Friday, June 15, 2012

Brain Draino or You Can't Fail

     Hey gang, it's Friday and I'm not April. If you've tuned in for April's wonderful poetry, you can stop reading now. It's summertime and the schedules are crazy (as in I forgot to write my Monday blog...and didn't even know until Tuesday because I hadn't opened my computer in two days.) Hence, here I am to continue the current thread of "Unblocking Creativity."

   I live in an older house with iffy plumbing. Something is always backing up, leaking, or just plain not working. Kind of like my brain a lot of days.  While I have published ten books in eight years, I have been working on another book for the same eight years.  It's a YA historical fiction verse novel in three voices.  Think that's enough of a challenge for someone who has never written YA, poetry or anything multi-voiced?  I believe this is known as "leaving your comfort zone."

    I don't like leaving my comfort zone. It took me so many years to find my comfort zone, I am in no rush to leave it.  I could happily write middle grade fiction and picture books forever. Unfortunately, this story that will not leave me alone.  While I was writing Jimmy's Stars and First Grade Stinks and A Tree for Emmy, this other story was also living in my head. And it wasn't living there quietly. At least once a week, one of the characters whacks me on the head and says, "Hey, you!  You thought us up, now do something with us."
     I don't usually have this problem.  Sure, it always takes me a long time to write any book, but I am usually confident that I will finish, eventually. On the other hand, I've never taken eight years to write something, with no end in sight (even though I have the entire book outlined, and written three drafts).

     Let's face it. I am intimidated by my own creation.  Sometimes I see my three main characters as those giant heads on Easter Island...big and scary and something I don't want to get very close to. This leads to all kinds of brain clogging thinking ("Who do I think I am trying to write this particular book?"  "Nobody will ever want it." "Why am I even trying to write poetry?")  The next thing I know, I have closed my laptop and am playing endless games of Words With Friends on my Kindle (I keep hoping to be matched up with Alec Baldwin some day.)

      I am afraid that I am not good enough to write this story that is so very important to me. If I could only write one more book in my life, it would have to be this one.

    So here is my brilliant quote (a little Draino for the brain, if you will).

   What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?

   I have no idea who said this originally, but it is something my husband says at least once a week. Unlike me, he is all about pushing the envelope, waving bye-bye to comfort zones, a shark in constant motion. (OK, he's not sharklike at all, except that he never stops moving and thinking.)  I doubt his brain plumbing has ever clogged with self doubt.

    What would I do if I knew I couldn't fail? Well, duh. I'd sit down every morning for however long my crazily unscheduled life allows, and sneak back into my characters heads. I know them so well...but apparently, they also know me, and my weaknesses.  "Go ahead," they taunt me. "Just try to get me right on the page. I dare you."

     I am not a person who takes dares. And here we are, back in my comfort zone, my Kindle ready to take me away from dares and defeat.

     My favorite writing guru, Anne Lamott has the same problem, which is reassuring. She devoted an entire chapter in Bird by Bird to those nagging, whiney, inner critics. When her channels get clogged she appears to have panic attacks. I just turn into a non-writing slug. She suggests lots of deep breathing
to get herself "back in the creative stream."

    Deep breathing doesn't work for me.  Making myself aware of my breathing makes me hyperventilate. A hyperventilating, non-writing slug.  Not good.

    What brings me back is a leisurely lap around my jungle-like backyard, reminding myself I can't fail. I know these characters. I know this story. I cannot fail. The Easter Island heads turn back into normal-sized humans. They stop scowling, and invite me back to their world.

    Alec Baldwin will have to wait.

Writer's Workout---All good physical workouts should start with a warm-up and end with a cool down.   I find that brain clog most often happens when I try to just jump into my story, because I am trying to get as far and as fast as I can before my brain poops out.  I make the same mistake in exercising. Both writing and exercise go much better if you make yourself spend ten minutes or so warming up.  Here are some warmups that work for me.

1. Music--a few minutes listening to whatever kind of music puts you in a creative mood. Since I am usually writing something historical, I listen to music of that era. This is not permission to listen to
the entire CD of Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon. Ten minutes, tops.

2. Pictures--I have a small collection of old postcards and photos (not family pictures, pictures of strangers I've picked up at flea markets). Meditating on one of those for a few minutes will send me back to my story.

3.  Having a conversation (on paper) with one of my characters. I will ask the character a question that has been bothering me, and then listen for the response. Often, I find my character answering a completely different question...which tells me that I didn't ask the right question!  They aren't mean about it....they are just reminding me where their story is going...and that I can't force them to go where they don't want to go.

4. Reminding myself of my successes--This sounds kind of egotistical, but a therapist suggested it to me  when I first began writing, and it works when nothing else will. I have framed copies of every writing award I won as a kid (thanks to my mom who actually hung them in our den...much to my embarrassment as a teenager). I have a shelf of the books I've already published. I have a couple of plexiglass doodads that seem to be the form that awards take these days. (I have three identical awards for three completely different honors....I have to look closely at the etching to see which is which!)  In the days before I had awards, I had "nice rejection" letters to remind that yes, I can write and I cannot fail.  

Well, that's not entirely true.  You can fail...but only if you quit.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Linda at teacherdance said...

Funny and poignant all at the same time, Mary Ann. I find that I seem to have quite a long list of things that take my time when it's the time I set to write. I haven't had so much trouble before with most blog pieces, but I am trying to write some semblance of a book in the #TeachersWrite group, and every time I get a nice response it scares me. And the little voice reappears saying things like "what are you doing, just stick with the blog posts & the nice things you've been doing. Isn't that enough already?" Stuff like that. So I go off to change the laundry, read a few more blogs, etc. I know just how you feel. So good luck with your story & your characters. I'm hopeful for you (& for me after reading your post).

Jeanette W. Stickel said...

Your post was just what I needed to read this
afternoon. My summer vacation started about
30 minutes ago - when the students hopped on
their buses. I plan to do more writing now that school is out
and I'll start with your "Writer's Workout". Thank you for the

mary ann rodman said...

Linda--Your inner critic must be BFF's with my inner critic because they sound exactly alike. Here's to both of us Leaving the Comfort Zone...we can do it. (Well, we can't if we don't try!)

Jeanette---You remind me so much of me. When I was teaching I was so exhausted at the end of a "work day"
(which ended at midnight or after, and began around 6 am....that summer was the only time I had enough time and energy to write (not counting the week I had to spend at cheerleading camp, and the various summer inservice meetings). Wave bye bye to the kids and hit that keyboard running. Fall if coming sooner than you can imagine! MA

April Halprin Wayland said...

When I read this,
"I am afraid that I am not good enough to write this story that is so very important to me. If I could only write one more book in my life, it would have to be this one"...I knew exactly what book it would be. Yeah, that one.
Thanks for the poke.