In Season

“At 36, he’s ancient,” observes a writer who’s chronicling Ryan Lochte’s long-shot bid to swim for Olympic gold.

Luckily for us, as writers, even if it takes us a while to get our work out into the world, there’s no limit to the creativity we can bring to our work or the success we can have.

“Ripeness is all” says Shakespeare, who surely knew a thing or two about creativity! Consider these writers who ripened slowly and went on to give the world the gifts of fabulous stories:

Toni Morrison was flirty when her first book, “The Bluest Eye” gained publication in 1970. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for “Beloved.”

Mark Twain’s first book, “The Innocents Abroad,” was published in 1869, when Twain was forty-one. It became an instant bestseller, prompting him to write “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In all, he wrote twenty-eight books.

J.R.R. Tolkien published “The Hobbit” in 1937 at the age of 45, and went on to write “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which has sold more than 150 million copies worldwide.

Author and screenwriter Raymond Chandler’s first book, “The Big Sleep” was published in 1939 — he was fifty-one. He went on to develop a body of work that literally created the “hard boiled” detective story.

Annie Proulx’s writing career took wing when she was fifty-seven. Her first novel, “Postcards” won a Faulkner Award and he second novel, “The Shipping Cards” won the Pulitzer Prize.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s most beloved work is the children’s book series, “The Little House on the Prairie.” Set between 1932 and 1943, the books drew on her upbringing in a family of pioneers, which she began to chronicle later in life.

Frank McCourt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist best known for “Angela’s Ashes.” Published in 1996, it was based on his childhood in Ireland and Brooklyn.

The oldest debut novelist on record? Lorna Page, whose first novel, “A Dangerous Weakness” was published when she was ninety-three!

All of which goes to show that creativity and writing are always in season! Write on!

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“Anxiously Busy”

Words of wisdom to light our way from a classic and wonderful guide “If you Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit” by Brenda Ueland:

“It is like this: there are wonderfully gifted people who write a little piece and then write it over and over again to make it perfect,—absolutely, flawlessly perfect, a gem.But these people only emit about a pearl a year, or in five years. And that is because of the grind, the polishing, i.e., the fear that the little literary pearl will not be perfect and unassailable. But this is all a loss of time and a pity. For in them there is a fountain of exuberant life and poetry and literature and imagination, but it cannot get out because they are so anxiously busy polishing the gem.

“And this is the point: if they kept writing new things freely and generously and with careless truth, then they would know how to fix up the pearl and make it good in two seconds, with no work at all.

“Well, I tell you all these things to show you that working is not grinding but a wonderful thing to do; that creative power is in all of you if you give it just a little time; if you believe in it a little bit and watch it come quietly into you: if you do not keep it out by always hurrying and feeling guilty in those times when you should be lazy and happy. Or if you do not keep the creative power away by telling yourself that worst of lies—that you haven’t any.“

Gem polishing—being “anxiously busy” endlessly trying to make something so perfect that it’s “unassailable”—it’s easy to get caught in this seductive trap, isn’t it? And yet it turns work into a grind.

How enlivening is can be to take Brenda’s invitation—to write “freely and generously and with careless truth”—to surrender to the moment and not to worry about perfecting our prose as we all write on!

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Playing Around

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” Arnold Toynbee, historian

“See life through the eyes of a child, then you become truly wise.” Fortune cookie saying

Blurring the line between work and play. What a wholesome, fruitful idea—and yet, we often forget how to do this, don’t we?

Do you remember when you were a kid,how you’d play for hours at some crazy game, giving it your full attention and all your energy? Totally absorbed, you lost all track of time—in fact, you weren’t thinking about time at all. It didn’t matter. What matter was the game you were playing or the thing you were building.

At my house, my brothers, sisters and I played endless games of “War” or “Go Fish.” Now, I can’t even remember a thing about what the rules were. All I remember is how much fun we had and how we were totally absorbed and in the moment.

