Slaughtering the Goat

If you’re a squeamish, goat- loving vegan this blog may not be for you.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a writer friend. The email, which was sent to a group of us, mentioned the phenomenal productivity of another writer who produces – wait for it – 100,000 words a month.

Yes, a month, and he has the books to prove it.

To which one of the group replied that the only way that would happen for her is if she slaughtered a goat and made a pact with the devil. So from now on I’ve decided to refer to my daily output or writing my words as ‘slaughtering the goat.’

Why is it that we’re never happy with our own pace of slaughtering the goat? Why do we beat ourselves up for being too slow (usually) or too fast (rarely; in fact I’ve never heard anyone complain about writing too fast)? When I stop and think about it, we all slaughter the goat differently and at our own pace. But the goat does get slaughtered. We get there in the end.

I beat myself up for a day or two after reading that email. Why don’t I write faster, why can’t I be more prolific? It didn’t take long for me to stop being so ridiculous. Traveling from one place to another takes time. Seeds grow when they’re ready to grow. Creating anything – needlepoint, art, a sculpted body – takes time too. I don’t expect instant results most of the time.

So why should I when it comes to slaughtering that damned goat?

I shouldn’t, except my writing friends are slaughtering their own goats and I’m peering over my fence watching how they’re doing it and I’m comparing their method to my method and worrying that I’m doing it wrong and being too messy and probably inefficient too. Mostly I worry, like a lot of writers do, that I’m not slaughtering the goat fast enough.

Because you know what they say: if you slaughter the goat slowly, it suffers. And nobody wants to make a goat suffer. That’s bad karma and God knows we don’t need more bad karma.

So what to do? The only thing you can do, I guess. Approach the goat with love. Treat it kindly. Carry out the slaughter the best way you can. And don’t compare how you do it to anybody else. In the end, it’s not about anybody else. It’s a deal between you and the goat.

Happy New Year and Welcome to 2017!

joywordAt the beginning of a new calendar year we often ask ourselves what we’d like to accomplish in the next twelve months. I do and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. But when I sat down the other day to think about how my next year will shape up, it occurred to me that there’s something I need to do first.

I need to take inventory. Retailers do it, generally once a year. They check out what they have left in stock, look at what’s sold and what hasn’t. Other businesses review their business plans on an annual or even semi-annual basis. Some do a SWOT analysis (looking at their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). I’ve done the SWOT thing with some writer friends several times and it’s a great exercise, especially in a group setting with people you respect and trust. But my next writing retreat is months away so I’m taking stock – taking inventory – on my own this time.

And my inventory list is focusing on joy. Why joy, you ask? Because between Christmas and the New Year I had coffee with an artist friend who confessed she’s feeling burned out. She’s normally the gung-ho sort, always up for a challenge, always creating new things. But she admitted she’s pushing herself to create, and the idea of doing more in 2017 left her feeling exhausted. I can relate. 2016 was a bitch of a year and I felt burned out by the end of it.

I’m pretty sure joy is one of the antidotes to exhaustion and burn out. It certainly helps fill a well that’s close to dry. So if you want to do a joy inventory along with me, grab a pen and paper or sit down with your laptop and open a new file.

We’re going to make a few lists. Don’t groan. It’ll be fun. And since it’s 2017, we’re going to limit each list to 17 items.

List 17 accomplishments you’re most proud of. Do it fast; don’t overthink it. It doesn’t have to be something you accomplished this year. And don’t limit yourself to professional accomplishments either (For example, I’m proud that after ten years we managed to grow a kiwi on our vine in 2016. It speaks to our tenacity and patience).

Note down 17 strengths or things you’re good at, both personally and professionally.

Next, jot down 17 things you love. Come on, this one’s easy. I can think of 17 things I love to eat, for heaven’s sake. Your list might include discovering a new writer. French press coffee. A hot bath on a cold night. The smell of sweet peas. The sound of church bells. The touch of a kitten’s fur.

Then write down 17 things you love to do. Think out of the box. What about travel? Star gazing? Meeting a friend for lunch? Needlepoint? Fixing an old car? Doing your taxes? (okay, maybe not taxes).

Finally, list out 17 places you’ve been that make you happy. If you have trouble with this one, add in a few places you’d love to go that you know would make you happy.

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now you have a sense of what brings you joy and a written record of your proudest accomplishments. Next week I’ll talk about how to use the joy inventory when it comes to goal setting.


A Block or a Blessing

writers-block (1)The subject of writer’s block came up a few times this week.  One friend is writing again after a long bout of being blocked. Another writer asked a group of us for our suggestions on overcoming writer’s block so she could compile a list for a writing course she is teaching. I also had a conversation with a third friend about the gifts inherent in writer’s block.

Yes, gifts.

Taken in literal terms, writer’s block is an inability to get to the writing, to move forward with it. But that’s not my personal yardstick.  There have been times in my life when I’ve put the writing aside, sometimes willingly, sometimes with regret.  A few years ago, I was ill for three months and couldn’t do much of anything, never mind write.   I took time away from writing in those months after both my children were born too . . . and before and after the death of my stepfather as well.  Even though I may have wanted to write back then, circumstances made it difficult.  I wasn’t blocked. I chose to put my attention elsewhere.  Life comes first for me, then writing, otherwise there’s no life in the writing.

Having said that, writing is my job, and barring illness, birth or death, I show up pretty much every day.

My writer’s block is when I show up and the words don’t flow. Luckily it doesn’t happen very often, maybe because of my training in journalism.  As a reporter in the field, I’d sometimes have fifteen minutes to put a story together. As a news announcer I was on air hourly, and I needed fresh content for every newscast. I wrote or I lost my job. It’s amazing how unblocked you get when the clock is ticking and you need to eat.

That training comes in handy. Still, there are times when I’m working on a novel and I get stuck. Blocked. Sidelined. Enticed by Twitter, the squirrel outside my office window or the oven that suddenly needs cleaning.

Dennis Palumbo, author of ‘Writing From the Inside Out’ suggests writer’s block isn’t always bad. It might be a signpost, he says, of something we need to pay attention to.  He explains it in psychological terms as a call from our subconscious.

I agree. And my subconscious usually calls because something in the story isn’t working.  When I step back, I’ll often realize something’s off in the plot or the pacing, or I’m missing something about the character. The block is a blessing, a gift, a way of calling my attention to an issue that needs addressing. It’s an amber light that says, ‘slow down, wait a second here.’

But waiting can be hard, especially when you aren’t sure why you’re waiting in the first place. So, while I wait and ponder and try to uncover what this particular gift means, here’s what I do in the meantime (aside from whining, moping, cleaning the oven or spending too much time on Twitter) :

Work on another piece of writing for a day or two.

Do something with my hands – dig in the garden, cut vegetables, paint a wall.

Get physical – walk the dogs, ride my bike, do yoga.

Feed my muse by watching a movie, reading a book, listening to music.

Reread what I’ve written, paying careful attention to the small details I’ve randomly thrown in.  There is gold in the details. Perhaps something can be fleshed out that will add depth or new perspective to my story.

Interview my character. Or write stream of consciousness stuff, in long hand, from the main character’s point of view (and sometimes the secondary characters too). What are they trying to tell me that I’m not hearing?

Finally, if all else fails and I still can’t fathom why I’ve come to a sticky place in the manuscript, I make myself write anyway. Even if it’s garbage.  Garbage can be turned into compost. Words can be revised.  Remember the words of Natalie Goldberg: “The only failure in writing is when you stop doing it. Then you fail yourself.’’