Elizabeth Mitchell

The Glass Is Always Full By Elizabeth Mitchell

In her New Year’s post, Kait mentioned Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, especially her remarks about the culture of scarcity, which I wager is familiar to many of us.  We focus on the lack of sleep from the moment we awaken to the shortfall of things done that day when we hit the pillow that night. Our self-perception is that we consistently fail to meet our expectations. As Kait says,“[t]his is a self perpetuating cycle of making us feel like we’re always behind and we suck.”

Kait urges a change to a culture of gratitude. “Be grateful for what words you get, grateful for those bursts of creativity, grateful for the community of writers we have here to support each other.”  The idea of escaping from the culture of constantly not measuring up has great appeal for me. Although my father was generally optimistic, he often focused on the half-empty glass when it came to my grades.  My mother, who would have been diagnosed as melancholic in the Middle Ages, focused on the half-empty glass in all areas of her life.  Her only full glass was of things lacking–not enough money, time, or attention.

After a tough Round Four, I am concentrating on the half-full glass in all areas of my life.  I gladly strive for a culture of gratitude toward writing.  In this vein, I model my behavior on two posts from last year, which point out looking at small things with gratitude, and sometimes squinting to see the half-full glass.

Last summer, Eden Mabee wrote about finding the time to write, pointing out that sometimes the difficulty lies in our notions about time and word count.  Eden suggests five sentences grabbed from little spaces of time throughout the day.  I used to pride myself on finding the little spaces of time in the day–the five minutes before the meeting starts at the day job, the fifteen minutes wrested from the lunch break, but Eden has broken it down into miniscule spaces of time.

Especially in the maelstrom of NaNo, I clung to the idea of five sentences.  Often it was more, and it became even more as the habit ingrained itself, but I could always count on the time to write five sentences.

At Thanksgiving, Kristen Lamb wrote about unseen blessings, which is really a way of finding gratitude in things that don’t at first engender gratitude. I especially liked her example about being grateful she has to wash the dog blankets, because it means she has a dog for a companion.

Every time I put on my bathrobe and it smells like my Weimaraner, I remember to be grateful for the dog who knows from three rooms away when I am crying.

I encourage you to look for ways to see the half-full glass in writing.

Be grateful for the five sentences written, words that didn’t exist yesterday.

Be grateful for the tendrils that those five sentences send into the ether, today or the next day, buzzing in the back of your mind during cooking, cleaning, meditation, or sleep. They hold promise for the next day with all the directions they can go.

Be grateful for the “zero” draft that was written in a near channeling trance, because it contains flesh that can be carved to fit bones you will create in the future.

Be grateful for the character who will not shut up because she is showing you what she needs and wants.

Be grateful for the quiet character who needs to be coaxed into revelation, because often the cliché of still waters is true, and adds depth to your writing.

Be grateful for the critical beta reader who points out the flatness of the character or the dialogue, because instead of being overwhelmed with the task of editing, your focus is clear.

Be grateful for the reader who loves everything you write, because we can always use a cheerleader.

Be grateful for the distraction that pulls you from the writing, because it gives you a chance to look at the words anew when you return.

Be grateful for the quiet time before anyone is awake, or after all are asleep, because words found in peace often resonate.

Be grateful for the laundry, the dishes, the dusting, because when the hands are busy, the mind is often free to invent worlds.

Be grateful for the helping hands that free you from the chores more quickly, and loose you into the world you have invented.

Be grateful for the words that come, whether they come easily or slowly. They are a creation that did not exist before you, and will last after you are gone.

~*~

Elizabeth Mitchell

The Mask of Fear by Elizabeth Mitchell

It’s inevitable. Every Round, I’ll have a great idea for a sponsor post that gets blown out of the water by something I see or read just days before I have to write the post.  Yes, that has happened again. Kait Nolan put up the vlog post “Masks Writers Wear,” by Kelsey Macke. In this post, Kelsey points out the mask of indifference — denying that we care what our readers think; the mask of fear — denying our fear of what people think, of what might happen, or not happen with our creative work; and the mask of invincibility — denying our  fragility and inability to be everything to everyone all the time.

Masks are how we hide the three-year-old who is afraid of the unknown.  I have perfected so many masks in my repertoire.  I took the New York  subway for the first time two weeks ago, hiding behind my blasé “Yes, I do this all the time” mask. I enter a classroom or an interview with my “Nervous? Not me!” mask firmly in place.  These are necessary masks; they minimize being bothered by the guys selling tours outside Grand Central Terminal or maximize convincing the students or employers you know your stuff.

