment near the end (as all good endings have) where the bank refused to compensate us for the fraudulent interception, but ultimately that decision was reversed. The money was returned and my royalty payment arrived soon after.
My first ongoing mosaic project reached a natural conclusion recently too (if you missed my process, go here: https://lauralangston.com/filling-the-well-mosaic-style/ ) I spent a few hours over a period of several weeks learning all about mosaic art and filling my creative well by trying something different. The final product may not be technically perfect or as artistically ‘tidy’ as I’d like it to be, but I’m happy with it. In fact, I’m planning another mosaic project. And that’s another thing about endings. Done well, a good ending always brings with it the possibility of a new beginning, a fresh start.
I’m not great at finding time to play, and that’s been especially true lately with so many demands on my time. But as Julia Cameron talks about in “The Artist’s Way” it’s critical to take breaks, interact with the world and fill the inner well that fuels our creativity.
I thought about that last week when I took a class from Debra Hagen, a Nanoose Bay artist who specializes in mosaic art. I knew almost nothing about mosaics until I visited Debra at her house (okay, technically Team Sheltie went on a play date to visit Debra’s two shelties, Seamas and Merlin, and the humans accompanied them). Her home is vibrant, welcoming and filled with samples of her gorgeous mosaic art.
Every piece drew me in. Some were bold, others were more subtle, but they were all beautiful. When Debra said she gave classes in her studio downstairs, I was tempted, though I’m not at all artistic. I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt I told her. I’m lousy with textiles. I’d probably mess up papier-mache.
Debra assured me it didn’t matter, so I decided to make a trivet. Something bright for my new kitchen.
Debra’s studio overlooks the garden and it has the kind of happy vibe found in any creative space: a feeling of expectancy and a sense of promise. Plus, it’s filled with more of Debra’s stunning art.
I enjoyed a cup of tea while Debra gave me a very brief introduction to mosaics. She pointed out her many containers of tesserae, the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other materials used to make mosaics . . . and the pottery and china that can be broken up and also used in a mosaic. It’s referred to as pique assiette.
She talked about the substrate or rigid surface that you need to form the base, the adhesive or glue that’s used to attach the tesserae, and the basic tools like the wheeled nippers I’d need to do the job.
Like writing, the first step was settling on an idea and getting started. I quickly realized saying I was going to make a trivet was like saying I was going to write a novel. The statement was too broad. In the same way that a novel needs a plot or a character or a problem from which to build, my trivet needed something from which to build too: a central focus or a color or a piece of tile. Something. I decided on a heart for the center which Debra helped me outline on my plywood substrate.
We looked at the various bits of red tesserae that might work, but I wasn’t hooked. My eye kept going back to the china and pottery.
I found a plate with colors and a pattern I quite liked. Though it wasn’t at all red or heart-themed, something told me to go with it. I began breaking it up.
I hadn’t consciously noticed the couple on the plate when I chose it, but as I began to play with my layout, I decided they would form the center of the heart. How could they not?
Because I wanted to be sure I was happy with my layout, I placed many of the pieces on my substrate before I began gluing. That made for a longer process but I felt more confident doing it that way. At the end of the day, I wasn’t finished, but my heart had taken shape and I was thinking about background colors which I’ll tackle next time.
Once the background tesserae is glued down, those small pieces will need 48 hours to dry before it’s time for the final step: grouting.
I left Debra’s studio feeling refreshed and energized . . . and thinking about my next mosaic project!
Debra is a great teacher. She’s instructive and helpful, and at the same time she’s wise enough to step back and let the artistic process unfold. For more information on her classes or to buy one of her mosaics, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org