In defense of obstinacy

This post continues Week 3 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. Find other posts here and here. I am counting up towards the residency.

tree trunk bearing sign saying "there is a tree behind you and it will not move for you"

CC image “Mission San Miguel: Where the Trees are Obstinate” via J Maughn on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking about obstinacy. Obstinacy is a word with low approval ratings. Merriam-Webster defines it as the quality or state of being obstinate; stubbornness; the quality or state of being difficult to remedy, relieve, or subdue.

People in my family are obstinate. Sometimes they look like they are engaging in one-upmanship: I can be more obstinate than you! I know a lot about obstinacy on a personal level.

I’m working on acquiring obstinacy on an artistic level.

Obstinacy among artists isn’t always highly prized by their colleagues. Audiences are happy to consume the fruits of creative obstinacy, but that doesn’t make them want to hang out with obstinate artists.

What sets artists apart

According to a Norwegian study, the artistically inclined differentiate themselves from others by being less “sociable” and more emotionally “unstable,” among more virtuous descriptors, such as associative thinking, desiring originality, being inwardly motivated, and ambition (see a short article on this discussion here).

Emotionally unstable? I’d say this is where the legacy of famous “wild” or “tortured” artists has left its mark: Hemingway, Plath, Faulkner, Woolf, Van Gogh, and so on. Look up “tortured artist” and voila! — find lists and discussions of writers, poets, and painters who had known addictions and known or speculated mental illnesses.

Then we have the sociability issue (I’ll excuse you if you read this as anti-social). In fact, what the article defines as low sociability is a tendency to be “inconsiderate” and “obstinate.”

There’s that word again.

Why being obstinate is an advantage

Frankly, I think obstinacy is under-rated. When faced with a long and daunting task (like writing a book, or pursuing any kind of creative career, for example), it pays to be obstinate. When you need to finish a project, it pays to close the door behind you and keep other people out. The opposite of obstinate is “irresolute.” Yeah, that sounds like a bonus! Another word for irresolute is “indecisive.” Definitely my go-to person. Want to accomplish a goal? Talk to someone who’s obstinate.

Other antonyms for “obstinate,” according to thesaurus.com, include: obedient, pliant, soft, submissive, surrendering, and yielding.

Can you imagine a list of more passive adjectives? I have a hard time myself, and I’m an associative thinker (rimshot). None of these adjectives is an agent of their own destiny. They only want to sit around and be loved.

By contrast, synonyms for “obstinate” include: headstrong, steadfast, tenacious, dogged, indomitable, persistent, relentless, self-willed, strong-minded, and unflinching.

Yes, I am cherry-picking: if you look up “obstinate” you will find plenty of unsavory synonyms. My point is that we overlook the valuable aspects of obstinacy in favor of the more socially “acceptable” modes of being. Obstinate people aren’t perfect, but they DO stand a better chance of accomplishing their goals.

They are agents of their own narrative.

Obstinacy and getting past artistic adversity

Think of Stephen King and his spike. How many rejections did he accumulate before ever being published? Now he is a by-word for literary success. He didn’t get there by surrendering and being pliant.

I’ve wanted to do a writer’s residency for years, but I was always afraid to apply because I didn’t think I had the credentials. Here’s a secret, though (and I’m working on grasping its slippery tail every day): you get credentials by going out and getting credentials.

I’m going to finish this project by being obstinate. I might include some of those lovable adjectives in my book. When I’m done, they might even be me. For a while.

Join me — discover your own artistic obstinacy. Feel free to tell me about it. I’ll celebrate you.

Make writing exercises work for you

or: Life after the exercise (pre-residency Week 2)

This post continues with Week 2 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I started at Week 1, and am counting up. You can find Week 3 here.

child playing around on piano keys

Practice meets play. CC image “piano practice” by woodleywonderworks on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writing exercises are billed as a way to break through writer’s block, and a way to greater creativity if we are stuck in a rut or a theme. Be loose! writing exercises always tell us. Let it flow!