The majority of the writing I have done all my life is heavily masked.  My thoughts are well hidden under hypothesis and proof; emotion is unseemly and unwanted.  Scholarly writing is akin to a technically perfect, and utterly lifeless, piano performance. There is no heart, no passion; while such is the goal of academic and technical writing, it is what makes creative nonfiction and fiction dull and uninteresting. I have struggled with the proportions of how much to reveal and how much to hide in my writing; I know I am not alone.

My strongest reaction to this vlog post, however, is to the mask of fear. Kelsey Macke points out good writing needs the heart-stopping fear that comes with being vulnerable and exposed.  If I have never had the experience, I have to work through it as though I have, without masks and distance.  If I have gone through the experience, hurts must be explored, hearts and souls bared to an uncomfortable degree. I have to talk to the three-year-old, who remembers far too clearly all the fears, traumas, and slights of my entire life, and who is incapable of smoothing the mask over any of them.  Talking to that child is among the scariest things I can imagine, because everything is still raw, new, and painful.  Although when I write I hide the details so my family will still send dinner invitations, I allow the details the power to hurt me again, in order to put that into the words.

Nothing else is more persuasive that creative writing is not for wimps. There is no mask in place; there is no distance between the three-year-old soul and the reader.

~*~

Elizabeth Mitchell

Forced Writing by Elizabeth Mitchell

Last Round, I confessed that writing is my avocation, not my vocation.  This Round, I have another confession. Unlike so many of you, I am not a writer who can’t not write.  Near the end of the last Round, I read a post that struck harmonic resonances with me. Ryan Urie, in a guest post, wrote, “Over and over other authors tell me ‘I write because I can’t not write!’ At which point I turn a little green with envy, duck my head, and slink away feeling a little self-conscious and completely unworthy as a writer because, let me tell you, not writing is the easiest thing in the world for me.”

Preach it, brother, because I have that experience with ROWers all the time. I see the word counts, the NaNos and Camp NaNos, Fast Drafts and word sprints, and hide away, polishing my paltry 250 words a day, on a good day, that is. Sure, every year or so, I have a character who moves into my head, squawking until I pay him/her attention, but most of the time? I can not write just fine.  I can spend hours watching 1930’s or 40’s movies, playing video games, reading books, philosophizing with family and friends, or even doing housework. My apartment was never cleaner when I was writing (or not) my Master’s thesis; when I have an article to write for work, my cubicle could star in an Office Beautiful spread.  But when I’m trying to write fiction, I suffer the torments of several circles of Dante’s inferno. Characters tell me I’m boring, a snob, and so out of touch as to be mummified. I second-guess every plot point and line of dialogue. I write 1000 words, to throw out 700.  I am Sisyphus in a tormented cha-cha.

Those of you lucky driven writers may wonder why I bother, when I have to quell the magpie, shut my eyes to the wonders of the internet when researching, convince myself that I am not thirsty and do not need to wander down to the kitchen. I bother because writing helps me puzzle out the twists and turns of life; understand what things carry meaning for me; ponder the lessons of the past to understand the present.  I write in the hope of informing and entertaining others;  in making others think about things that are newer than we think, like easy access to water and food; or older than we realize, like teenage angst and adoration of rock stars. Although I struggle to sit down, and the words rarely come easily, I find the rewards worth the effort and pain. My life is richer, my appreciation for it deeper, and my angst of living in the wrong century lessened.

Are you one of the lucky writers, whose words flow into the bowl of the fountain, constantly overflowing into the basin below?  Or might you be more in my camp, pushing the rock up the mountain over and over? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 ~*~

Elizabeth Mitchell

What Place Does Writing Have in Your Life? by Elizabeth Mitchell

Kait’s opening post this Round contained a quote from John Wooden as quoted by James Scott Bell.  In part, Wooden said, Don’t worry about trying to be better than someone else. . . . You have no control over that.  Instead try, and try very hard, to be the best you can be.  That you have control over.

 

Ever since I joined ROW80 8 Rounds ago, I have struggled with comparing myself to others, so Wooden’s advice seemed targeted at me and my green-eyed monster. So many in the group have published, write very well, work diligently at the craft, and in many ways have the fire in the belly that denotes dedication. Me?  The fire doesn’t burn in the same way.