Recovering that sense of fun is a gift we can all give ourselves: Bringing the spirit of play to our writing can be so enlivening and transforming!

When we bring playfulness to the page we open ourselves to magic and discovery. We forget about time and deadlines and editors and just get lost in the Land of Possibilities. Anything can happen — and it often does! When we view the world with a sense of wonder and bring fresh eyes to our writing, we open the door to adventure and our readers, whoever they may be, can step through that door with us.

So let’s be more playful. Let’s take our characters down a different road and see where it leads them. Let’s not be too precious or too concerned with what our output is. Let’s write on lilac paper or use green ink or draw a picture of something we’re trying to capture with words. Let’s “freelax” as my son Alex used to say, and just see what happens.

A relaxed mind is a creative mind. Write on!

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Creative Confusion

We are most often in the dark when we are most certain, and the most
enlightened when we are most confused.”
M. Scott Peck, author and psychiatrist

“Not all who wander are lost.”
J. R.R. Tolkein

Mmmm…we are “most enlightened when we are most confused.” At first, I must admit, this comment gave me pause. How can this be? And can it be true? If so, what a relief to know that this is actually a good thing. After all, confusion and creativity often go hand in hand.

Consider the simplest definition of “enlighten” — “give greater knowledge and understanding to.” OK, if I’m not mistaken about M. Scott Peck’s meaning, then being confused — feeling bewildered and befuddled — can actually be the key to greater knowledge and understanding. After pondering this a bit, I think I’ve embraced the spirit of this statement:

When we’re confused, we usually don’t know what to do next, so we stop and consider our next steps. Sometimes just halting our forward march to wherever we think we should be going can be a smart move. Stopping gives us the chance to catch a glimpse of a better direction.

When we’re confused, we’re more open to new ideas — even zany ones that might actually prove nourishing and fruitful. When we’re confused and we don’t know what the heck to do next, we open up a space for something new to reveal itself to us because we’ve lost our sense of certainty.

When we’re confused, we feel that we’re groping in the dark and we long intensely for light, for a glimmer or spark that will light our way forward. This intense longing can push us onto new and unfamiliar paths we might never have taken if we weren’t feeling lost.

When we’re confused, we’re often forced to let go of old ideas and approaches that we’ve clung to in the past. They’re simply not working anymore and we have to jettison them or they’ll sink us. This can make us feel more buoyant and bolder, which can help us write more dangerously, which is probably exactly what we need to do.

OK, I think I’ve got it: Confusion creates change. Write on!

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Timeless Stories

“A timeless story is a great story told by a great storyteller. It must be filled with a character or characters that come alive. The story must raise our hopes, increase our fears, make us laugh, make us cry, cheat death, bring new life, teach us, touch us, give us a reason to cheer for the good guy and root against the bad. It must take place in our imagination. It must be carried with us long after it is read. It must imbed itself in heart, mind, and memory. It must be broadcast to others or it will fade. There are so many stories that are timeless that have been forgotten.” Phil Zuckerman, founder of Applewood Books

What a wonderful statement about story — it lifts the heart, doesn’t it?

Applewood Books is a dynamic, independent publishing house founded by Phil Zuckerman in 1976 to help make sure that timeless stories about America’s culture and history aren’t lost and forgotten. What a precious gift!

These words bring to mind the timeless stories I’ve read and loved. What makes them so special? I think Phil Zuckerman says it all. A timeless story offers:

Characters that come alive: Just think of those characters who’ve made a huge impression on you. Characters who seem so real you feel you know them. Characters who make you think about yourself — who you are and who you want to become.

Emotional Energy: As Phil says so well, “The story must raise our hopes, increase our fears, make us laugh, make us cry, cheat death, bring new life, teach us, touch us.” How true! We read fiction or a biography or any tale well told mainly because we want to be moved and touched deeply — we want to feel more alive and emotionally energized.

Visual Energy: A great story unfolds in our imagination vividly. It compels us to visualize what’s happening, to enter into its world and to become part of that world while we’re reading and even afterwards.

