Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Writer's Life

Conger Design via Pixabay
Writing a book is hard. So many pages to fill. So much pressure, both external and self-imposed. In fiction, sometimes the characters don't cooperate (although sometimes that's fun). In non-fiction, sometimes the ideas don't come (which is less fun).

Other thoughts, however, are often in full swing. That was terrible. You can't write that. No one wants to read this. What makes you think you can write this book? You really didn't think this through, did you? You think that is good? 

Ah, yes. Self-doubt. It's enough to send us running to wash the dishes, rearrange the furniture, clean the basement. Anything sounds better than staying put and facing a blank screen that just stares back, or worse yet, somehow manages to berate and belittle.

One part of the writing process that is completely wonderful, however, is the idea stage. In the idea stage, anything is possible. "I don't know" is an acceptable response, as are things like "I haven't quite worked that out yet" and "That part is still tentative." Timelines, synopses detailed chapter outlines and logical flow are banned. The more far-fetched and creative the notion, the better.

The idea stage is non-threatening, innocuous. There's no judgment or fear, there are no wrong answers or bad ideas. It's a wonderful, relaxing, exhilarating place to be.

Unfortunately, it, like summer vacation, is fleeting.
Eventually, the idea stage must yield to the writing-a-book stage. There, nose-to-the-grindstone and butt-in-chair meet self-doubt, generating a healthy sprinkling of procrastination.

It's the job we hate to love. Or love to hate. Either way, it's the one we can't imagine not doing and so the line between the real world and the one we put on paper blurs, each inspiring the other in unpredictable ways. Guilt nudges relaxation out of the way and drags effort, kicking and screaming, to its feet, with no regard for time of day, month or year.

It's lovely to imagine writers typing away at Starbucks, writing away in notebooks, dreaming up stories. It's even lovelier to imagine that all of those words make perfect sense and weave seamless stories immediately upon contact with the page.

But that would be fiction.

The truth is, some days, writing is a job with the same ups and downs and joys and sorrow of any other job (minus the paid vacations and health insurance).

But during the idea stage and on those days when the words flow, it has benefits of its own. They may be less practical than health insurance, but they offer a sustenance all their own.

Alexa's Fotos via Pixabay

Monday, August 13, 2018

Carpe Diem

Today is my birthday. As a grown-up, or someone masquerading as one, anyway, I don't know how I feel about that. In many ways, it's just another day, yet in many others, it's not. Not at all.

Maybe it's that it's Monday, I tell myself, or that I have so many deadlines (a good problem to have when you're a writer). Or maybe it's that the past few weeks have involved so much running from place to place, breaking away from routine, reuniting our little family, that this day, whatever day of the week it is, has caught me by surprise.

But I love surprises -- mostly -- and perhaps the secret is to focus on those...
The barista at Starbucks who told me I have a lovely smile.
Lunch with my daughter, where she surprised me by picking up the check.  

The waiter at the diner who recognized us from his prior place of business.

Real birthday cards in the actual mailbox.

...and to view today -- and each new day -- as an opportunity. To write a proposal for a new book, a scene for a novel-in-progress or to simply curl up with a good book, guilt-free. To smile back at the sweet barista, enjoy my free birthday Starbucks and spend time with the people I love. 

In the end, perhaps that's what a birthday is: an opportunity.

To be grateful.

To notice.

To celebrate.

To love.

Or, as one of my friends wrote on my Facebook page, "Carpe diem."

Come to think of it, that's a pretty good way to approach every day.

What will you do with your day?

Friday, August 10, 2018

Friday Feature: Starbucks and the City

On Tuesday, my husband and I were putting the finishing touches on our trip to meet our daughter in Connecticut, with a quick stopover in NYC. He loves the Macy's in New York, but I wasn't in much of a shopping mood, so I was trying to figure out if I could find a place to hang out/work while he shopped. I knew there was at least one Starbucks inside Macy's (as well as dozens between Penn Station and Herald Square), but I also knew that seating is not a given inside Manhattan Starbucks stores, so I went in search of photos.

