I've been building scaffolding around writing a book: supports to give my project many chances to succeed.
The first eighteen months of starting this book involved resting, wool-gathering, reading. Writing questions to myself in a small black journal dedicated to the book. Mulling things over. An apt image would be a large, shallow collecting basket for those fragments of herbs, bits of shiny stuff and strands of half-stories.
Another crucial part was taking a summer off from researching the book-- something that I could never have done in my corporate career. But I was so burned out; it was a huge relief to just be a human being and not a writer for three months. I spent hours outdoors. I painted with watercolors and swam, cooked, spent time with family and traveled. When fall came, I was rested and ready.
I had to get my house in order. I gathered all the books on my topic into one area. I printed some of my notes. I taped photos of my subjects to the wall in my office.
Next came the talisman. From Etsy, I bought and tied on an inexpensive thread bracelet as a reminder of my commitment to this book. I made a double square knot. Either the bracelet wears away and falls off, or the book is completed, whichever comes first. This is my own invention and I have done it for three books so far. Also in the magical realm, I remembered a lesson from writer and teacher Kate Evans and wrote a permission slip, posted on the wall, which allows me to say yes to the everything that helps me write the book, and say no to mostly everything else. You can call on ancestors and angels for help in the permission slip, too.
Another author/teacher, Joan Rose Staffen, recommends writing a manifesto, an extended permission slip where you note which hours work best for you, what your rewards might be, and what you have at stake. Both methods strengthen one’s writing self. As author and journalist Cathleen Miller often told her students, “Only YOU can write this book.”
Then more practical steps. I blocked out writing time during weekday mornings in my phone calendar. On the whiteboard I created an 18-month timeline, breaking the time into chunks for drafting scenes (relatively quickly, 12 weeks) and more time for revision and polishing. This schedule gives me December off for holidays and family. Also April, to take a breather before more edits.
On yellow pads I listed actions to take. The lists are not necessarily in order. As composer John Cage famously said, “Begin anywhere.” This year, for the first time, I opened a large monthly calendar on paper where I briefly log in, by hand, what I accomplished that day. I created documents for chapter one, the table of contents, the introduction, the bibliography, the chapter notes. And I created a tracking sheet for elements of the book, including the index and acknowledgements.
Here's a writing accelerator: I bought Ann Randolph’s Unmute Yourself writing class, 9:00 am Monday through Friday, to join anywhere from fifty to a hundred other people on Zoom while we write. This is my second go-round of structure, ritual, and fellowship. The class lasts a month and the low price is well worthwhile to jumpstart the morning writing routine.
Three weeks in, I’ve completed drafting Chapter 1, and parts of Chapter 2 and the introduction. Once I’ve finalized the table of contents, I'll review the notes from the past year and tuck them into a tickler file, confining them to their chapter.
The process I’m describing evolved over time. It gives me enough processes and rituals and tools to keep addressing the work, morning after morning. Each day that I log progress, I feel some satisfaction. I wrote, and the book is moving in the right direction. I hope something in this laundry list might help someone else as they think through how to attack their own next book.
Yesterday I reviewed my log of writing, reading and art-making since January, and was pleasantly surprised. My current projects are so much in their beginning stages that everything feels loose and mysterious, and I had wondered whether much had been accomplished at all. But there it is in black and white – scores of days of generative writing, mostly essays that can feed the projects, plus several months of reading (biographies) for research, and very recently, some summery days of plein air painting and collage. My studio is a chaotic, fertile mess. I flew to Seattle to soak up a writer’s conference. I pitched a lecture about Spiritualism and historic women in the San Jose area and landed a date at the Winchester Mystery House; I reviewed Marc Zegans’ haunting book of San Francisco poems, Lyon Street, and now the review lives in the summer print edition of Rain Taxi. What an honor! And poems I wrote about my Dad were published online in the summer edition of the excellent and tender Months to Years Literary Journal. That feels like a reasonable workload for six months. I am now my own boss, and my boss gives me Fridays off.
Late last fall we sadly learned of the death of my first husband, the painter, poet and cartoonist Momo. Father to my daughter and stepdaughters, Momo and I shared nearly thirteen years of art shows and escapades, first in the narrow alleyways of San Francisco’s North Beach, then in Eugene, Oregon, and finally in an outpost in pre-Google Mountain View. I’ve been reviewing those days, sifting through them. Nostalgia could come too easily – “those were the creative days.” But in fact, that’s not true. I was an active poet and performer when I met him, and had begun to paint and sculpt. When we met and married, through no real fault of his, I became a Shadow Artist, an important phrase by Julia Cameron. The spotlight was on Momo. I became his manager, curator, driver, dresser, and the one who paid the bills. I guess I needed all that experience – it grew me into a successful project manager and corporate communicator. But only after the marriage ended did I gain the energy to write books, and to create piles of collages for art shows. Some successful artistic couples collaborate to create a rich body of work – but it just didn’t work out that way for me.
Now I keep learning lessons over and over about how to stay a healthy and fully creative human being. For example, the writing and art won't happen unless I arrange conditions for the flow -- a place to work, the right tools, a time carved out on my calendar. And to say yes to my current projects means saying NO to so many other attractive things, especially in this "post-pandemic" summer when theaters, concerts and fairs are newly revived, and travel beckons, and friends want to gather. No complaints about this abundance, but I'm working on balance. There's a new biography underway, another how-to book, a memoir and more. Thank goodness for all those years learning project management! Enjoy your summer.