Lasting Memories: A great story doesn’t just fade away after we close a book. It has a life of its own and lives on. It becomes part of us. As Phil says, it must “imbed itself in heart, mind, and memory.” Just think of stories you read as a child or a teenager how they’ve stayed with you.

Timeless stories — what a gift they are to the world! Bravo, Applewood Books for helping to keep them alive by publishing them! Let’s strive to bring more inspiring stories to readers everywhere as we all write on.

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Something Wonderful

This lovely poem comes to us from my fellow poetry enthusiast Susan Dahlinger:

Silver (for Suzy Moore)

“How many years of beauty do I have left?
she asks me.
How many more do you want?
Here. Here is 34. Here is 50.
When you are 80 years old
and your beauty rises in ways
your cells cannot even imagine now
and your wild bones grow luminous and
ripe, having carried the weight
of a passionate life.
When your hair is aflame
with winter
and you have decades of
learning and leaving and loving
sewn into
the corners of your eyes
and your children come home
to find their own history
in your face.
When you know what it feels like to fail
and have gained the
to rise and rise and rise again.
When you can make your tea
on a quiet and ridiculously lonely afternoon
and still have a song in your heart
Queen owl wings beating
beneath the cotton of your sweater.
Because your beauty began there
beneath the sweater and the skin,
This is when I will take you
into my arms and coo
you’ve come so far.
I see you.
Your beauty is breathtaking.

Jeannette Encinias

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Warming Words

And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.”
Pablo Neruda

“What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“A kind word is like a Spring day.”
Russian proverb

Words spoken and unspoken make such a difference in life, don’t they? And I’ve found that this is especially true for writers. Kind words of praise and encouragement can make all the difference to someone who is struggling with their work or worried that no one will care about it. 

In my office, I have what I think of as my bulletin board of inspiration. On it, I’ve tacked up inspirational quotes and printouts of emails that friends have sent with kind words about my novel. Whenever I feel low, I can take a look at this bulletin board and it gives me a shot of adrenalin. Reading the notes that friends have sent me makes me feel as if they are right in my tiny little office with me, giving me a hug and telling me, “Keep going, Karin! What you’re doing is worth doing. I believe in you.” What a boost this gives me!

Right now, today, there may be a writer you know who’s having a hard time for some reason. It could be a thorny plot problem or a tough rejection or just a feeling that they’re lost and don’t know how to write themselves back on the right path.

Why not take a few moments to give that person a call to see how they’re doing — or send them an email with an encouraging quote or a few sentences on something you enjoy about their work? You never know how much a kind word at the right moment can mean to someone who’s struggling — it can make all the difference in the world. Words matter. And kind words matter most. Write on.

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Problem Dissolving

“There is no such thing as a problem. The word problem is a label for a situation. There are merely situations, which become problems only if we choose to view them that way. We can choose to label any given situation as a problem or an opportunity or “to be determined” or any other label we choose. The label we assign to each of our situations creates our perception and experience of it. Want to cause yourself stress and make life more difficult than it needs to be? Label all your undesirable situations as problems and just keep piling them on top of your existing problems.” Hal Elrod, from “The Miracle Equation”

What a refreshing and exciting book “The Miracle Equation” is! And how this passage jumped out at me and begged to be shared!

What a liberating way to look at the word “problem.” Just consider the possibilities:

There are no problems — only situations.

A situation can be labeled anything we want.

A situation can be an opportunity, a learning experience, a gift that helps us grow — or a problem, an obstacle that holds us back.

The word “problem” feels heavy, doesn’t it—like a stone.

The word “opportunity” feels exciting—like a door we can open or a new path we can go down.

Consider our “problems” as writers:

We’re having a tough time with a plot line.

We’re not happy with our latest draft.

We’re finding it touch to revise.

We’re having a hard time finding an agent or a publisher.