And did even better. I found a blog -- Starbucks and the City. Five years old, so not up to date, but it was a good starting point, and really fun reading if you're a Starbucks junkie like I am.

Then it occurred to me that another one of my favorite places was not far from Grand Central Station, where we'd be getting our connecting train.

The New York Public Library.

Does it seem a little silly spending an hour or so in the city and ending up at the library or a Starbucks? Probably. But we had only a short time to spend there, and I'd rather write than shop. Plus with temperatures near 90 degrees, a leisurely stroll to an air conditioned destination sounded pretty good.

In the end, the stroll wasn't so leisurely (it's Manhattan, after all) and it was hot. Still, I found a seat at a small table in Bryant Park and worked there for a bit until I needed a change of scenery. Then, I walked a half a block to the 42nd Street entrance of the NY Public Library and availed myself of quiet and air conditioning.

As for the Starbucks where I stopped for libation?

I should've read the Starbucks and the City review before I stopped in. It's tough to mess up an iced chai tea latte, but they managed to do so.

Oh, well. It's not as though I couldn't find another Starbucks.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Naming Names

As a writer, I am always on the lookout for new and interesting names for my characters. I often consult the small paperback baby name book on the shelf in my office, a hand-me-down from my aunt. Since the book is more than thirty years old, it's fair to say that I could use an updated edition but, when I can find lists of baby names online for free, why bother?

But sometimes, resources just fall into your lap. Last week, I was at the Catholic Writers' Guild Live! conference. With the Catholic Marketing Network as one of its sponsors, the CWG conference includes an impressive array of vendors -- so many, in fact, that though I walked the aisles numerous times, I didn't come close to taking advantage of all the opportunities such a show presents.

I did, however, stumble upon a particularly wonderful freebie at the Marian Press booth. Across the front table were several books, free for the taking. One of them was the beautiful Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys book, subtitled "Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady." The cover is done in pastels evocative of a freshly painted nursery and the contents are just as lovely. Instead of tightly packed lists of names, each name is given its own space, making the book just right for browsing, as well as picking up a few new tidbits of information on each of the names.

In the book's introduction, author Katherine Morna Towne shares that her mother has dubbed her a "namiac," which gave me a chuckle. But, as I paged through the book, I couldn't help but think that we're all the better for the fact that this namiac shared her love of names and her love of the Virgin Mary with all of us. She's done the hard work of researching all of these beautiful and, in some cases, unusual, names and we get the benefit of her efforts.

I fell in love with a number of the girls' names (I haven't looked at the boys' names yet since I'm not currently naming any male characters) and the stories, nicknames and descriptions included with each name add a depth and beauty to all of the entries. Whether you're looking to name a baby or a character, select a Confirmation name or read about the stories behind the names, this book is a wonderful resource -- one you don't have to be Catholic to appreciate.

And I have a funny feeling that one of my characters is about to undergo a name change.

Thank you,, for sharing this lovely book.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Navigating a Professional Conference

I love the excitement of a conference. The people. The location. The break in routine.

The workshops.

The moving parts at the center of all conferences, no matter the profession, are the workshops. Varied and dynamic, they are one of the main reasons we go to conferences in the first place. Depending on the conference, the number of available workshops can be overwhelming. How's a conference-goer to choose?

