Week four of camp: What really counts

My stats for Camp NaNoWriMo are embarrassing. However, I am proud of the fact that I blogged every week, which is a goal I set for myself in late March. And while writing often slips down to the bottom of my to-do list, it has not fallen off completely, even if my desk is a mess of all things not related to writing, and I spend far to much time wandering around my house completely overwhelmed by the stuff that seems to multiple while I sleep.

Data is great. It helps with identifying a problem and measuring the success of implemented strategies (wow, I totally sounded like an administrator right there). Data can also make you feel worthless, like when I look at my project statistics and the bulls-eye that barely made it through the second outer ring.

I taught special education in middle school for four years. During my second year, our building was in danger of a massive restructuring and forced to focus a ridiculous amount of time and energy on improving test scores. My small group of students were reading below grade level. Way below grade level. To go from a 1 to a 3 (out of 4) on their state tests was not reasonable despite the desperate pleas of my administration, and I struggled to find ways to help them feel successful. In the weeks leading up to the tests, I set individual, attainable goals for each student, worked on skills that would help them do better — and here’s the most important part — taught them how to be calm and confident during a testing situation. Not focus on what they couldn’t accomplish, but rather what they could. I’m happy to say that many of my students improved on their previous scores, and we celebrated the success — even though their scores were still below the “acceptable” level.

I am a bit ashamed by the lack of overall progress during camp but happy to say that my percentage accomplished went from 27.6% in July to 36.9% in April. An improvement. And while my final day of working on the camp project was spent deleting more words than adding new ones, I decided that what really counts is forward momentum. Not giving up. I will continue to write, continue to work on my WIP, continue to participate in the monthly writing challenges.

What really counts is attitude. Confidence. Belief in yourself no matter the obstacle. My students were told they were the lowest performers in the school, but they refused to let a number dictate what they were capable of accomplishing. In my current job, I see adults return to school after years of working, raising a family, overcoming illness — they sit in my office and tell me they are finally ready to earn their degree and will do whatever it takes.

What really counts is determination.


Week one of camp: Procrastination and doubt

Camp NaNoWriMo started last Sunday. I didn’t add any new words to my project until Wednesday, when I managed to eek out a measly 142. Part of the problem is that it was spring break this past week and the boys were off from school. To save money hubs and I alternated days off with the kids. On my days off, instead of my usual writing time, I hung out with the boys and we visited friends and family. It was fun, but draining. I love my boys to pieces, but they have entirely too much energy. A quick trip to the grocery store is like taking monkeys through a tree farm.

I love springtime, but the weather this week has been cold and ugly, and it’s making me feel restless and trapped. I want to take walks, breath fresh air, and warm my face in the sun. It doesn’t help that my WIP takes place in winter. Those 142 words? They were all about how much we look forward to spring.

On Wednesday night I met up with a few of my writer friends for coffee and conversation. It was great to see them and reconnect. But I continued to feel listless and uninspired. Sometimes when I work on a project, it calls to me. I can’t wait to get back in front of the screen and get lost in the world I’ve created. The characters meet me in my dreams, tell me their secrets, beg me to get their stories onto the page. Right now? All I feel is doubt. I’m often crippled by decisions required at the beginning of a new project, and this is definitely one of those times. The creative flow is blocked by my inability to commit to an idea. Remember that outline I talked about in my last post? Yeah, that totally hasn’t happened yet.

Saturday morning I sat in my usual place during soccer practice and decided to do a bit of stream of consciousness writing in the hope that I could dislodge the dam of doubt in my brain. It helped, and I walked away with 695 new words, bringing my total for the week to 837. To reach the goal I’ve set of 10k, I need to average 2.5k a week.

I need to pick up the pace.

Life returns to normal this week. Kinda. My parents are home from their snowbird place down south and my dad likes to bring the boys to soccer, which means less time in the chilly yet muse-filled indoor arena. (Although my days were numbered anyway – the outdoor season will start next month and it’s difficult to type while sitting in a camp chair. In the rain. I have little hope for a decent spring to ever arrive.)

The bottom line? I allowed myself time for family this week, and time to wallow in the murky pool of procrastination and doubt. Now it is time to light the fire of let’s-get-moving-already. My goal for week two is to spend some solid time at my desk, not worrying about what is or is not working; simply writing. If the words are garbage, then the words are garbage. Hopefully they’ll lead me to where I need to be headed with the story. And hopefully it will stop snowing and I can get outside and talk a long walk full of positive brainstorming energy.

Waiting for the muse

Words to describe me: mom, wife, friend, counselor, household manager, volunteer, health nut, writer. Notice where writer falls on the list. As something that brings me joy but also a fair amount of heartache, it easily slips to the bottom of who I decide to be each day. And when I do carve out time for writing, it’s often in small, interrupted patches, and the muse doesn’t always show up. (Translation: one hour dedicated to writing = 45 minutes on the web/social media/my phone/not writing + 15 minutes staring at a blinking cursor/not writing.)

I know what they say. Get your butt in the chair and put the time in if you want to make something of yourself as a creative person. So I convinced the family to turn our guest room into a writing office. Bought a new desk. Surrounded myself with inspirational things and books and lots of sticky notes. My job is only three days a week, which means I have two whole days to write while the kids are at school. All of the ingredients needed to crank out some amazing stuff.

Reality: See that list above? I volunteer at my son’s school several times a month and serve as committee chair for our local scout pack. I use one of the free days to grocery shop/meal prep/clean. I procrastinate under the guise of keeping up my social media presence. (Translation: waste time worrying whether or not people I’ll never meet will like my mildly witty tweet.)

