Archives for category: Creative Process

One of the most difficult things for me to accept about the writing process is that there are days when it just isn’t happening.

Yesterday was one of those days, and it was bad–six hours to meet a word count goal that usually takes me two hours to meet bad–so when Vicki Boykis tweeted a link to, I gave up with all the enthusiasm a Doctor Who fan can muster and spent the next hour pummeling Leander with David Tennant gifs. Even though his favorite Doctor is Christopher Eccleston.* Apparently, I’m a terrible spouse.

And apparently one can only do this for so long without getting a little giddy.

“I should just write a novel in gifs,” I thought, “But only David Tennant gifs.”

Gif-David Tennant thought this was an excellent idea.

And I thought, “I bet I can get Gif-David Tennant to agree to anything.”

Then it hit me…

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 1.43.32 PM

And so, that is how Ask the Doctor was born.

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Now, I should be clear that this mostly wasn’t my doing. Unless putting together a list of gifs and watching over Leander’s shoulder and criticizing his code (I can’t code.) counts as doing something. So, if Gif-David Tennant tells you that beer battered Lucky Charms is a balanced breakfast, it isn’t entirely…entirely my fault.

*Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 2.09.47 PM



A week and a half ago I finished the first draft of my novel, and because I did a terrible job of not reading what I’d written over and over, I have forced myself to put it on the shelf for a month.

Everyone says that it’s important sometimes to step back and get distance on a book project. Distance builds perspective, and perspective helps you see the difference between the scene that plays out in your head and the scene you actually wrote.

For most writers (I’m sure) a month between project phases like this sounds like an invitation to play time. Unfortunately, I’m a wannabe methodical writer who wishes the writing process was more typing and less process. I find the prospect of chipping away at a giant project for months on end comforting. Five minutes of ambiguity, and I fall into an existential crisis–Is a novelist really a novelist without an active novel-in-progress?–so as soon as I made the decision to give my novel a rest, I instantly went into denial. When I wasn’t sneaking off to write editing notes to myself in my journal, I was harassing the Hacker (the only person in the world I trust with work that hasn’t been edited under a microscope) for feedback. Eventually, I ran out of ideas and just couldn’t ask the Hacker if there was anything else one more time without putting my marriage in jeopardy, and I was forced to face the prospect of weeks without an active longterm writing project.

I wish this meant that I took a nap, relaxed, got over it, and started experimenting. Instead, I’m compiling a list of novel-related things to do between now and June that will, hopefully, keep the existential hounds at bay.

Research. Googling “how to knit a fishing net” is a terrific way to break out of flow, but the time between drafts is probably a good time to look up the answers to life’s most savory questions.

World building. I’ve always liked the idea of story bibles, and I love it when other writers allow me to take a look at theirs, but I find that going into the first draft of a story with one feels like trying to climb Mount Everest with an army of overly helpful babbling Sherpas. For years, I thought the answer was to force myself to become more structured and a better planner, but I’m starting to wonder if now, after the first draft would be a good time to do all of that map drawing I’ve always fantasized about.

Character building. At the very least, I should probably figure out a name for the character who appears in my book as CAPTAIN X… Though, I’m temped to name him Captain Echs.

Working on these things would make me feel virtuous, but they’re really elaborate ways of cheating. It would probably be better to spend this time actually playing–scheming up synopses, vignettes, character sketches, and experimental short stories–things that might help me segue into a new novel when I’m done with my current one. (And now that I’ve written this, I feel sufficiently lame enough not doing these things that I’ll find them impossible to avoid.)

But, really, how can I honestly call myself a novelist if I don’t spend a little time playing existential penguin?

Photo: Chell Hill

When I write fiction I start with an image. My novel SIREN began as a vision of a character named Merideth on a raft, floating alone in the middle of a bay. The image sparked curiosity. Who was she? What was she doing on the raft? Where was she? For months I questioned Merideth, usually in melodramatic dialogs where she revealed everything she was thinking and feeling. When she talked about people in her world, I began to question them, too, exploring a web of places, relationships, and history. As I got more of an idea of who the characters were and the world they were living in, the dialog was boiled down and distilled until I had something solid that almost resembled an outline. When the outline is done I will flesh things out, and the outline will become a story.