I’ve sometimes wondered what happens to all those writing exercises once we are done with them. I imagine them as a sort of Dr. Seuss creature, fluffy and green, being left at the side of the road and abandoned after the cuteness has worn off. So sad.

I’m not alone with this question. A blog post I recently read on Writer’s Digest makes the same point. Most of these exercises end up on dusty little fragments of paper or perhaps digital files that get lost in our computer’s file structure. They accumulate in corners until we forget about them, and if we happen to discover them eons hence, we often throw them out like trash. Is this really the wretched fate that awaits every writing exercise? Are they always only our creative trash?

Writing exercises as a tool

I’ve been thinking about writing exercises recently because ironically, since I’ve started working on my project for the writer’s residency, I’ve done very little writing. I am knee-deep in research. My writing takes the form of notes; I haven’t tinkered with the draft manuscript once I started pulling sources. Noticing this, I wondered if writing exercises might be useful.

Writing is a skill that improves with practice, like playing the piano. The more you practice, the more you can play (see more about this in my post on writing warmups). I don’t want to be all rusty and cold when I do start writing again on this manuscript. Plus, short creative writing exercises can be great fun (the billing ain’t all hype). Last week I tried one with nouns and verbs. My favorite sentence from that exercise is: “The toadstool listens to the conversations of the ants as they pass by.”

Yay! Fun! (You can’t steal it though; it’s mine.)

However, while practicing is great, eventually, I want to play Beethoven and Chopin. Or, in this case, I want a finished manuscript, dammit.

Use the tool for a specific purpose

Can writing exercises be more than fluffy green creatures we abandon for the Next Big Thing? More specifically, can I use writing exercises to bootstrap my way forward on the draft of my novel, instead of throwing them in the dustbin?

For the next month, I’m going to test these questions out on my own writing. My premise is that yes, I can use the material that comes out of writing exercises for my bigger, specific project… IF I structure the exercises correctly, and I do a small amount of pre-exercising. I don’t want to plan what I’m going to write — that would go against every tenet of free-form exercises to begin with — I want to be intentional about how I write.

The Writer’s Digest article suggests a number of questions to guide the development of writing exercises. Because my creative life is circling the residency right now, I am going in a slightly different direction.

The plan

I’m going to set up a 2-week alternating schedule. In the first week of the pair, I’m going to commit to doing a writing exercise (preferably short), one day a week, Monday through Friday. In doing the exercise, I am going to keep my project, the characters, the setting, and the main point of tension, in mind. I’ll allow myself to not have to write about these aspects EVERY single exercise, though I do want to be thinking about them.

In the second week, I’ll revisit the exercises I wrote in week one, with a view to taking one of the following two steps:

  1. incorporating the writing exercise into a scene or narrative I’ve already written or sketched out;
  2. re-writing a scene or narrative, using part of the writing exercise as the backbone or central point.

This will give me two sets of writing exercise development to work with in March.

Rules of engagement: writing exercises should be kept brief (~500 words), as should the scenes I am writing or re-writing (<1000 words). Time spent on the exercises in both weeks should not exceed half an hour each day. The point is I want to use quick bursts of writing to keep me in touch with both my writing muscles and my story development, while I am involved in background research. I want to avoid sinking into a self-critical/editorial morass.

I’ll report back here after the month is up with my thoughts on the practice — has my premise proven to be correct? Can writing exercises “recycled,” as it were, instead of falling onto the creative landfill?

If anyone wants to test out this way of playing with writing exercises, I’d love to hear about your experience! Feel free to modify the outline so that the work suits your goals, and report back here if you feel like doing so. Here’s to keeping our craft fresh, our writing out of landfills, and our stories in the forefront of our minds.

The Conundrum: Preparing for the Writer’s Residency

(week 1)

This piece is the first in a series of what will be weekly (I hope!) posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I am starting this post at Week 1, and counting up. Find Week 2 and Week 3 also on the blog.

cover of a book: How to Solve Conundrums

CC image How to solve conundrums courtesy of Villanova University Digital Library on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever been confronted with too many ways to achieve your goal, thereby paralyzing yourself as your choice swings from one, to the other, to the next possibility…?

