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winter landscape - winter sunrise

I’ve been trying to keep showing a cheerful front to the world here in this blog, Facebook and elsewhere, but it’s time for a confession. I haven’t done any creative writing in many months.

I’m not ready to go into the reasons at this point. I can only say that I’m facing a challenge bigger than any I’ve encountered thus far, including my husband’s stroke. The good news is that I have learned a lot from that crisis and am using it all now. I am no longer looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve also discovered that I can light my own way.

My instincts (which have been serving me very well lately and I should have listened to before) are telling me to focus my energy on solving the current crisis and that it is OK to take a break from writing. Sometimes writing is a solace, but pushing myself to write now—even if I had time—would be like a runner trying to train on a broken leg.

I am doing is letting go of the guilt imposed by internal and external critics and trusting myself. I know how to be mindful, how to tell I am being too hard or too easy on myself, how to ask the right questions and find out what I need more of, what I need less of, not only to get through the crisis but to thrive afterwards.

I think we all can do this. As Jane Austen wrote, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

In order to learn to attend to that guide, I’ve been rereading Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She writes about women’s need to “go home”, where “Home is a sustained mood or sense that allows us to experience feelings not necessarily sustained in the mundane world: wonder, vision, peace, freedom from worry, freedom from demands, freedom from constant clacking. All these treasures from home are meant to be cached in the psyche for later use in the topside world.” One can “go home” many ways, including going into nature, praying, meditating, making art.

She also writes “if a woman doesn’t go when it’s her time to go, the hairline crack in her soul/psyche becomes a ravine, and the ravine becomes a roaring abyss.” I know from experience that this is true. So while I’m dealing with some crazy-making issues, I’m also doing my Morning Pages (a type of journaling taught in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron), meditating at every day and finding pockets of time to do smaller projects that sustain my creativity while demanding less time than the writing.

I am not leaving the Riskies, as our new schedule of posting just once a month allows me enough time to do the rest of the work I must do before I can write again. And I will get back to writing. The river hasn’t dried up; it’s only gone underground for a while.

Do you “go home”? How?


Fig with flashlight-2I’ve been working on a new story, but suddenly I’ve been away from it for a couple of weeks, and now I’m wallowing in doubts. When that happens, I start thinking about things like –where do our stories come from? That’s a question authors often hear from readers at book signings. Do we pluck them out of the ether? Are they gifts? Can we explain how two different thoughts may suddenly connect like flint and steel to spark a story inspiration? If we knew how it works, would it help us when we get stuck? Would it help us write faster? Better?

Since everyone’s creative process works differently, there’s no one answer, anyway, but visualization is most certainly part of it. At a recent workshop at my local writers group (RIRW), the subject was self-hypnosis, on the theory that improving ourselves also improves our writing. It was fascinating and covered a great deal, but one thing that struck me was the great similarity between the techniques of meditation and visualization that were presented by the speaker and the process of story creation. We joke a lot about writers staring off into space and claiming we’re working, but really, that “daydreaming” about our characters and what is happening to them is a lot like a self-induced hypnotic state. The relaxation required to get there helps open our creative receptors and allows the imagination to pull up the sights and sounds and people and events our stories grow from. Like most skills, it improves the more we practice it.

Some writer friends of mine who are very prolific tell me they are able to “skip around” in their stories, writing whatever scene they can ‘see” and eventually fitting all those pieces together. Often they have a view of the entire story, and can put the plot down on paper or even write a more-or-less detailed outline. I have to say I envy that ability! I am a linear writer. Until I know what the characters have done and said in the present scene, I don’t know what they are going to do later on. When it comes to work styles, writers are often classified as “planners” or “pantsers” (pantsers “fly by the seat of their pants” instead of by a map), but most writers fall somewhere in between, a combination. Those who can “see” most or all of their story undoubtedly can be “planners”. How lovely to have a road map!! Many of us –however much we wish otherwise– can’t see that far ahead. I always liken my process to that phrase you read above in the title –stumbling along in the fog at night armed with only a flashlight.

