In The Beginning, Take Three

Our lunch was winding down but our beginning writer friend had several more questions. What, she asked, is the one habit that most effectively supports your writing career?

My answer came relatively quickly but I couldn’t limit it to one habit; I had two: writing every day and finishing what I start. Those two habits are the backbone of my writing career.

While I’ve blogged before about the importance of a daily writing practice, I haven’t spent a lot of time discussing the importance of finishing what I start. To be fair, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have a few half-baked ideas waiting for me in the drawer. I was going to call them partially finished manuscripts but they aren’t even that. They’re embryonic ideas in paragraph form. A couple of them go on for maybe two or three pages. They’ll be there when I’m ready for them.

Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are waiting for us to give them life. That they hang out in the ether somewhere until a creator comes along, picks them up and breathes them into being. I don’t know if it’s true, though I love her idea. What I do know is that once I start a story or a novel, I can’t not finish it. Even when I suspect the story isn’t hanging together or the character’s motivations aren’t working or I don’t like what I’m producing, I can’t stop. Finishing it becomes a compulsion. To leave it undone would be akin to gathering the ingredients for a cake, preparing the pans, mixing the batter and failing to put the whole thing into the oven. Finishing what I start and writing every day have taken me from unpublished to published. It’s as easy (and as hard!) as that.

For Lea Tassie, her most effective daily habit is self-discipline and making writing part of her routine. “It’s not easy,” she says, “but it’s necessary.”

The last question our beginning writer asked was also the hardest for me to answer. What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?

There were milestones for sure: my first sale, my first foreign edition, my first award. And while those certainly were accomplishments, with the exception of my first sale which I definitely had something to do with, many of my other career milestones came about because others worked to make them happen, or because of serendipity. Claiming them as my accomplishment didn’t feel right. And the more I thought about it, while getting books published was an accomplishment I was proud of, it wasn’t the true reward. The real reward came later when readers wrote to say how much they loved my story. Touching readers through my books is, and always will be, my most rewarding accomplishment.

Lea Tassie shares the sentiment. In her futuristic Green Blood Rising series, trees fight back against development and begin to take over the world. One of her most rewarding moments came when someone read the novel and afterwards commented that they were “driving home one night and these young trees were growing up out of the ditch and I got scared.”

Writing a book that lives on in the hearts and minds of readers is the most gratifying achievement. In the end, I think it’s the only accomplishment that truly matters.

The Ancient Art of Placement

41-How2-FengShuiForWritersI was reminded of Feng Shui recently as I restructured my office to fit in the treadmill desk. 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 which positively impacts 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.  There are also various schools of Feng Shui which interpret and apply the rules differently.

I didn’t know any of that when I picked up a book on Feng Shui years ago.  Back then, my office was a mess, and I thought perhaps the Chinese principles of Feng Shui could help. After all, as the book pointed out, many of us utilize the principles of Feng Shui without even realizing it. We arrange furniture in a certain way, decorate our living rooms artfully, and design gardens and ponds so they flow.  Why not bring that same sensibility to the space where we write our books?

Here are some of the Feng Shui principles I introduced into my office years ago, and still utilize, to a greater or lesser extent, 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. My desk is black and grounding, which is good for 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.

A Small Production . . . A Big Impact

photo_buddy_1I saw a stunningly good play a while back – The Buddy Holly Story at the Chemainus Theatre. Everything about it was exceptional – the acting, the singing, the entire production. It’s playing through early April; if you can get there, go. You won’t be disappointed.

The whole experience made me think about talent . . . about success . . . about what we value as a society.

There was Buddy Holly himself. I didn’t know much about him going in (other than the fact that he wrote Peggy Sue and he died young in a plane crash). I didn’t realize how hard he had to work to gain recognition for his ‘new’ kind of music. He refused to let society beat his talent down.

The performers also made me think. To say they were good is an understatement. The level of talent was up there with anything I’ve seen in London’s West End or on Broadway. And yet this show is running in a 275 seat theatre in a town of 4,000 located on an insignificant island in the Pacific Northwest. It will make only a tiny blip on the arts scene – a small success by our cultural standards.

We don’t celebrate small (Unless it’s the numbers of the scale). We celebrate big and we chase it too. Actors want their performances to find the widest possible audiences; they dream of movie deals and coveted awards. Writers do too (and anyone who denies it is lying).

Dreams are great things to have. So is ambition and drive. Without it I’d be on the couch clicking between HGTV and the Food Network and I’d probably never write another book. But it seems to me we’re so intent on celebrating those big successes – the famous runs – that we sometimes forget to appreciate the small ones.

Small can be good. Small can be beautiful. Small can represent a large amount of talent. Go to Chemainus. Watch Buddy Holly. You’ll see what I mean.