When I do get my butt in the chair at my beautiful desk that is often covered with all things not related to writing, I worry. Worry about my stories and whether or not they will ever sell. Worry about the words coming out of my brain, especially when they seem stuck somewhere between there and my fingertips. Worry about all of the other things I should be doing, like cleaning out the basement or snuggling with the cat.

I recently read that you should carve out the same place/time each day and your muse will show up because he/she/they will know where to find you. Makes sense. John Cleese has a great video about how we need to allow ourselves time to get into the creative space in our mind, which for the modern writer may mean browse social media, search for the perfect playlist, make/purchase a comforting mug of your favorite warm beverage. The thing is, life doesn’t always allow for the same place/time for writing, and we use distractions as an excuse of settling in instead of truly settling in.

Take last Wednesday for example: It is my day off from work. Writing day. YAY! But the previous Friday was a snow day, so I had to go into work to make up the missing hours. It’s also usually the night I meet up with my writing group, but my older son has started indoor soccer practice at an elementary school on Wednesday nights with no place to sit and work. I decide to bring my laptop and find someplace nearby to write.

6:55 Drop son off at practice. Drive to nearby store with café.
7:00 Scope out the space and wait for barista to finish previous person’s order.
7:05: Order a cup of tea, decide on a small dessert, chat with barista.
7:10 Fire up computer, log into wifi, check twitter, tweet about how warm it is.
7:20 Log into library site, look for music to stream.
7:25 Open document, read last few pages, stare into space trying to decide what to write next.
7:35 Start writing.
7:50 Realize we need milk at home and if I want to buy some and get back to pick up son by 8:00 I need to wrap things up.

Fifteen minutes of writing. I wrote about 300 words. That’s the problem. Sometimes it takes so long to get all the other crap out of the way that when I actually start to feel the muse show up, it’s time to stop. At home, this may mean someone/thing requires my attention, or I wasted five and a half hours doing other things and now it’s almost time to get my son from school. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve managed to make it work at other times, like when the boys practice at the athletic center that not only has no wifi, but there’s a dead zone so even data on my phone doesn’t work. Just one hour of no distractions—buckle down and get some words on the page already—writing time.

Every writer I know has a list of other things that require their attention and responsibility. And often making the choice to write means you are sacrificing something else. Made worse by the fact that you may sit there, missing whatever it is you’ve chosen not to do, and stare at the screen. Waiting.

Don’t give up on your muse. Do what you need to do to get into the zone, even if that leaves only a handful of minutes for writing. I beat myself up the other night about only getting 300 words down, but hey, that’s 300 more than I had when the night started. And now I know the routine of that particular place and can change my approach next time.

I daydream about the possibility of giant chunks of uninterrupted writing time, just me and my muse, hanging out, telling stories. But reality can be cruel, and it forces me to figure out how to make it work when I can if I want to bump writer up the list. I do. Because, heartaches aside, it feels good to be in the zone. There’s really nothing else quite like it.

Cheerleader for a month

Back in December, I decided to help out an online writing community by volunteering to be the January hashtag leader. Let me back up. Sometime last year I discovered the monthly writing challenge on Twitter; each day you try to write at least 500 words or edit for an hour, then enter your stats on a shared spreadsheet. The next day, whoever is the monthly hashtag leader will shout out the handles of anyone who completed the challenge. The recognition is highly motivating, and it’s a pretty awesome feeling if you make it through the whole month. I’ve only done it once. But I pop in now and then, post my word count on the hashtag, and chat with other writers. It is a wonderful, supportive community.

So when I saw an open space for January’s leader, I jumped at the chance to give back. Every morning for 31 days I checked the spreadsheet and did a shout out on Twitter. It was fun looking for new and interesting GIFs, and read/see other’s responses. And my phone ping-pinged ALL DAY, which made me feel incredibly popular. I interacted with other writers on the hashtag by liking their post and/or giving them words of encouragement (often in the form of a GIF – I used to hate those things but have grown to love them). I made a bunch of new virtual friends. On the last day we began comparing the weather in our respective corners of the world and brainstormed how we could get together for a celebration.

It’s the third day of February, and my phone is freakishly silent. The challenge continues every month, but there is another writer at the helm, doing daily shout outs and offering kindness. But I want to keep the feeling going. I want to be the person who makes others feel good. That’s never really been my M.O. I’m more of a pessimist than a cheerleader, but that life tends to be awfully lonely. Most days I’m okay with that. Leave me alone to my book/laptop/cup of tea/snuggly cat, and I’m perfectly content. Writing is a solitary thing, and my mind needs that space to work creatively. But we also need each other. We need people to cheer us on, to talk us off a ledge when we freak out about querying or edits, to keep us moving forward when we feel like our wheels are stuck in the mud.

I saw a post the other day about how difficult it is to “jump into” the various writing groups online. One of the responses compared it to looking for a place to sit in the cafeteria and being afraid to approach a table full of strangers. I get that. When I first got on Twitter I didn’t quite get it; it felt like I was peering over someone’s shoulder at their string of text messages. Eventually I stumbled upon the write club hashtag, and started to build my online community. We sprinted every Friday and it was during one of those sprints that I finished my first book. There are a ton of great writing hashtags to follow, and there really is no secret to belonging. You jump in, either with your own stuff or an encouraging phrase or GIF directed at someone else, and go from there.

It’s a heck of a lot easier than talking to strangers at a party. In my opinion anyway.