Little lockdown victories

So, how’s everyone doing?

How’s your sourdough starter? Your new at-home exercise routine? How are all of your Zoom meetings going?

If your answers to the above are: 1. awful, 2. sourdough what now?, 3. nonexistent and 4. where do I look on the screen, who even is talking, do I need a fancy background AAAHHH THE PRESSURE, that’s OK too.

(For the record: Banana bread is more my speed, define “exercise,” and I find Zoom confusing. And New Jersey canceled in-person classes for the rest of the school year, which was not a shock but still upsetting, so I’d say we’re doing … eh.)

We’re trying to survive a pandemic. We don’t have to accomplish great things. We don’t even have to accomplish a sourdough starter. We just need to get through the next day, the next week, the next month, until we’re out the other side, whatever that looks like.

I managed to clean out my closet, after at least five years of meaning to do it, and I’m going to take that as my big (little) lockdown victory.

So, whatever you’re able to accomplish creatively is fine too. I’ve finished revising one manuscript (which I started revising pre-lockdown) and noodled around with another. Writing anything whatsoever makes me happy. If it makes you happy, too, go for it. Two words. Eighteen words. Three chapters. Whatever you’ve got. If the thought of being creative in any sense is a crushing weight hanging over you, don’t even try. Get through the day.

And if you’re in a relatively good space, meaning you have money and food and a peaceful home, maybe you can do something to help other people. Donate to a food bank, or your local hospital. Sew masks. Give blood. (I’ve done a few of these things, except sewing masks, because that would require sewing ability. I bought my mask off Etsy.) Support the Postal Service—write someone a letter. Support your local journalists and buy a newspaper.

And I’m going to echo the advice of the two nurses and a respiratory therapist I interviewed last week for an article: If you are able to stay home, if you can afford to stay home, keep staying home. You’re not just helping yourself. You’re helping them.  

Remember it’s subjective

Here’s where the day job is at (AKA, the newspaper/magazine writing): I heard from one editor who’s happy with my work. Then I heard from another editor who doesn’t like my work and wants changes.

And *shrugs* that’s how it goes.

Different people are going to react differently to your work. Some will love it, some will hate it, some will go “meh.” When it’s an article, or some other type of work-for-hire, well, revisions are part of the deal (which is why I’m revising). When it’s your own work — say, your novel — you’ve got a bit more leeway in how you respond to those reactions.

But here’s the key: These opinions will vary by person. This is why literary agents usually have a line about “this industry is subjective” in their rejection letters. A manuscript that leaves them feeling “meh” might completely wow the next person to read it. You are the same person, and your work is the same work, no matter who’s reading it. You can’t control the other person’s reaction.

I’m not saying writers (or artists) need to toughen up, or grow a thicker skin, or whatever other figures of speech are floating around. But it is useful to take someone’s reaction, positive or negative, and evaluate it to see if there’s anything you can learn from it. If so, then go ahead and use that feedback. If not? You’re entitled to nod politely and move on.

Your opinion of your work, in other words, should exist a little apart from the opinions of others. And it should sustain you on the negative days.

Sharing creativity

My kids know I carry tiny purse-sized notebooks around to scribble out my rough drafts. (Moleskines are perfect—they’re the right size and they have built-in bookmarks and elastic closures—though WritersBlok notebooks are nice too.) This means they also know my works-in-progress are available if they get bored in a restaurant, waiting for their entree. Then they’re happy to provide feedback: “I like this. You should publish it.” “I read this part. Didn’t you finish it yet?” “WHAT. Why did you change it? I liked it before!”

Most recently—and yep, at a restaurant—my daughter flipped through the notebook to find a picture book idea I’d never finished. Because sometimes you start working through an idea, only to discover it isn’t working on the page as well as it did in your head. At that point you can 1. start over or 2. ditch it and focus your energies elsewhere, and that particular idea had been ditched. My daughter disagreed with my conclusion. In fact, she thought she knew how to end it, and could she write the ending? I said sure.

So she borrowed my pen and wrote the rest of the story. She got exactly the idea I’d been going for, too. And now I have written proof that she thinks highly enough of my work to want to be part of it.

Of course, she’s already appointed herself editor of all my work and has offered to illustrate it. So she’s a little ambitious.

The other day, I needed to bring my son with me to the coffee shop; he had his magazine and a muffin, I had a scone and revising to do. Once he realized what I was working on, he craned his head to see my screen. Then he moved to my other side to read my notes before I’d even gotten them typed in. Then when I was done, he asked to read something else. At which point I ceded control of my laptop and let him read my novel till it was time to go.

Sharing my work with them has been one of the best things about writing kidlit, not just because they like reading it but because they’re pretty creative in their own right. Both of them create their own comics. Both of them make art, everything from paper sculpture to pottery. It’s such a pleasure to see them expressing themselves. And maybe, possibly, they’re encouraged by watching me.

I don’t know where this creative path is going to land us, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Working big to small

Between two book editing projects, a few smaller editing projects, my usual newspaper gig, and a case study, August was unexpectedly busy. But here I am, and I’m looking forward to more busy-ness in September (as well as a break from all the heat advisories).

In the meantime, I’ve been revising a few stories of my own as well as working on the next story, and beginning research for the story after that. And I keep relying on advice from my drawing teacher.

Nope, I am not a professional artist. I have just enough talent to know how much more I would need to be a professional artist. But I love art in all its forms, from gallery paintings to comics, and I take art classes for fun. My teacher for the past few sessions is an excellent artist, helpful in all aspects of technique, and there are a few things he says regularly. One is that you have to study an object pretty thoroughly before you can draw it, instead of just glancing at it and rushing your pencil into action. Another is that you need to work “big to small”—that is, sketch in the big shapes first, figure out where all pieces are in relation to each other, then start to add in the details.

Turns out his advice works pretty well for writing, too. Even pantsers—and I am definitely a pantser—have to know a few basics before they start writing in earnest. Be a reporter: Know the who, what, when, where, why, and how. In other words, study before you draw.

And work out the character arcs, plot, beginning, and ending before you stress about the color of the curtains in the living room, or whether you’re using the right word to describe the sound of your protagonist’s voice in one scene. Sketch in the most important things first, and swing back later for the details. Work big to small.

I didn’t expect to get good writing advice from art class, but I’m calling it an extra-credit lesson, and will use it to the fullest.

Happy reading and writing this month.