Finding Joy in Tiny Victories

You may have heard or read about authors or other artists having problems with depression or other mental disorders.¬† I’ve often pondered why this is the case.¬† Perhaps it’s because we have to be so connected to and aware of our emotions and the emotions of our creations.¬† Perhaps our lives were predisposed to depression and mental health problems, and that’s what led us down the path of creative expression in the first place.¬† It’s really a chicken or egg question we have here.

Regardless, my point today is that depression is real.¬† Trying to ignore it or pretend it isn’t there won’t make it go away.¬† So, if you find yourself in a period of depression, anxiety, writer’s block, or a general funk, I’ve found in my own life that it’s important to celebrate the “tiny” victories.¬† I put tiny in quotation marks because some days those “tiny” victories feel enormous.¬† Size is relative and all about perspective anyway, right?

So what do I mean exactly when I say “tiny victory?”

I mean anything that seemed difficult that day, that took effort for you to accomplish.¬† Our victories change size and perspective depending on what else is going on in our lives.¬† I’ve learned a great deal from my amateur foray into photography.¬† Take these leaves for example:

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Or these dandelions:

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Zoomed in on them, then blown up even more on the screen, they can look huge.  But I know how tiny they are in real life.  Logically, in my brain I know that.  But sometimes, when life forces us to zoom in on the little things, when those little things feel too overwhelmingly large to us, we can find beauty, contentment, and joy in overcoming those seemingly small things.

To extend the metaphor, a tree can be broken down into smaller parts, like leaves.¬† And the leaves into tiny fibers.¬† If when you look at the task ahead, whether that’s writing a novel, or a story, a blog, or completing any major project.¬† It’s sometimes helpful to focus in on completing the smaller tasks that make up the major project, and celebrating each of those victories to give yourself encouragement for the next step.

To give you a practical example of what I’ve been describing, I’ll tell you a bit of my own story.¬† Over the past two years, I worked very hard every day at writing a novel, which I then completed the first draft of on January 1 of this year.¬† I was in a peak creative time, sometimes knocking out one or two chapters in one weekend.¬† But I couldn’t possibly maintain that level of creative production 100% of the time.¬† That would be like running a marathon constantly.

I’ve now entered what feels like a more dormant period.¬† Partially as a respite after running the marathon of writing the novel, and partially because I’m in a period of depression in my personal life.¬† I’m editing a piece of the novel at a time.¬† Some days, I may only complete one or two paragraphs or a scene.¬† I still have to allow myself to count those days as victories for my sanity.¬† It won’t do me any good to beat myself up for not being more productive right now.¬† That kind of self-criticism is detrimental to creativity anyway.¬† So, I give myself space to breathe, rest, and recuperate.

So, as you’re focusing on the tiny tasks and victories, also step back and look at the big picture of your creative career or life.¬† There are peaks and there are valleys, but all together, they make a beautiful whole.

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Secrets from the Writing Desk

Have you ever had the visual in your head of a writer sitting down at a typewriter or computer with the words just flowing with brilliance and eloquence in one never ending string of beauty?

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Well, I have a hard truth for you.¬† Are you ready?¬† Writing isn’t like that.¬† That’s a fiction created for movies and TV.¬† The uncomfortable truth is that writing is hard.¬† It will frustrate you as much as it gives you a high unlike any you’ve ever felt.¬† There will be days when you just want to chuck and all and stick with your day job.¬† That’s the difference between reality and fiction.¬† Reality is messy and ugly sometimes, often more than it is beautiful.¬† Fiction can take all of the ugly things and put them into a neater and more palatable package.

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Sometimes the only thing that can keep you on the writing path through all of the hard times, the writer’s block, the frustration, the slogging through a million words is your passion for those words.¬† If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, if you get annoyed with other things in your life because they take away from your writing time, if the you couldn’t stop the words from flowing out of you if you tried, you may be a writer.

Wordsworth writing¬†But is that all that’s required to be a writer?

Sadly, no.¬† Because once you’ve “filled your paper with the breathings of your heart,” then comes the editing.¬† The hard work of organizing, tightening, clarifying, cutting, and adding.¬† The job of a writer is communication, and if your reader can’t understand what you’re trying to communicate, then what’s the point?¬† If all you want to do is spill your guts on the page, then perhaps a journal would be the right venue.¬† But if you want to share your writing with others, it’s your job to help them understand.

There are hundreds, even thousands of people who have put their thoughts down on paper.  But the numbers are much smaller for those who have taken the necessary next steps to bring a coherent piece to other readers.  That is the line that separates a professional from an amateur, in my opinion.  A professional keeps pushing through past the catharsis of getting their words on paper, past the blocks, the frustration, the criticism.  A professional is always learning, always trying to improve the work.