That’s where I am right now.

I was awarded a four-week writer’s residency this summer. Short statement of fact: I am over the moon! Short statement of conundrum: I have a ton of work to do before signing in on the first day. I thought I had the next few months figured out, but now I’m not so sure. Because writing is, well, not always writing.

When I told one of the staffers at my writer’s workshop, a friend of mine, about my residency, he described what he did at his (shorter) residency last year. His approach was almost the complete inverse to what I’ve been planning.

I was planning to do my research first, and at the residency all I would do was write. The first draft.

He brought his completed first draft to the residency along with his research materials, and instead did the research and revision component to the first draft.

Both approaches have advantages. Under my plan, I’d have lots of information to work with — and then plenty of time to write. Using my friend’s strategy, I’d have the time to go over what I’d written, improve it, see where the gaps are, and then choose only that research which suits my needs.

Conundrum.

Why this is a big deal

Residencies are prized in the writing world. We get to spend uninterrupted time working on our projects! Hurrah! No need to go food shopping, or to work, or in fact to leave the house/building for any reason. Work in the middle of the night. Spread your notes out with abandon in your private studio. Hang out in said studio in your PJs. Nobody else comes in. That’s one REALLY big reason.

Residencies are a recognition of your work. Space is limited. I had to send a work sample with my application and jurors read it to decide whether it/me was worthwhile. Most applications are not accepted. Residencies are not publication, but a nod in that direction — yes, this work shows promise. My soul drinks this up, believe me.

A residency is not cheap. Consider that while in one sense you are taking a vacation from your regular life, your regular life (read: bills) doesn’t go away from you. It lies in wait. Plus, the residency program charges a fee, unless you receive a fellowship which covers your expenses. The fee is the second biggest hurdle to residencies after the application process (which is why I’ve set up a fundraising page).

Given that a) I was awarded a spot, b) I have a project to work on, and c) potential fundraising help… I really, really, REALLY want to make sure that my time there is well-spent. Which brings me to my conundrum.

Do I write during my writer’s residency?

It may seem obvious that a writer’s residency would be occupied with, you know, WRITING. However, Writing is more than just writing. Let me explain.

One part of Writing is the first draft. Most people are familiar with this process, which does, in fact, involve writing. The first draft is one of my options.

Another part of Writing is research. Both fiction and non-fiction may require this. Maybe you are writing about a botanist, as Liz Gilbert did in her recent novel, The Signature of All Things (note: on my to-read list). Liz Gilbert is not a botanist. She did a LOT of research in order to write that book. Liz wrote a book of fiction. You could also write a nonfiction book about a botanist. Research isn’t writing, though research is often necessary, and research takes time, organization, and at least a starting point for what information you need. I do need to do research at some point (my work is fiction).

Reviewing is a part of writing. For example, that first draft will need to be re-read. I’ll be taking notes on what is missing, wrong, inconsistent, or needs work. Also, what more research I probably need to do.

Overlapping with the review and extending onward is the long, wide prairie of Editing, often wracked by mysterious and destructive storms that reduce the work to rubble. Editing is quite a distance away from where I currently stand.

Then there is Re-writing, which might ally itself with Editing, or decide to rule on its own. Good-bye, first draft.

Bottom line: if you’re me, you have several months before four weeks of uninterrupted time to work on your project. What part of Writing is happening at the residency? What are you doing in those months beforehand?

Where to find your next story

Answer: everywhere

small person near the front wheel of a classic automobile

This won’t take a minute… CC image “The Mechanic…” courtesy of Kool Kats Photography on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

From the back, all I could see of her was a wild head of long, grayish-white curls.

“He died there, you know? So they didn’t want to treat him,” she was saying. “They were worried.”

Sitting in my chair further back in the room, I frowned. What?

The phone started ringing, and the mechanic behind the desk took a moment to put the call on hold. The woman barely let this slow her rate of conversation. “I can’t blame them,” she continued. “They would be after what happened last time.”

I was confused. A moment ago, they’d been talking about a $750 bill. Now someone was dead. Or he wasn’t? He was dead in the past… The verb tenses threw me.

