Elizabeth Mitchell

Ars Longa by Elizabeth Mitchell

That lyf so short,

the craft so long to learne,

Th’ assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge.

The Parliament of Fowls 1. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400).

Chaucer is paraphrasing Hippocrates, taken most likely from Seneca’s Latin rendering, “Ars longa, vita brevis,” in De Brevitate Vitae sect. 1. (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles. 5th edition, Oxford University Press, 2001).

One misunderstanding I hear many people voice is if one can get enough words on the page, one can write a novel.  Often those same people point to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants as a NaNo novel, as if it sprang in galley proof off her computer screen on November 30th.  I do not know Sara Gruen, but I do not believe she e-mailed the draft to an agent on December 1st. However, I continue to meet far too many people who think their first draft is their last draft, although humans have known since the time of Hippocrates (circa 460-357 BCE) that art is difficult to master. Our own Beth Camp wrote this wonderfulpost about her multiple drafts this past winter, and Julie Rowe has this post on the focuses of the seven to eight separate drafts in her revision process. Yes, that is not a typo: seven to eight drafts. Therefore, I hate to disappoint, but writing 50,000 words in a month, or even a year, does not mean one has a ready-to-publish novel at the end of composition.

So, am I counseling giving up?  Not at all. I do counsel being realistic, in that any piece of writing will take learning, rewriting, more learning, more rewriting, in what will come to feel like an endless cycle worthy of one of Dante’s circles.

My other piece of advice comes from another clause of the quotation: “That lyf so short.” Start now. Life is short, and each year picks up velocity for me in some manner explicable only by science fiction. I have also had far too many object lessons on the fragility of life in the past two years. There is hard work to do, and eternity stretches before no one on earth.  My advice? Believe me, I am giving myself this advice as much as I am you, gentle reader. If you have a story to tell, start telling it, even if badly, even while learning to make it better, because time waits for no man, woman, or child.


Elizabeth Mitchell

Own Who You Are By Elizabeth Mitchell

I grew up in the bad old days when properly brought up ladies did not boast. How that plays out in real life is one diminishes one’s accomplishments, but also turns away compliments. So when I hear, “Nice writing,” I reply with, “It’s nothing special.” It’s the writer’s equivalent of responding “This old thing?” to a compliment about a dress. August McLaughlin said some very nice words about a review I wrote of her Girl Boner podcasts.  My instinctive reaction came immediately to the fore, and I deflected her praise. Finally I realized it was impolite to reject her kind words, so I managed to say thank you.


Most of my family knows nothing about my writing, partly because it would be boasting to do anything to call attention to myself, or to talk about my accomplishments. I spent a lot of time conflicted about my writing, but I scribbled in notebooks in solitude and put them in drawers away from sight. It remained a secret conflict for decades.


I was at my brother’s wake when my secret came into the open. As I reacquainted myself with my nephew’s mother-in-law, she said, “Oh, you’re the writer.” I wanted to fall through the floor, or insist, “Not me,” but part of me refused to deny it. I don’t know to this day how my brother knew my secret. For a second, I was angry at him for telling his friends about me, but I quickly realized he must have been proud of my baby steps toward being a writer. Instead of denying it, I stood up a little straighter, and said, “Yes, I’m the writer.”


Exposing ourselves as writers swirls many feelings into conflict. Many of us are introverts, and uncomfortable with exposure. Publishing makes us vulnerable to the bad review, but the good review has its own danger, where one feels the pressure to keep writing more good books as the audience begins to expect them. And even if one writes well, one has to write fast, before the audience moves on to another author.


Even before we have published a work, we twist ourselves in knots over the pressure to succeed by building and keeping an audience. Another lesson from my childhood was I had to hide how smart I was, since I didn’t have beauty to cover for my brains. Since my inner nerd rampages through my writing, I worry that my posts and my fiction are too boring.


Also, writing carries its own vulnerability, because one has to look deep into oneself, to contemplate the wounds and scars within.  I realized I was not alone in this struggle when Shan’s post appeared, writing about the exact podcast on which I based my review of August’s podcasts, and talking about how hard it was for her to be vulnerable.  I opened my blog reader this morning to find that Shan has written a followup post where she describes how the comments and social media reaction to her earlier post are encouraging her to continue her baby steps to self-revelation.