Writing is an act of faith –always. When you can only see a little bit at a time, it becomes a huge act of faith. You get stuck in blind alleys and have to back out. You always hope the path you are following is the right one, the one that will lead to a satisfying ending, the center of the maze. You have to believe there is a reason you were given this story idea in the first place!

The Artists Way coverThere are two resources I often turn to in times of doubt. One is The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. I believe the creative process is also spiritual, and the program of self-examination and inspiration this book lays out helps you to find and reinforce that connection. The other is Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, one of the best books of advice for writers. I can open this book to any page and be comforted, inspired, and amused all at once, but the advice to take the writing “bird by bird” (one small thing at a time) is huge when the job starts to appear overwhelmingly impossible.

Bird by BirdIf you write, what do you when a spell of doubting happens to you? Are you a planner or a pantser, or a combination? What resources do you turn to when your faith needs to be bolstered? Have you read the ones I mentioned? If you’re a reader, have you ever asked authors where their ideas came from? If you have, what answers did you get?

First, a reminder to Lil. You have won a copy of The Redwyck Charm. Please send your snail mail address to elena @ (no spaces). And now to my post….

I’ve been feeling down this winter, between life issues and several bouts of the flu. It’s been hard to get good blocks of writing time, which I need in order to be productive. (And yes, I’ve tried writing in small pockets of time. It always backfires on me because I get so frustrated having to stop just when the words begin to flow.)

Recently I decided to start playing piano again, because it’s something I can enjoy, even if it’s just ten or fifteen minutes. I’m not that good and never was, but since I’m playing just for myself, it doesn’t matter. What I really need is some sort of creative outlet to lift my mood on days when I can’t write.

Sometimes I envy the life of a lady of leisure, with time to perfect her music.  Maybe it would be scary to be expected to perform, but on the other hand, it would be nice to have an appreciative listener. Maybe someone like Colonel Brandon listening to Marianne Dashwood or even Darcy listening to Elizabeth, who sounds like she was a dabbler just like me.

pianoSometimes I live vicariously through my heroines. In one scene from The Incorrigible Lady Catherine, the hero catches her playing Beethoven (considered inappropriate for young ladies) when she thinks no one is around. While writing, I listened to a recording of the sonata she is playing. I could only play it in my dreams!

There was a pause. He took a few steps toward the drawing room, but stopped as he heard Miss Arndale begin to play again. This time it was a darker music, rippling and cascading, the end of each phrase accented with forceful staccato notes. Full of passion. He’d never heard anything like it before.

He peered through the threshold of the drawing room as she began another movement, slow and reflective, with an understated pathos. She looked so very lovely, her eyes half-closed, her slim body swaying ever so subtly in time with the music. He didn’t dare interrupt. He didn’t even want to breathe as he watched her silently from the shadows beyond the doorway.

The slow melody ended, and she launched into an exuberantly lively tune which sounded like the finale. Philip listened in wonder as she transitioned from a bold, intricate passage to a contrasting theme as tender as a love song. He saw the flush of concentration on her face as she returned to the earlier bold theme, her look of exultation as she drove out the final notes, rising, mounting to a glorious final chord.

A critique partner said she was expecting Catherine to smoke a cigarette at this point, which I took as a compliment.

Do any of you enjoy making music, amateur or otherwise?  Do you enjoy musical heroes or heroines?


P.S. The painting is by Edmund Blair Leighton.

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Today I have nothing to talk about because I’m Getting Creative. Oxymoronic? Well, yes. Everything goes inward and the mind rambles. For instance, in the false starts that began this post, all mercifully deleted, my mind wandered on the following topics: Bill Nighy, Facebook, Goodreads, Voldemort, grammar, Judging the Big Contest That Shall Not Be Named, lunch, houseplants, and back to Bill Nighy.

I really like Bill Nighy.

But this Getting Creative thing: What do I want to do next, what might sell (I’m clueless), what will stop me getting bored. This time around I’m approaching from the opposite direction to my usually haphazard process. I’m planning. I will be messing with file cards and diagrams and pencil scribbles. I might actually get to know characters before I pluck their names out of the air and drop them into a story.