My book launched with its attendant fanfare and then quieted down within the expected ninety days. Since then I’ve been in an uncomfortable state of transition. I have a couple of books in messy progress, but no buyers for them and no incentive to finish them this year.
I need an income and miss the comradeship of working with an office team. The job search has begun, though an upcoming trip overseas prevents me from throwing myself into the search 100%. So I’m neither here nor there, not very solvent, and feeling a little guilty.
It’s the worst time to stay at home, though puppy, garden and my library do their best to keep me there. About a month ago I was really, really down. Searching job sites unleashes waves of detailed information. Piles of email notifications arrive daily. Some job descriptions remind me of skills I don't have, while searches on LinkedIn tell me that 885 other people applied for the same job as me. Like many thousands of others, I write persuasive cover letters and keyword-loaded resumes, and they sail off into silence.
Enter MeetUp. One day I found my way to the site and started to pick out Meetup groups to join. Fancy meeting other human beings in a neutral place based on a common interest!
The first group I attended is called Shut Up and Write. What a boon to an isolated writer. I met five people in a coffee shop. We opened our laptops and chatted while we got settled. After fifteen minutes, everyone shut up and wrote for an hour. Two people worked on their novels, another on her thesis, another on game development, and we had a blogger. It was SO helpful to hear keys tapping around the shared large table. Win, win, win.
Then I started taking walks with Vintage Women. We explored new parks and neighborhoods. One day Meetup suggested a job networking group called CSix Connect. As formal and volunteer-driven as a Toastmasters meeting, CSix presents a chance to dress up and network, which pushed me into a better career groove: after the first meeting I cut my hair and ordered fresh business cards. Through the CSix meetings I found a subgroup that studies the sustainability and renewable energy industries in my area, so that I am finally connecting my interests. My current elevator speech: "I can evangelize green technologies!"
The first event with Unstoppable Women of Silicon Valley netted marvelous conversations with women who are on interesting, inspiring career journeys. I came home with ten follow-up action items, feeling excited.
There are four events to prepare for and attend this week, and who knows what might happen from them? It’s a little scary meeting all these new people, but I can see that it's radically increased my mental diet of positive, interesting information, and enlarged my sphere of connections across the
“When artists and professionals regularly accept responsibility for their actions, they shape deep, rich, and evolving pictures of who they are, pictures that permit them to act consistently with emerging notions of their authentic selves.” Intentional Practice & The Art of Finding Natural Audience: A Framework for Artists and Professionals.
Marc Zegans is a poet in Santa Cruz, California who provides creative development advice to artists, musicians, actors, directors, and other creatively minded professionals such as therapists. He wrote a brilliant, very slender e-book a few years ago and put it on Amazon at such a ridiculously low price that it should already rest in the toolbox of every artist and professional.
I recently re-read it and was reminded of how I want to function as an active, authentic, ethical artist and minister, and where my natural audiences might be. Based on my working session with his book and his penetrating questions, I now know exactly how I will overhaul my website and blog in the next few weeks so that they more accurately reflect who I am.
If you want to know more about Marc and the many creatives and professionals he’s helped, trot on over to www.mycreativedevelopment.com.
Meanwhile, here are two more of many, many gems from his book:
“Your natural audience isn’t everyone you can pull into the room; it’s the group of people who have a good reason to be there.”
“Often, we claim that authenticity and integrity demand distance as a rationale to cover our fear of engagement. When such claims are based in fear, there is nothing authentic about them. We are using a ploy to protect ourselves from finding out how good we really are, what we can do when we have resources, and what we will do when we don’t.”
I confess I have been stymied this past week as to what to write. None of my wedding topics seemed right, and I didn’t want to pull out a rerun yet. But for the first time I was blocked. Why? Perhaps it is because I am suffering from a terrible case of In-between-ness.
After thirteen months of steady work, I have completed one thing, The Book (about weddings). And not yet started the next thing. Soon the big push to publicize The Book will commence, but right now it is completely out of my hands. No-one from the publisher has requested anything for days. Copy editors are reviewing the manuscript, and in a conference room somewhere an editor and a sales expert are hashing out the title. So I don’t even know what to call The Book yet.
More shall be revealed. I am sure that one morning I will be called to hit the ground running. In the meantime, cloudless days come and go, my daughter jets back to her school life, and I struggle to reorient myself.
Writers have told me that the best antidote for post-book insanity is to start another book. Now I viscerally understand what they mean, and I agree. Publicity will bend my sanity. Good reviews and bad reviews and NO reviews will whack my ego all out of joint. The only joy I can count on is in the process of working through another book, and perhaps finishing that one, too.
Earlier this week I pulled about thirty resource books from my library and planned a sprawling, intergenerational saga, complete with geology and recipes. This book may yet arise, and I honor that, but something else happened and my path diverted.
It diverted so much from the original that I replaced my sourcebooks back on their shelves.
This new path fills me with excitement, wonder, and terror. So I think I am onto something genuine. But I can’t talk about any of it just yet.
During my travels in South India in 2009, I became acquainted with a goddess who has become perhaps my favorite. Her name is Aditi, and she is very, very old. “Mother of all the gods” is one description. Wikipedia says she is associated with space, and with mystic speech. You can buy little cards with pictures on them of Lakshmi, Durga, Saraswati, even Kali, but there seems to be no traditional portrait of Aditi, the unfettered, the boundless one. She has been symbolized sometimes by a cracked earthenware pot, and sometimes by an empty mirror.
Aditi governs the margins, the space between dark and dawn, the in-between times. I think that now is my fertile, awkward, wordless and uncomfortable Aditi time.
Guess I will go find a cracked vessel and look at it.