With all the support I’ve gotten in the past from the RoW80 group and other writers, I’m slowly coming out of my cave. I am now saying to myself, “Own who you are.  Tell the people who matter to you that you are a writer.” It’s scary after so many years of hiding, but I believe it is a necessary step to writing with more authenticity and embracing the vulnerability that accompanies writing. I encourage all the RoWers to assess when one is hiding for whatever reason, and to make a small step to come out to the lip of the cave with me.


Elizabeth Mitchell

Being Accountable by Elizabeth Mitchell

Kait’s opening post https://aroundofwordsin80days.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/are-you-author-or-victim/

this Round hit a nerve, I admit.  She points out that making excuses, feeling like a victim, is a choice.  The crux of the problem is the safety of being the victim, because you have someone or something else to blame. I admit, I play it safe far too often.  The day job, the family, the dogs, or just being too tired or empty-brained, all get in the way of getting my writing done.


However, no one has all the time in the world to do what they want, so choices must be made. If writing matters to me, I will get up early, stay up late, or not watch that TV show (curses to on-demand television).  “If something blows up your plans to write, you need to revise them.  MAKE some time to make up for the lost work time,” Kait says, and she is spot on.  RoW is a supportive place to be accountable, and to keep one from being too hard on oneself as well.


Another arena I often act like a victim is how I compare myself with others. I sometimes suffer from jealousy when I look at other RoWers’ goals and word counts. I am a slow writer, seldom able to lock my infernal editor in the laundry room.  I always forget that comparing myself to others is apples to oranges.  Kait posted a link to Chuck Wendig’s post http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/04/08/counting-words/

about word count and comparisons.  If you don’t follow his blog, think about doing so. I will give the caveat that, as my late mother-in-law would have said, he swears like a sailor. Even if you find strong language offensive, his posts are always interesting, and often grounding.


In the word count post, Mr. Wendig celebrates a day of writing 10,000 words.  He then immediately addresses the twinge of jealousy that hits some readers, including me, calling it bs.  Compare with yourself, not others.  Much as it hits me as the 90’s “personal best” my kids heard in school all the time, he’s right. “Sometimes, writing is a game of inches. Sometimes it’s a act of great, clumsy leaps. You gotta take pride in the small steps as much as in the big jumps.”


Mr. Wendig links to a plan  http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/02/20/how-to-push-past-the-bullshit-and-write-that-goddamn-novel-a-very-simple-no-fuckery-writing-plan-to-get-shit-done/ to get the writing done. If I write 350 words a day five days a week, with weekends off, I would have the first draft of a novel at the end of a year.  With a little bit of found time, and found effort, I would be closer to my goals.  His last advice resonates: “Shut up and write.”

Who will jump into the accountability pool with me?


Elizabeth Mitchell

Do It Now by Elizabeth Mitchell

If you want different results, you have to put something different into the mix. If you keep putting the same ingredients in the cake, it will always turn out the same.  Pretty basic knowledge in baking, but still hard for me to put into my life. Many times, I have told myself, “I don’t like/want this [fill in the blank].” Sometime over the past several years, part of my brain has responded, “So change it.”  Now, with my “decade” birthday this spring bringing the dawning realization of my mortality, my brain responds: “So change it NOW.”


I would therefore like to add “Change it now” to Kait’s challenge in this first Round of 2015 to try something new and shake things up.  Shake off the comfort of the familiar. Let me assure you, I love my comfort zone.  It has no sharp edges to poke me, but it also does not challenge me, or anyone else.  Full of words I could write in my sleep, it has no bite, no truth.  Honestly, I’m scared silly of the truth, but it is all I have to offer.


I have often proclaimed my inability to write fiction. When I force myself to look at it honestly, my protest is a safe way to avoid the challenge and hard work involved in writing good fiction. Am I comfortable writing fiction?  No, not at all.  Three years ago, I shelved a story that occurred in a dream, because not only was it fiction, it was horror, which in all truth, I have no idea how to write. But should I shelve it out of cowardice?  The more I dig, I find there are more stories I want to tell, and each one frightens me more. But I’m going to try.