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Anyone can wish and dream, but it takes hard work to turn a wish into reality.

The Sweet Spot

There’s a bay of windows on the north side of the library where my office is.¬† It’s one of my happy places.¬† Every afternoon, I take a walk through the stacks to stretch my legs, then go to the windows to soak in the beauty and recharge.¬† I think it’s important for every writer (and probably every person) to have a place (or multiple places) they can go to recharge.¬† Nature does it for me.¬† Everyone has to find what works for them.

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Editing

Throughout my time pursuing a creative writing degree, I read many books about the writing and publishing processes.¬† But recently, I felt like it was time for a refresher course.¬† So, I began reading Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman.¬† This is an excellent book for any aspiring author.¬† It’s easy to read, quick, and practical.¬† I’ve come away with a list of achievable goals after reading this book.

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One thing I’ve realized from reading this book is that my manuscript is too long.¬† Although I’ve been editing it over the last few months, I didn’t have a clear idea of what needed to go.¬† After achieving some objective distance that only time can bring, and realizing that the length of the manuscript may be keeping me from finding a good agent, I’ve decided to get drastic with my work.

My goal is to reduce it by at least 20,000 words, making it more marketable and salable.¬† First thing to go will be a side character who doesn’t significantly alter the trajectory of the story.¬† Although I was fond of her, my emotions about my characters are not important here.¬† Next thing to go is a literary, magical realism, flight of fancy I indulged in.¬† I loved the metaphor and the spiritualism it achieved.¬† But yet again, not crucial to the story, so it has to go.

It should be stated that I’ll be keeping everything I cut out.¬† They could either be turned into short stories, or perhaps put back into the manuscript at a later time in truncated form.¬† As writers, it’s our job to find the sweet spot between saying all we need to say, giving our characters the freedom to tell us their own stories, and overwriting a story.¬† We have to be brutally honest with ourselves about our work and whether or not we’re reaching that sweet spot.¬† My advice to myself is to turn off the censor or the editor in me while I’m in the writing process.¬† But while I’m in the editing process, I sometimes have to be ruthless with myself.¬† Again, it’s about finding balance.

Learning About Language

Even after years and years of studying literature and the English language, I still have so much to learn about it.¬† It’s funny to me when I find out or realize things I didn’t know before.¬† Sometimes it’s about colloquialisms.

You see, as a Southerner living in the American West, my “Southernisms” or Southern colloquialisms are often pointed out to me.¬† After living in Utah for over a decade, I thought I’d heard them all,¬† and sadly, I’ve even lost some of them.

But the other day, I was talking to my boss, and I said something about being grateful that I don’t currently have a car note.¬† She looked at me a little confused until she figured out from context clues what I was talking about.¬† I had no idea that paying a “car note” was a Southernism.¬† Apparently other parts of the country don’t use this term.¬† Instead they say something along the lines of paying a car loan.¬†¬†Whenever, I figure out one of my Southernisms, I usually try to hang onto them or file them away for later use in a story.¬† I’m sad that I’ve lost some of the language that made me unique in my part of the world.

As writers, we have to always be listening and picking up on these regional phrases and ways of speaking.¬† It’s part of the reason why I believe travel is so important to a writer.¬† To be able to interact with and listen to people from different parts of the country and different parts of the world can be invaluable fodder for later stories.¬† So, get out there, interact, listen, and just be aware of the wealth of language all around you.

A Child’s Breath Away

There is a new magnet poem on my desk on this Monday afternoon.  I had a busy weekend full of writing projects: putting together this website, editing chapter 1 of A Light from the Ashes, and plotting out my literary fiction piece.   The editing consisted of actual cutting and pasted with a paper copy of chapter 1.  The plotting of the new work included naming main characters, deciding on important scenes, and figuring out what the climax will be.

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After such a weekend, it was lovely to swim in random words today not connected to a larger work.

When I write my magnet poems, I find that the randomness of the words I have to choose from, smashed together in strange ways helps me think about ideas in ways I never have before.¬† It primes the pump of creativity and leads me on a random excursion, like a hike through a forest where I’ve never been, following trails I’ve never seen.¬† It’s exciting and makes me feel adventurous.

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For this new magnet poem, I found that it started out with innocence and a sleepy sort of respite, but twisted and wound its way into a tale of cause and effect, action and consequence.  I had no vision for the poem before I started, and just let it speak to me and be whatever it wanted to be.

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So, I leave you with this poem and a challenge for you to break out of your routine (even your creative routine).¬† Try something new, look at a word in a new way, try strange combinations, and see what your mind can come up with.¬† You’ll be surprised at the creativity that washes over you.

A child’s breath away,

kissed by garden sunshine,

women lie lazily barefoot,

dreaming of summer moments

before they trusted men and tasted life

beneath a friendly sky

and lusting hands.

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