 

About a year ago, I accepted a more complicated day job; it offered good pay, excellent benefits and life in an interesting part of the country. More immediately, I wasn’t in a place to strike out as a writer. After several months of juggling the two lives, I was bemoaning my difficulties to an instructor in WANA International, who replied with, “It’s okay to be a hobbyist.”

 

Her words entered my brain like liquid nitrogen, freezing the speech center, while I sputtered to myself, “I’m not a hobbyist, I’m a writer.”  After some thought, I realized that writing is an avocation for me, done for the love of writing. I  am proud to be counted with many writers who held day jobs while practicing their avocation.

Although William Carlos Williams is better known as a poet, he was a pediatrician; Peter Mark Roget of thesaurus fame was also a physician. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Geoffrey Chaucer had an active career as a bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat until his death. The Renaissance poet Veronica Franco was a cortigiana onesta, an intellectual courtesan. Not all writers had demanding day jobs. Brian Jacques was a milkman, and I can well imagine that he treasured the freedom to think about his novels.

 

So how do I become the best hobbyist writer I can be? Perhaps not surprisingly, in the same way I would become the best professional writer I can be, with a few differences. I cannot be lazy because writing is “only” my avocation.  It is an avocation that requires hard work, honing the craft, writing and editing and rewriting. I write because I want to make people think, recognize the human struggles I am describing, and think some more.  None of this sounds very different from what I hear from many of you.

 

There are differences, to be sure, but they seem to be in terms of time and product. It takes me a long time to write.  I try to write before work, but sometimes all that comes out is dreck.  I also edit while I write.  It makes sense to do that in the day job, so I live with the difficulty of turning it off with my avocational writing.  It does mean that I would set myself up for frustration if I joined NaNo or Fast Draft, or any of the other quick-writing tactics that many in this group have found helpful.

 

Another difference is that my product  can be anything I want to write, and not a means to put bread on my table.  It is freeing not to worry what an agent, the market, or my freelance client will think of my work.  I don’t always get to write what I want in the academic arena, so it is freeing to be able to play in the sandbox with my fiction/creative non-fiction.  It means I can be experimental and write, say, steampunk, or my horror piece about sentient boxes.

 

As Wooden said, all we can control in life is to be the best we can be. What “best” entails is up to the individual; only you know if you have done your best.  I used to wince when my sons’ teachers would write something about doing their “personal best” on their papers, but I now understand the philosophy behind it. Many of us in ROW80 have advocated finding the habits and goals that work for you.  I will now add finding who you are; find what place writing has in your life;  what place you are able and willing to give it; and own that place, whether it be best-selling author or hobbyist. No matter which you are, you are in good company. I can only speak for myself, but I am proud to embrace my amateur status.

~*~

Elizabeth Mitchell

Pulling Out of a Deep Stall by Elizabeth Mitchell


Lena Corazon’s New Year’s post tolled the midnight bells for me, counting fear and doubt and perfectionism. Lena tells her doubt monster to take a flying leap, an attractive option, but mine often flings its paralyzing venom deep in my soul, sinking me into negative self-talk, doubt, second-guessing, and seclusion. In addition to the strength of character such negativity has fostered in me, I’ve learned some tricks to fight the paralysis.

When life, fear, perfectionism, or doubt, stalls us, what can we do? I’ve found that sitting in one place on the ice, gunning the engine, only wastes gas and carves the ruts deeper.

Shake things up. Try something different. Go outside your comfort zone.

Do you always write in a linear fashion?  Try a scene that calls you without worrying where it fits in your outline. Sink your teeth into the fight scene that doesn’t happen for a few chapters–go on, no one will know.

Are you a pantser who can’t figure out where a character is going? Throw your character into any situation and see what happens. I had great fun with a character reacting to being stranded in a bad cell phone coverage area.  Did it matter that my character lives in 1945? I learned his pressure points, even if the story had to give him something else infuriating.

Are you a plotter who can’t make the next plot point gel? Have a conversation with a character. Find out what food she likes, or ask her about her first prom date.  She might give you a scene or subplot that makes the story sing.

Is the length of a scene paralyzing you?  Write a piece as flash fiction. I had a scene that kept getting maudlin; focussing on the smallest moment of the heartbreak made the scene better.

Are none of these hints working? Perhaps you need more of a break. Relax. Read a book; let yourself analyse it if you want to, or let yourself be pure reader.  There’s a lot of brain function simmering in the background–don’t underestimate what you see as “wasted time.”