Over years of attending conferences, I've learned that I choose workshops the same way every time. It's not scientific, but it's also led me into some very interesting sessions. Here are a few of my common sense guidelines.
  • I chose this workshop because it sounded interesting. The topic is usually the big draw. Sometimes, I grossly overestimate this and/or the presenter doesn't deliver in the way I'd hoped he or she would but, most of the time, I walk away with a few new tidbits. If all else fails, I can meet a few new people by introducing myself to other attendees.
  • I chose this workshop because it seemed necessary. These are the workshops we attend because we hope they'll enlighten us on skills we need but are perhaps not terribly enthusiastic about learning. For writers, these are often the workshops on nuts and bolts or social media and promotion. We'd rather write, but acknowledge that this other stuff is important, too. 
  • I chose this workshop because I like the speaker. Keynotes and other workshops by featured speakers or professionals we admire fall into this category. For multi-day workshops, we might also go back to hear a speaker we enjoyed on a previous day. At writing workshops, I know I've hit the jackpot when the speaker is as good at planning and delivering a workshop as he or she is at putting words on the page.
Then, there are the time slots where you want to go to more than one presentation. If you've attended the conference with a friend or fellow professional, dividing and conquering can work well. Otherwise, the decision can be made with a coin toss, or based on room location (one room is bigger/warmer/brighter than another) or another similarly scientific pursuit.

What about the times when there's no workshop that jumps out at you? Reading the descriptions and presenter bios can help. Or, perhaps it's time to grab a cup of coffee or a nap. I used to feel as though I was wasting time when I did this but, with experience, I've learned that finding a busyness/down time balance and a learning/networking balance is also essential to making the most of a conference.

How about you? What tips do you have for navigating all that a professional conference has to offer? 

Friday, August 3, 2018

Friday Feature: Critical Thinking

I've spent the last two days at a conference trying to both deepen and broaden my writing and publishing skills. Later this month, I'll head back into the classroom and try to coax critical thinking out of students who are sometimes reluctant to move out of their comfort zones. Not surprisingly, these two things are related.

As it turns out, we like our comfort zones. There's a concept in psychology called confirmation bias, which leads us to grab on to the concepts that support what we already think. Or, as my dad likes to say, tongue-in-cheek: "Don't confuse me with facts. My mind's made up."

But actively stepping outside our comfort zones can be a good thing and we don't need to go to conferences to do that. Increasing our awareness of confirmation bias and intentionally deepening, widening and lengthening our perspectives can take us out of black-and-white, yes-or-no thinking and into a better understanding of not just things, but people as well.

For me, this week, the conference was a great start. Now I need to carry its lessons into my day-to-day life. Most of the time, this isn't difficult.

But sometimes, I like my comfort zone as much as the next person.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

In a Conference State of Mind
There is nowhere in the world that my introvert and extrovert tendencies collide more than a writers' conference. I want to take it all in, extend myself, meet new people....

But then I need to be alone.

It's been a full morning of workshops at the Catholic Writers' Guild conference and when I ducked out of a workshop a few minutes early to drop some things off at my car before lunch, I discovered a gorgeous space right beyond the escalators. Since my laptop was in my bag, I had no choice.

I had to sit down and write.

Part of the appeal of conferences for me is new spaces. I don't know what it is about writing in an unfamiliar place, but I love writing in hotels. Some people see the spaces in lobbies as great places to sit and talk with friends. I see a place to pull out my laptop and gather my thoughts.

I like old familiar spaces, too. When I registered for this conference, there were no rooms available at this hotel and so I treated myself to a night at the Eden Resort, where Pennwriters holds their conferences every other year. The lobby there was a busy place, so I wrote in my room and spent a few minutes in the Courtyard, my favorite spot there.

As I hunker down here with my laptop, I'm reminded of Monday's post and July's goal (now extending into August) of taking it all in. To my right, windows look out onto downtown Lancaster. In front of me is an exposed brick wall downstairs, a hall full of exhibitors and all around me, unexplored territory. Just as my introvert tendencies are colliding with my extrovert tendencies, my desire to take advantage of this space and get this post written (zoom in) is at odds with the wisdom of exploring all of the cool things around me (zoom out).

The problem with recognizing an opportunity that aligns with one's goals is that it also comes with the impetus to do something about it.

Zoom out. Take advantage of the opportunity before it slips away.