“I’ve never been a religious person,” the woman said. “I didn’t know how to pray or anything. Never. But that’s how I learned that I had a gift. It was the accident that did it.”

I tried sneaking a glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Not for one moment did I want to risk being pulled into her conversational orbit. Nonetheless, my curiosity got the better of me. I might end up with a head of hair like that as I got older, if I didn’t cut it short. The woman was small and fine-boned, wearing a narrow, charcoal-gray coat. She kept her back to me, all her attention focused on the mechanic, who probably had been expecting the discussion to take a different tack.

I had breezed in a few minutes earlier, ready to pick up my car after an oil change. My transaction should have taken no longer than five minutes, but I had to wait my turn, since they were taking care of another customer when I arrived. I stifled my irritation. I too appreciated when the shop took time to explain a $750 bill to me.

Ever been there?

A perfect stranger feels the need to share, well, everything. At the time, this is less than ideal. However, if you’re a stuck creative, there are fringe benefits.

“I told him, you know, they’re concerned about your heart,” the woman was saying. “After all, you’d been dead for forty minutes. They had asked him to make a follow-up appointment to get his heart checked out,” she confided. “He’d never done that. I told him they need to put you under anesthesia for your tooth appointment, and that depresses your heart. You never got the tests. They’re worried you’re going to die again.”

By sheer willpower, I refused to meet the mechanic’s eye while this monologue unfolded. My ears, on the other hand, grew like Pinocchio’s nose. Now she was talking about the time she broke her neck… or was it nearly busted her artery?… they thought she wouldn’t live… or she’d be brain damaged. “And that’s how I learned I had the power of prayer,” she said.

The phone started ringing again. “Excuse me,” said the mechanic.

“Sure,” she said. He put two more calls on hold.

The woman wasn’t done.

“I was praying for him, praying for him, and finally I said, you know what? Just give this man a young man’s heart. That’s it. That’s all I could do.”

Another customer emerged from the back of the shop, exchanged greetings with the mechanic, and offered the woman a few chocolates from the bowl on the desk. I wondered whether he was her husband, but they seemed to be there on separate errands. I was trying to place pronouns… was she praying for the same friend who died? Was that before he died, or after?

“They made him take all these tests,” she continued. The mechanic, I could see in my peripheral vision, was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “They made him run, they hooked him up to all these machines, they kept on running tests over and over. You know? They couldn’t figure it out. Finally they had a specialist come in and tell him, ‘Sir, you have the heart of a young man’! That’s how I found out I had a gift.”

The woman’s thematic and tense switching was making me dizzy. I wanted her to keep talking, so I could figure out what she was talking about, while at the same time, I wanted her to wrap up, so I could get home. My fingers started to itch for a pen.

Life hands us people and situations like this all time. We’re actually on the way to do something else, or we want to talk to someone else, or we want an experience to end so that we can get on with our original plans. How unlucky, if we stay stuck in this mindset and let pig-headedness stomp all over our creativity. There are a million million different ways we can use our life experiences, ways our experiences can shape our stories, our visions, our music, our dance. Every creative act comes from somewhere, and sometimes, if we are stubborn, the universe needs to hold us hostage to get our attention. As with me at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity

Sometimes, opportunity has a secret knock. The knock can be annoying. It’s interrupting us. But if we start paying attention, some of those knocks like to repeat themselves, like Morse code. They have meaning.

The ringing began again. “I’m sure you need to get that,” the other customer said, pointing to the phone.

The mechanic leaned back in gratitude to pick up the receiver. Meanwhile the woman turned to the other customer and started telling him about her son who rides BMX. He had called her up before doing a trick on a thirty-foot vertical ramp, to tell her what kind of injuries he could get from the jump. At this point, I was sure of only one thing: I wanted a tape recorder in my hand.

I knew I was losing glorious detail every moment I failed to capture what was happening around me.

Last year, I attended a meeting in which the keynote speaker told us, “I’m a professional speaker. I never have a bad day. I only have new material.”