Pay it forward.  Offer to beta read, or line edit, or be the sounding board of a fellow writer. The ROW80 community offers these ways to pay it forward, and more.  Drop an encouraging word to a few of the participants.  Be a mentor, a cheerleader, or a sympathetic ear.

If you can’t stand the thought of doing something writing-related, just reach out.  Most of us are toiling away in our physical or mental writers’ garrets, and would delight in another’s company.
I cherish the friends I have met through this challenge, and have received far more than I have given.

~*~

Elizabeth Mitchell

Figure Out What Works By Elizabeth Mitchell

During the break between Rounds Three and Four, I read a couple of thoughtful  explorations concerning the plethora of confusing writing advice out there. Claire Legrand wrote this post, and our own fearless leader, Kait Nolan, responded and expanded here.

If you’ve been around the writing blog circuit at all lately, you know what they are talking about: the constant stream of “write each day. . . don’t write every day . . . plot everything before you start . . . don’t even outline because it ruins the freshness of creativity . . .  you must write at least 3 books a year . . . how fast you write doesn’t matter, but how well you write does.”

As Claire and Kait point out in their posts, none of this advice is a magic bullet. It does not matter if you are a pantser, a plotter, or a puzzler (a nod toRuth Nestvold for that handy appellation). It does not matter if you write every day or only every weekend. It does not matter if you write 250 words at a go, or 8K.

What does matter? Having goals, figuring out your own way of reaching them, and transforming those ways into habits.

To quote Kait again, this time from her opening post for this Round, accept failing small.  Accept that the habit won’t stick the first day out of the gate and be okay with that. In other words, get out of your own way.

If you’re new to ROW80, let me introduce myself.  I used to have a black belt in getting in my own way–if I wasn’t perfect, I was a failure. Not surprisingly,  I found a lot of things that don’t work for me, until I started listening to myself instead of every other writer on the planet.  I’m still finding what works for me and making habits out of those discoveries. But what I have found is the desire to  get out of my own way.

If you march to a different drummer, whether it be writing 250 words every day of the year, or writing 20k one day out of every thirty, embrace it, sing with it, soar with it.

The beauty of ROW80 is that it is “the writing challenge that knows you have a life.”  I’d like to add, “and your own way of writing.”

~*~

Elizabeth Mitchell

Believe in Yourself by Elizabeth Mitchell

When I sat down to write this post, I realized that I joined ROW80 in July 2011.   Perhaps the best testimonial I can offer shows how I have changed in the past year of Rounds. My first stab at a biography a year ago reveals so much. I wrote, “. . . hiding a deep, dark, secret life as an inveterate scribbler . . . she feels it is time to nourish her secret life.” Although my past year has lived up to “the writing challenge that knows you have a life” in tossing obstacles in my path, I have grown more as a writer in this push-me, pull-you year than in any of the past.  How? Due to the support of this community of writers, many of whom I consider friends.

In my first post last year I said I could not share my fiction and creative non-fiction writing with my colleagues at my day job. I spent a lot of time doubting the small, still voice telling me I was a writer; I threw chunks of academic prose down its maw, but the voice persisted, whispering its dissatisfaction. I worried what I wanted to write was not important, earth-shattering, or mind-opening enough. I worried no one would read it, which is somewhat comical from an academic writer whose works have had at least ten readers. Worse, someone might read it and not like it. However, I was very tired of hiding my writing in corners and desk drawers.  Also, I am small, mean, and grouchy when I don’t write. Today, I can say that not only friends and family know that I write, but many of my day job colleagues.  I have a large document hanging on my cubicle wall that says I am a writer.  I believe it now.

A year ago, I gave three reasons why I had joined ROW80.  The first was the community I had observed during a couple of weeks of lurking. I had no idea how important this community would be to me.  I suffered stage fright at first, especially when I found that many ROWers had published, more had substantive works in progress, and it seemed everyone was much farther down the path than I was.  However, I quickly saw no one judged me on how much or fast I produced, but on what I had to say and whether I was committed to saying it.

The second reason was accountability.  I am a recovering perfectionist, as well as a recovering people-pleaser, so this accountability works well for me.  I have learned one very important thing in this year, however.  If you do fall off the wagon, do not hide from this community.  I speak from experience.  I fell behind, then felt embarrassed. I stopped checking in. When I finally dragged myself back to the group, who were all whizzing along wonderfully on most, if not all, of their goals, guess what happened?  Everyone was supportive, understanding, helpful and just all around lovely.