Any of these “situations” can be problem or an opportunity, depending on how we choose to view it. If it’s a problem, we can feel stuck and drained of motivation, discouraged. If it’s an opportunity, we can feel excited, energized, juiced and ready for action.

Thinking of “problems” as situations that are inherently neutral can be a great way to loosen up a challenging situation. Write on!

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“Any Moment”

“You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ isn’t the falling down but the staying down.” Mary Pickford

What an uplifting, sunlit field of possibilities these words of wisdom offer us! If we trust in their truth, they can energize and encourage us — give us heart and hope.  After pondering this statement, I’ve come up with a few ideas:

The past doesn’t dictate the future: Whatever has happened in the past, whatever we did or didn’t do doesn’t have to define or limit us. At any moment we can have a “fresh start” — we can pick ourselves up and renew our efforts with a clean slate, unhampered by the past. If we can truly embrace the idea that we are not bound by our past performance, it can not only give us hope, but wings.

Mistakes are surmountable: When we fall down, as long as we don’t stay down, we haven’t failed. We may have made a mistake, but that doesn’t prevent us from making a fresh start and succeeding at whatever we’ve chosen to do. Mistakes are simply missteps and we can get back on track without worrying about failing — what a relief!

Hard work counts: As long as we choose to make a fresh start instead of giving up, we are free to bring our A-game to whatever we’re doing — to go all out to achieve whatever it is we’re aiming at. We can give whatever venture we’ve embarked on the best we have because we aren’t constrained by the past or beholden to the future. We are free to act in the moment and to give that moment our all.

Rejection is just a stepping stone:  If failure isn’t falling down, but staying down, then any rejection that comes our way is just a temporary blip on the radar screen, not a life sentence. We may have fallen, but we can rise up and keep going until we reach our goal. If rejection can’t knock us flat — if we refuse to stay down when we encounter it, then it has no real power over us.

Anything can happen: If a fresh start is available to us at any moment, then anything can happen at any time. The possibilities are endless and the only limits we face are those we impose on ourselves. What a liberating idea!

Mary Pickford is a shining example of this resilience: She reinvented herself many times and took control of her own destiny at a time when most actors and actresses were seen as studio pawns with little power. So let’s take a tip from “America’s Sweetheart” and remember that we can “make a fresh start any moment” we choose — and write on!

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Routing Resistance

“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’

       “That’s a pro.

        “In terms of Resistance, Maugham was saying, ‘I despise Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my work.’

        “Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his . . . He knew if he built it, she would come.”

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

Resistance: We’re all painfully familiar with its many guises. Fear, procrastination, self-sabotage, distraction, stress, perfectionism. Any and all of these  — and a host of other self-deluding excuses — can keep us from doing what we tell ourselves we really want to do: write.

But, as Somerset Maugham discovered, there’s a powerful antidote to this painful, energy-sapping malady. It’s called the Butt-in-the-Chair pill. Just sit down and do your work and Resistance will slink away and leave you alone — at least for a while. And, as our boy Steven observes, just the simple act of sitting down and working seems to set in motion a “mysterious” process that leads to inspiration.

It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? And yet it’s not easy —  there are  countless forces that seem ready and eager to get in the way of our work. The best way to defeat them, at least temporarily,  is to remain unfazed — to not be discouraged or perturbed by them. Just let them bubble and flutter all around you while you do your job and sit and write.

Resistance never goes away; it’s a trickster, a shape-shifter. It changes forms and tries to trick us into thinking that there are more important things for us to do than our writing or to make us feel that everything we write is worthless, or that we need to feel great or feel better to do our work.

But to do our work, all we need to do is to do our work. And when we commit to doing our work and do it consistently, then we don’t have to go looking for inspiration — it finds us. Once we truly understand and embrace this, it really simplifies everything.

The War of Art is a favorite writing guide. I turn to it again and again for a shot of adrenalin and a kick in the pants. Its subtitle — Break Through the Blocks and Win Your inner Creative Battles — tells you everything you need to know about it. Check it out — and write on!

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