I leaned over to my friend who sat next to me and whispered, “That works for writers, too.”

Even at the mechanic’s shop.

Recognize opportunity. It’ll feed your story or project idea like a king if you let it.

== == ==

What is the most unlikely place you’ve ever picked up inspiration?

Going resolution-less and unscripted in 2015

it's a great way to start the year

lego man sweating while lifting barbell

Ahh, one of the perennial favorites… CC image Resolution 2105: exercise more? courtesy of clement127 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, the dreaded “R” word. Tradition and bane of many at the start of every new calendar year.

Well, screw it.

This year, I’m thumbing my nose at detailed advance planning. Because that’s what sucked out my soul, last year.

At the start of 2014, I had sat down with a friend to discuss the loooong list I held in my hand — not bulleted, but indented and almost like a bulleted list in that I had grouped goals and plans by theme. I had plenty of goals relating to my freelance business, creative life, travel and finances. I’m an associative thinker — once I get going I can keep up a long stream of related words. The list, therefore, was not brief.

I had made one concession to being orderly in preparation for our meeting. I had taken my handwritten list (complete with arrows and different colored ink, where I had to add an idea to an earlier section that I had missed on the first pass, thereby messing with the overall organization and layout) and typed it into a word document that I printed out from the computer. At least the printed copy was more legible than my handwriting.

As 2014 wound to a close, I thought about that list with some frustration.

Year of the List

2014 was the Year of the List. I had my annual “big picture” list, just discussed. I’m also a fan of Dan Miller’s work in 48 Days to the Work You Love, and was using his monthly goal sheets as a tool to keep my focus throughout the year. Miller breaks down goals into seven broad categories: finances, personal development, social, physical, family, and career. All year (and before 2014 too), I printed out the sheets and considered my 1-year and 5-year goals, and what I could do today to get myself closer to achieving them. By October this time around, my relationship with these tools was clearly on rocky footing. I think I growled at them once or twice, with my pen hovering over the page like a dagger.

Some categories were easy for me to fill out; for others, every month was like pulling teeth. Most of us have heard about the aspects of a goal we should keep in mind, if we really want to be successful: goals should be SMART:
Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Results-focused (outcomes, not activities)
Time-sensitive (have a deadline)

Finances? That was easy. That’s all about numbers. Personal development? Again, slam dunk. I have way more cool ideas and plans and projects than I could ever hope to get done in a finite amount of time. But social? Family? As an introvert, it’s kind of horrifying to have to set goals about how often to make a big social splash. As someone without kids, yet great relationships to her relatives, the family category made no sense to me whatsoever.

The listing didn’t stop at the monthly level though. Oh, no. In trying to keep on top of my monthly goals, I was putting together a weekly list, which then informed my daily list.

All in all, I was surrounded by an accumulating assortment of slips of paper, some with words crossed out, sporting different dates. I felt like I was becoming obsessive.*

Listing vs doing

I didn’t feel like I was getting much done; I felt like the time I was an office temp doing straight numeric data entry for eight hours a day. The numbers came in, I typed them all with my right hand, the numbers went out, I went home and never knew what happened to the numbers before or after they swept through my brain. I even dreamed about those number combinations. Fortunately that assignment lasted less than a week. I haven’t started dreaming about lists yet. Though I feel like if I tried, I might remember some of those number combinations…

Now I’m supposed to come up with a list for 2015??? Roll me in a mound of porcupine quills!

I need a new framework. I’m not reviling Dan Miller — the man’s work is an inspiration and I highly recommend reading him if you have not already — I’ve just come to understand this framework isn’t working for me anymore.

I do have tangible goals and events in 2015 that I don’t need to construct a list to know about. I don’t need any “R” words to keep them top of mind. They are specific and measurable, they have a deadline and depend on results.

At this point, that’s good enough for me. Unless a more useful frame of reference springs to mind, I’m going to let the year go unscripted.

*Dear reader, if all was as self-evident to the characters as it is to you, what then would happen to the story? I ask you.

== == ==

What do you think about the usefulness of resolutions (new year’s or otherwise)?