The third reason was modelling behavior. As a secret writer, I only allowed my husband to read my creative work this past year.  An early, terribly crushing, very public humiliation in a poetry contest scarred me far more than it should have done.  But here were all these writers, smiling bravely at rejection, welcoming criticism, cutting scenes and words to make the work better, and sitting down the next day undeterred.  Many of them had goals I could manage as well.  I faltered a bit last November when everyone seemed to be tearing through NaNoWriMo, but there were still many who had slower goals.  Such is the beauty of this challenge.  It doesn’t matter if you are the tortoise or the hare, this community will support you in the race.

Here I stand, a writer supported and encouraged by the gift of this community every day. I look back astonished at where I was a year ago, and excited about where I will be in another year.

~*~

Elizabeth Mitchell

A Community of Writers by Elizabeth Anne Mitchell

The day after Round 3 ended, I was reading C. M. Cypriani’s blog post, on her official signing up for Round 4. I was struck by this statement, “Where before I wrote in solitude, I now write with friends. I enjoy sharing my writing now instead of hiding it, embarrassed, worried no one would like it. The support I’ve gathered has been phenomenal.”

Her thoughts really hit a chord with me. I think that is the biggest change in my writing life, both the reality of the community and the support I gain from it. Before I stumbled across RoW80, I had a fair amount of experience with writing. I have snatched snippets of time when I needed to think something through, get out my bile over something, or sing of joy and love. Granted, those last bits were often smarmy. Very rarely, those moments were shared with a small number of people, usually two or three. When I was in college, I wrote a poem that I was considering putting in a regional contest. My English professor convinced me to enter, and I made the final ten or half-dozen. There were three published authors invited to critique our poems; however, it was a public forum, held in an auditorium holding about 600. While the place was not full, there were at least 300 there. When my name was called, I had to come up on the stage to read my poem. Then I had to stand there while the critique was performed. For someone who had never had a poem go out into the public, it was an excruciating experience. Neither the novelist nor the essayist found much of interest in the poem, and gave it short shrift—negative, but blessedly short. The poet seemed to feel annoyed that I was wasting his time with this “boiled poetry.” He continued, but as he offered not one single constructive criticism, I have thankfully forgotten the rest of his vituperation.

After my negative experience with creative writing, I hid for years, well, decades, really. Eventually, I began to dream of having a community of writers. I had made a couple of friends who, I later found out, were also writers, and even began to share my writing with them, but as it turns out, they live in the UK. I live in the sticks, so there are no local writing groups—the closest one is 40 miles away. Stumbling over Kait Nolan’s RoW80 site was a serendipitous delight. I lurked for a bit, since I came upon it two weeks before the end of Round 2. I was immediately drawn to the support, help, and generosity of everyone in the group. Need a tip on how to work out a plot point? Send up a flag and no less than ten people will answer you, sending you links to blog posts, or titles of books that helped them. Have a day job meltdown or family crisis? No one will chastise you for not meeting your goals, but will cheer you on to start back on them as soon as you are able. Want to put an excerpt out there to see what people think? Six people will read it before the end of the day. Just feeling lonely? Go hang out at the Twitter hashtag #RoW80 and read the back and forth.

The change for me has been so complete, that I missed the first sign of it until much later. I had never done flash fiction, and never thought I would have the courage to put my fiction up in a public blog. But I entered a flash fiction challenge in late September, posted it on my blog, and didn’t even think about what a change that was for me until a week later. Did anyone laugh at me? Did I get ridiculed? No, I got a lot of very nice comments about it, which warmed me and made me seriously think about expanding the story. Granted, I’m sure it didn’t trip everyone’s trigger, but you know what? I didn’t worry about that; I was proud of what I wrote and even more proud that I didn’t give a second thought to posting it.

So I feel I have the “been there, done that,” to say don’t discredit what you can do, what you have done, what you will do. Don’t ever feel you must hide rather than make a “bad” check-in. I have checked-in when I got nothing done, because life got in the way, or I just had nothing in the well. I got so many responses, telling me that it was okay and that if I just kept plugging, the spring would flow back into the well, life would assume a state of normalcy, and it just meant I had to keep trying. As C. M. said, the support is there. It is truly support, not tearing down or diminishing. We are all here to help one another; this is one of the best support groups I have ever found, so sing out—don’t hide.

 ~*~

Elizabeth Anne Mitchell