The Importance of Taking a Break

I’ve been taking an unofficial blog/social media hiatus these past couple of months. Actually, I’ve sort of been taking a hiatus from life. I had a few weeks off before my second semester of graduate school, and instead of being productive in the other areas of my life, I shut down. But I think I needed that space to really be open to what the future will bring.

It’s important to realize that sometimes a break is needed before you can move forward. I took my time off of the social media hamster wheel to reexamine my priorities, focus on my writing projects, and brainstorm new ideas. As much as I enjoy blogging, Tweeting, and Facebooking, it can drain my energy very quickly. The advice I’ve been given is to spend one hour a day on social media sites. I’ve never been a particularly disciplined person, especially in my writing habits. So why would social media be any different?

It’s a new year now, and my New Year’s Resolution is to plan my time better. I’ve been experimenting with different schedules for myself, and I think I’ve figured out a routine that will work for me. The tough part is sticking to that routine instead of letting the days float by, one by one, until another week, month, year has passed me by.

I’ve decided that my focus does need to be on writing my memoir and graduate school. I came away from my Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate school residency feeling rejuvenated and inspired. Plus, there’s nothing like spending 10 days in the freezing Vermont winter to shake up the senses. Not only did I learn a ton about writing, but I also learned the importance of gloves, hats, and a good winter coat. But the snow was beautiful, the people were wonderful, and my creative nonfiction workshop was amazing beyond words.

Aside from my memoir, I have another project in the works. If all goes well, I may be releasing a poetry book in a few months. But it’s still in the planning/selection stages, so I won’t be officially announcing it for at least a few weeks. I’m very excited about it, though.

In keeping with my resolution of planning my life and schedule, I’ve decided to blog every week, once a week, on Wednesday. It’s even going on my calendar. So expect to see me back on Twitter, Facebook, and around the blogosphere. I look forward to catching up with everyone!

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What It Feels Like To Be Powerless

I haven’t had power in my house for two days. The electricity’s out all over town, so the few places that have heat (and free wifi) are packed. Cafes have become refugee camps, with people fighting over sparse power outlets and warming themselves by the heating vents. The windstorms knocked trees down all over the city so roads are blocked off and the stoplights are out.

But the electricity being out is nothing compared to how afraid I was the night of the storm. I heard tree branches slam against my house, lawn furniture tossed around my backyard. There were loud, mysterious crashes and all I could do was wonder what was being broken. The wind made endless screeching sounds through the sliding glass door in my bedroom. The lights flickered again and again, then eventually went out.

I don’t mean to sound melodramatic. The winds got up to hurricane speeds, but this wasn’t an actual hurricane. I’ve just never experienced anything like that night before. The worst part was the feeling of being powerless, unable to stop the winds or bring the lights back on in my house. I’ve been through a couple earthquakes in California, but they haven’t done damage anything like the winds the other night.

Being powerless these past few days has made me think a lot about what I have control over in my life, and what I don’t. Sometimes I don’t feel like I have any control over what happens to me. I make decisions and hope for the best. But plans fall through, relationships end, and situations don’t work out no matter what I do.

Is this all leading me someplace good, or is life simply a series of goals and struggles to get to an imaginary happy end point that never actually arrives? I don’t have answers to my questions. Maybe these questions can’t be answered.

What does amaze me, though, is how people always seem to keep going no matter what. After a storm, we pick up the broken furniture and drive around the fallen trees. When our hearts are broken, we gather up the pieces and wait for them to heal back together. We make adjustments until things seem right again.

So, in that way we do have power even when we feel powerless. We can’t stop the wind, but we can wait out the storm, and fix whatever gets broken.

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Why It’s Okay That I Quit NaNoWriMo

Photo © Alana Saltz

It looks like I won’t be finishing NaNoWriMo this year. Despite my best efforts and intentions, it just didn’t work out. I fell way behind after a deep bout of writer’s block and needed to give priority to my grad school writing project due a few days ago. And after the semester I’ve had (and the ups and downs in my personal life), I don’t want to scramble and stress to make the word count. I made it to about 22,000 words.

Although I had hoped to finish my series of NaNoWriMo posts with a happier ending, this whole process has made me think a lot about the way people view successes and failures in the writing world and beyond. I think NaNoWriMo is a good example of this.

I admire the aim of NaNo and the community surrounding the project, but I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that this kind of deadline isn’t right for everyone. Only about 80% of people who begin NaNoWriMo make it to 50,000 words. Even those who are the most determined and motivated may not be able to cross the finish line. Life gets in the way, or inspiration fizzles out, or the project hits a dead end.