And I’m going to try now.  I hide behind the full-time day job and other responsibilities, saying that I will write when I’m retired.  I have told myself that I cannot write enough with these other responsibilities, but I wrote two academic articles totaling over 12,000 words in less than a year, so that inner conversation is patently untrue. While I will certainly have more free time after retirement, why am I waiting? Might it be cowardice? (The answer is an unequivocal “yes,” in case you are wondering).
My challenge to shake it up now is not just for us few neophytes in this group, but for all of us. Kait’s point that the same process doesn’t always work with a different book is surprisingly freeing for me.  Authors with several books behind them still have to leave their comfort zone and find something new that works. So I challenge those of you comfortable with this business of writing to shake things up and find a new approach. Those of you contemplating something very different–a new genre, non-fiction, or fiction–go for it.  So will you join me in my leap into the unknown?  Let’s do it now.


Elizabeth Mitchell

Care and Feeding of the Psyche by Elizabeth Mitchell

Last Round Dawn Montgomery revealed her struggles with burnout, which lit up a yellow flag in my mind.  Kait’s first post this Round connected burnout with depression, which turned the flag red.


I completely agree with Kait that burnout is a half-step away from depression, a condition that has plagued me for several decades.  Although the particulars are different for each person, depression does not manifest as most people assume.  Often people are surprised that depression does not always involve “feeling sad.”  It is normal to feel sad about many situations: death, divorce, dissention. Also, it is not sufficient to fight depression by “cheering up.”  For me, depression is a black hole, sucking everything into it, giving nothing back.  Nothing is worth the effort, nothing feels good, nothing tastes good.  It is, as William Styron entitled his book about his depression, Darkness Visible.


Both Dawn and Kait offered great advice on dealing with burnout.  I have some further suggestions.  Often, the most basic needs are the first to hit the skids. I’ve forgotten about them in the grip of the muse, or when facing a deadline, but far more when I am depressed.


First, sleep well.  As a chronic insomniac, I will sing the praises of decent sleep forever.  Sleep restores the body, replenishes the well of writing ideas, and often sets the muse free.  Sleep disturbances, and the attendant fatigue and irritability, are hallmarks of my depression.


Second, eat well. Take the time to prepare good food and eat with awareness. Having made a real meal will pay dividends in avoiding mindless eating, or eating fast food dreck. If you have a family, meals can also provide a social connection. If you are eating alone, read something enjoyable, or think of pleasant things. A change in appetite, either a loss or an increase, is another of my symptoms.


Third, get cleaned up and get dressed.  I was amazed by all the NaNo participants who were proud of not showering for days at a time.  Really?  When I stop taking care of myself, the red flag turns into a railway crossing, with bells and lights blazing.  I know then that I am slipping into the Slough of Despond, and need to take major corrective steps.


Fourth, get out of bed or your chair and move.  The human body was not meant to sit in chairs at all, especially not for hours at a time.  The more I resemble a three-toed sloth, the more depressed I am.


Following close behind the physical needs are the emotional, mental, and social needs.  These are trickier than some of the others, because balancing the pull of social media and the loneliness of writing is a struggle for most of us. Also, I think these vary from person to person.


Connect. Some of you may not need the contact, but I do. When I start to hibernate and withdraw, it means I am sliding back into depression. Spending time with people is important. Yes, our significant others and children have to let us close the door for some uninterrupted writing, but when I stop connecting with them, I start writing lifeless prose. You’re too busy?  So are we all. Take a ten minute break to connect.  It’ll refresh and nurture the human. If you feel guilty stepping away from the craft, then connect within the community.


The range of interests and strengths in the ROW80 community is impressive. The basic principle of ROW80, acknowledging you have a life, means many participants will listen to your gripe or whine, will share joy or sadness along with writing advice. If my experience is the norm, you’ll soon forget that you’ve never met these people in person.  The ROW80 Facebook page and #ROW80 sprints on Twitter are great for feeling connected.  If you need visual contact and don’t live near anyone else, there are several ways to have face time through the computer screen.


Second, find the mental and emotional space where writing works for you. Too often I hear writers compare themselves to others, in envious tones. Writing is not one-size-fits-all.  Find what situations and habits work for you. For example, I find ritual very important in setting time and space aside for writing.  Music?  Candles?  A particular pen or chair?  A time of day or night?  Whatever the combination of things may be, keep experimenting until it works, and ignore any advice that does not work.  Defining and fulfilling your needs will preserve your sanity, as well as your muse.

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