A few months ago, I set a goal for myself to finish the outline for SIREN by the second Saturday in May. With about a month to go, I know how the story begins and ends, and it’s only a matter of straightening the chain of causality, but I get antsy when it’s time to move beyond the outline stage because when you get down to it fiction is about the journey more than destination. It’s about feeling good. Or sad. Or scared and grossed out. It’s not about getting a character into trouble and getting out of it as efficiently as possible. After years of writing tidy little essays, I’m still getting my head around the fact that fiction is all about the senses.

The knees saga has given me an ambivalent relationship with the senses. Dislocations are painful, and for years–especially when my roving kneecaps started to tear tendons and damage cartilage–I wished that there was a way to upload my consciousness and forget the whole idea of having a body. Since ditching my body was impossible, novels became my favorite escape. I gravitated toward heady novels like Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr Y with its thought experiments and the intellectual monks in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

When I moved to Berkeley, I was entirely focused on getting myself to physical safety, but I quickly discovered that snow wasn’t the only barrier to a healthy life. Healing after years of chronic pain is a mental skill as much as a physical one. Paying attention to the senses is supposed to come naturally, but for twenty years, I’d been using all of my attention and mental resources on emergency vigilance, scanning my environment for danger and trying not to think about how I was feeling.

Berkeley was a feast for the senses. During my first year there I lived in a cottage that grew out of a giant redwood tree. The space was tiny, but out of every window I saw palm trees and gardens, and something was blooming every day of the year. I should have been happy, but the fear that being jostled in a crowd would put me in the hospital didn’t just go away just because I landed in the land of palm trees. The mind likes to follow patterns, and even though the need for vigilance was gone, I still followed the same old mental habits, and they were difficult to break. The absence of constant pain and danger left a hole I didn’t know how to fill.

Mindfulness, being present to the moment and the senses, was a skill I needed to learn. Looking back on it, taking up sitting meditation would have been the obvious solution, but I turned to writing instead. I enrolled in an MFA program, and after a semester and a half of reading and writing poetry, I wrote a novel about consciousness. Reading had been the way I imagined myself out of reality before, so I hoped that writing would help me get back in, and it did. It forced me to build up a store of experiences and details. It transformed my lack of mindfulness from a problem into a project.

But perhaps more importantly, I ate. As everyone who has ever watched Iron Chef knows, food is about more than taste. There is smell to consider and mouth feel, slurps and crunches, how it looks on the plate. A good meal is a feast for all of the senses, and good food writing is, too.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, eating in California changed the way I experienced the senses as I took in as much lettuce and food writing as I could hold.

So, it was no accident that when my novel SIREN reached the place where it was ready to get some meat on its bones, I looked to food writing to help me create an evocative world. Reading  Julia Child’s My Life in France is like learning how to waltz by standing on the feet of an adept. When she describes her first visit to a French restaurant, she takes us through all five senses in less than a page: the warmth of the fire, the brown-and-white decor, the smell of shallots frying in butter, the sound of friendly conversation, and the delicious taste of sole.

Sight. Sound. Taste. Touch. Smell.

1-2-3. 1-2-3. 1-2-3.

I’m writing this post with a heating pad wrapped around my leg, and I would really like for the pain to go away, so I can go for a walk in the park before the white flowering trees fall out of bloom. But I can see flowers from here if I crane to look over the fence, and the pleasure of seeing them from a distance makes me less anxious to get through this phase as quickly as possible. It is the point of writing the senses, I think, to inspire reader and writer both to pause and linger in the spaces–small as they might be–in the plotting to get away from pain and move on to the next thing.