So, is trying and failing better than never having committed to the project in the first place? I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to do it, but I gave it a shot. Some people may consider that a failure, but I think that’s a dangerous way to look at life. It’s the kind of thinking that keeps people from trying anything new or difficult. If you don’t try, you can’t fail, right?

People are often surprised at how adventurous I can be. My friends and family are still amazed that I applied for a last minute travel grant to go to Japan for 10 days. For someone with a life-long anxiety disorder to take a trip across the country by herself to a country where she doesn’t even speak the language is a little surprising. But I wanted to take that chance.

I tried, and I succeeded. If I had never gone for the grant, I wouldn’t have had the chance to embark on an amazing adventure that taught me how self-sufficient I really am. Sure, I got horribly lost and frightened several times during the trip, but I always found my way.

I see NaNoWriMo as being a lot like my trip to Japan. I got lost, but at least I gave it a shot. I put myself out there and took a chance. I think that alone is worth a lot. And I’ll probably even try again next year. So for everyone else who chose to try NaNoWriMo this month, I commend you on your courage, and congratulate you for participating whether you make it to 50,000 words or not.

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NaNoWriMo: Week Two, or Getting Over the Slump

Week Two of NaNoWriMo is notorious for being the most difficult. For me, this is especially true considering I’m about five days behind on my word count and currently trying to push through my belated Week Two blues.

I almost gave up entirely last night. My story seemed pointless, my characters dry, my plot nonexistent. I’m not still sure whether I’ll actually cross the finish line on November 30th, but I’m going to try to push through, at least for a little while longer.

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up on getting through this hurdle, whether you’re writing a novel for NaNo or on your own. I think there’s a point in most projects where it’s unclear whether it’s worth going on, giving up, or starting over. During NaNo, this happens in Week Two, but it can happen any time.

1. Don’t start over. This is the hardest thing to resist doing. I actually tried this the other day, but got so frustrated with the amount of rebuilding and development needed for the new idea that I decided to go back to my original idea. There’s no guarantee that a new idea will be any better or easier than the one you’re working on now if you see it through.

2. Skim what you’ve written so far. This is contrary to most of the NaNo advice out there, but it’s actually something that has helped me. I went back over what I’d written (without editing) just to reassure myself that it’s not all bad and remind myself what I’m trying to do with the story. I think writing without looking back is a little dangerous. It’s easy to imagine everything behind you is a wreck and a waste of time, but that may not be the case.

3. Take a day off. Or at least take some time away from the project. Go for a walk or a drive (but be sure to bring a notebook or tape recorder just in case you get new ideas). Hang out at the park. Watch a movie. Recharge.

4. Remember that it’s a draft. Just keep writing and fix things later. Make notes on ways you want to change your characters or plot when the month’s over.

I hope everyone out there makes it over the Week Two slump. I’ll be right there with you.

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NaNoWriMo: Week One

It’s day seven of NaNoWriMo, and my word count is 8,872. I’m nothing short of amazed. A few days ago, I was ready to throw in the towel before I even began. I spent hours with my head in my hands, frustrated and uninspired. My idea just wasn’t clicking with me, and I couldn’t get it started.

So, I took a couple days to brainstorm and regroup. At the last minute, I decided on a variation of the plot I’d been planning. I wrote a couple scenes, then attended a write-in at Cal Tech in Pasadena where I wrote almost 4,000 words in three hours.

I blame it on the fact that the room we were in was literally 55 degrees. People were shivering, and our fingers were numb and stiff. But we wrote through the pain! Some people even decided to incorporate snow storms into their scenes. It definitely kept me awake too. Maybe my room is too warm and comfortable to get any serious writing done.

For everyone else doing NaNo, I can’t stress enough how helpful the write-ins are. Don’t worry, they aren’t normally held in arctic climates. They’re really fun too. Someone brought cupcakes and leftover Halloween candy, there was tea and coffee, and I won second place in a word war and got a journal as my prize! The best part, though, was meeting all the other awesome folks doing NaNoWriMo in my area. And it was reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one floundering with my plot or behind on my word count.

If you still want to do NaNoWriMo this month, it’s not too late to start or catch up! I didn’t write anything until a few days in, and I still don’t have a real outline for the rest of my book. All you really need to get started, in my opinion, is a few characters, a setting, and a general idea of what you might want to happen.

I know a lot of the experts out there say differently, but detailed planning isn’t necessary. It doesn’t seem to work for me. I can’t choose exactly what’s going to happen until I live with the characters on the page for a while. I’m learning a lot about my character and her past that I never could have figured out ahead of time. It may be a longer journey to get to the end point, but I think it’s better to fumble a little in the draft stage than to be too scared to get started because you don’t have it all figured out from the start.

 

How’s your NaNoWriMo going? Hit any roadblocks yet?

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