writer in progress: first aid

The special function of literature is to diffuse enchantment without which men's minds become shrunken and cold. -- Constance Lindsay Skinner

"Well, now that we have seen each other," said the unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. -- Lewis Carroll

In this daily pursuit of writing, there are so many ways to get off track. So many reasons why, suddenly, I'm not writing.

Sometimes it's as simple as: the phone rang twenty times, curiosity got the better of me, I picked up. Sometimes, it's because everything in our house decided it needed to be repaired, and the family spends a week around roofers, carpenters, appliance repairmen, and the plumber.

Sometimes it's more personal: an emotional crisis wipes out any desire to work, think, imagine. Or, the exact opposite: a week of fun, time with family, brilliant outings with my sisters. It's what we live for ... but it's really hard to get back to work.

Sometimes a beast of an illness has one iron fist around the lungs, another around the throat, and I just don't feel much like writing.

Sometimes everything happens at once--the perfect storm.

And sometimes, I fall off the tracks for no apparent reason at all.

I used to respond badly when my writing schedule got stomped on. I'd make huge, elaborate plans (who, me??) intended to whip me and my novel back into shape, in two weeks, two days, two minutes. That writing superhero stuff. I was so sure it could work.

Except, it never did.

Jenn-as-superhero would stare at the gorgeous, beautifully formatted schedule, the ink still a bit damp, and then wander off to go do something else. Take a nap, watch a movie, unload the dishwasher. Pick at the paint on the walls. Anything else.

So, I got wise. Actually, I finally read enough of Heather Sellers' brilliant advice that she finally convinced me: it's not about whipping yourself into shape, but about inviting yourself into your writing practice again.

Ha, is what I used to say. Invitation? I didn't think so. I knew what got me through college, through one crunch-time after another, dodging the semi-annual minefield of deadlines. I never "invited" myself to enjoy my studying and essay writing. Nope, I pushed myself to the brink and a bit beyond. Everything got done. That's how you work, I concluded.

Except ... it really doesn't work with writing. Not really. Sometimes, yes, you need the firm boot of discipline to kick yourself to the writing desk. Absolutely. But when my writing's seriously off the tracks, I don't kick myself anymore. I do the exact opposite.

So here it is, my best writing first aid: I get lost in all the stuff I love.

To be more precise, I surround myself with all the reasons why I write. I plunge into stories, of every kind, in every form.

Which means, I listen to brilliant musicians, with stunning lyrics and gorgeous melodies. (Right now, that would be Andrew Peterson, Coldplay, David Crowder, and Mumford & Sons.)

Or, I have myself a little movie festival. I watch the stories that tug at me, the ones that remind me why stories are important. Why I love the fantastical narrative. I'll watch Peter Pan and Finding Neverland, hand in hand. Stranger than Fiction usually gets me psyched up to write. Or Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, or the Pirates flicks (especially the third), or the recent Narnia movies.

Or I'll go on a book binge. Billy Collins, of course--I'll read him until I'm drunk on words. Or Leif Enger, because he reminds me how perfectly beautiful a sentence can be. I'll drown myself in any of the book crush books, really--especially fiction, especially young adult or middle grade fiction. Or even picture books, like next Thursday's book crush. I read until I believe in books again, until I believe in what a narrative can do.

Or click through some of Anne-Julie Aubry's truly astonishing art work. Browsing her site puts me right back in the mood to write.

The precise tool kit changes with the circumstances, but I usually know what I'm after. It isn't inspiration, not really. I think I'm trying to wave a juicy morsel in front of my inner storyteller. Trying to tantalize the word-loving, story-swallowing part of me, trying to draw her out and back toward the desk.

And it works. Every time, given time, it works.

Suddenly I hear all the stories I've been thinking of; I hear my characters poking at me and at one another. I can see the best settings, hear the fabulous dialogue, get a thrilling, three-dimensional sense of what my story could be. If I don't give up on it.

I remember exactly what it is I love about this, why this is the only life I can imagine. And I'm back to work. ... And it doesn't feel like work.

This is how I get un-blocked with any creative area, really. If I feel bland in the kitchen, I try something crazy at a new restaurant. I browse brilliant cookbooks until I'm drooling on the pages. I get lost at a good grocer. If I can't make myself knit, I go touch all the wool at a yarn store.

In high school, after watching a drum corps perform, I remembered why exactly I suffered through the drills, the wool pants, the August heat. When I couldn't make myself practice piano any more, I'd put on a Debussy CD or go to a piano recital, and marvel at what those keys can do.

I think it's about love, really. Every creative pursuit has plenty of punishment, hardship, failure. Lots of failure, really. And I've learned, I can't discipline my way out of a failed manuscript. I can't force myself to do more hours, bigger leaps, harder assignments.

It's when I put that aside and fall in love with stories again... that's when I'm ready to leap and fall once more.

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