And I have the books to read for the Contest That Shall Not Be Named. I have a clutch of books I’ve never even heard of and even though it’s only a handful it reminds me how many thousands of books are out there and how easy it is for a good book to be overlooked. This is a scary, inexplicable business.

I’m happy to mention, though, that I’ve done some things I decided on at the beginning of the year: I went to the National Gallery in Washington DC to see the exhibit The Pre-Raphaelite Lens which I enjoyed. I started tidying my office. I started thinking about getting ready to tidy the house. I might, even, gasp, sort out my books and decide which ones I really am never going to look at ever again to make more space (and not buy again).

So I pose a challenge to you: track your thoughts and see where they go, as I did at the beginning of this post, and see what you can come up with.

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In the September issue of The Romance Writers Report, the monthly magazine of The Romance Writers of America) there is an article by Eric Maisel about Beating the Writer’s Blues.

Eric Maisel is a renowned author of 30 books, most about creativity and writing. He’s a psychotherapist, who now confines his practice to creativity coaching. He has an impressive resume and I liked a lot of what he said about dealing with the depressive feelings that often plague writers.

Maisel is careful to advise a medical evaluation for depression that continues or seems severe, and that is good. He acknowledges the existence of depression that his biologically based and the efficacy of antidepressant medication.

Before I became a romance author, I was a mental health therapist in a County mental health program for senior adults. Statistics show that nearly 25 per cent of people over age 60 experience some sort of depression, so I had quite a bit of exposure to depression and its treatment. I am certainly not putting myself forward as an expert on depression but I did have enough experience to develop my own point of view on the subject.

Maisel says: “(Creative people) experience depression simply because we are caught up in a struggle to make life meaningful to us. People for whom meaning is no problem are less likely to experience depression.” Maisel suggests that creative people–writers–are different; their depressions are rooted in “meaning” problems. I just don’t agree with this. I don’t think that writers are “special.” I think we have special skills, the skill of story-telling, but so do mechanics have special skills. I don’t think that only creative people search for the meaning of life.

How can I say that a mechanic does not have problems with the meaning of his life? Why would a mechanic not have a journey similar to the example Maisel gives of an author whose crisis of meaning tumbles him into depression? I’ll bet I could come up with a scenario for a mechanic that would mirror that example. Or a salesclerk. Or a factory worker.

I’m not fond of hearing authors (mostly literary) speak as if their creativity somehow makes them different from the rest of the world. I see that tone a lot in the daily literary quotes that show up on my Google page. On the other hand, I understand this feeling, this need to be special, and to value the skills that are perhaps only shared by a minority of mankind. It’s just that I believe that there are many ways to be special and writing is only one of them. If I were a mechanic, I would hope to feel very proud of my mechanical skills.

In 1946 Viktor Frankl, one of the early thinkers in existential psychology, wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, a work that came from his experiences in a Concentration Camp. Frankl observed that all people search for meaning in their lives, and that even in that hellish, hopeless environment, people still had choices. They could still choose their attitude, how they thought about what they experienced, the meaning they attributed to their life. He quotes Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

So I’m with Frankl. We all search for meaning in our lives.

Nor do I believe that being a creative person, like a writer, means that one is more prone to depression than the general population. I went looking on the internet to see what the current thinking is on this and especially to see what research has found. Apparently some studies link creativity and bipolar illness (manic-depressive illness; one of the depressive illnesses), but there appears to be no clear link between other forms of depression and creativity.

I do suspect that the creative writer is better able–and more likely–to describe his or her experience.

One thing was clear in the articles I read. Treatment enhanced creativity in depressed creative persons. I think it would be a treat to have a creativity coach like Maisel, but, really, a good psychotherapist should be able to help.

I promise I won’t “talk psychology” a lot on this blog but this was a topic I could not resist.

So….what do you think? Do you think that creative persons’ depressions are a crisis of meaning that is different than what other people experience? (Or dare you disagree with Diane???) Do you have any theories or beliefs about depression?

Remember to check out my website which has been updated for September.

And please visit my Unleash Your Story homepage and make a small donation for Cystic Fibrosis. Every little bit will help!

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