Last Import - 07

A long string of cold rainy days have ended, and for the first time since I moved to Oregon in November it’s warm and dry enough to work outdoors. As a native New Englander, the ability to spend any time outside at all in January feels like a luxury, but after four years in California I’m spoiled on blue skies, and at the first sign of a break in the clouds, I dragged a rocking chair and my laptop out onto the patio to enjoy the sun for as long as it lasts.

The dark days have a strange effect on time. In California, it felt like I never had time to read, but afternoons feel infinitely long here, pulling me into a slow pace that is able to sustain deep attention. Recently, I read two books in tandem. The first, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural by Wendell Berry, is a collection of essays and articles written in the late 70s and early 80s. The other, The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch by Julia Cameron is a desert book about the seasons of the creative process.

Though they seemed at first to have nothing in common they called back and forth to each other like bird song:

“And so energy is not just fuel. It is a powerful social and cultural influence. The kind and quantity of the energy we use determine the kind and quality of the life we live.” -Wendell Berry

“Creativity is energy. Energy can be safely grounded, asked to flow within our lives and within the boundaries we have set for it. Creativity can be as marvelous as electricity, illuminating the darkness around us.” -Julia Cameron

“The old solar agriculture, moreover, was time oriented. Timeliness was its virtue. One took time in having the knowledge to do things at the right time. Industrial agriculture is space oriented. Its virtue is speed. One takes pride in being first. The right time, by contrast, could be late as well as early; the proof of the work was in its quality.” -Wendell Berry

“We are out to accomplish a body of work, not merely one piece. This means we must take the long view. Just as a marathon runner considers his running career as a whole, training and pacing himself accordingly, so we must approach our art at a temperate rate...Just as the inhabitants of Taos Valley are charged with husbanding the land in their care, so, too, we are charged with husbanding our lives.” -Julia Cameron

Last Import - 17

I am not a fast writer, and so I am forced to either take the long view with my work or not work at all, trusting that 500 words or less  a day will eventually add up to a book, but I find patience easier here, and I wonder about the influence of environment.

My neighbors have an active bird feeder, and as I write this my neighborhood which is usually quiet on dark days is filled with bird song. The screaming starlings are impossible to ignore, but I notice them more than I normally would because I’ve been editing an article for Elizabeth C. Creely’s City Noise column about bird watching in San Francisco that will go up on Paper Tape on Tuesday. It is a profile piece about Dominick Mosur, an excellent bird watcher, who is actually more of a bird listener since many birds that call San Francisco home are small and good at staying out of sight. In a noisy urban environment, even with a trained ear and the ability to pay attention, hearing birds at all is a challenge.

In Oregon, a neighbor revs up a leaf blower, and the birds vanish. Even here it seems silence, like the sun, is a luxury we take whenever we can.

Last Import - 01

Photo Credit: “Portland, Oregon” by Holly Hayes

Over the weekend, the hacker and I signed a lease on a house outside of Portland, Oregon, fulfilling a longtime dream to live in a place where I can play my ukulele without torturing strangers. It’s a done deal. We even brought the key home with us, but we won’t actually move for another month. So, almost as soon as we signed the lease, we had to turn around and make the ten hour drive back to Berkeley.

I try not to whine, but it’s probably been clear for awhile now that the gloss on California wore off a long time ago for me, and as we came up over the hill on I-80 where the lights around the San Francisco Bay are visible for the first time, my fingers dug into the seat as if I was physically bracing myself. My neck tightened, triggering a two-day migraine.

For the rest of the trip, when I wasn’t refreshing Twitter to see if BART had gone on strike yet, I was making plans for how I would keep myself from going crazy before the move.  At the top of the list was the decision to put down my novel until after we were settled. I’ve tried to force myself to work through moves before, and I never actually make any progress. Instead of stressing out about it this time, I decided that it was best to save myself the agony of having to throw out a month of work.

I’m going to be present, I told myself. I’m going to journal a lot about the move, so that if I ever decide to write about it I’ll have journals to draw from. This month will actually be an experience investment in future work.

Has that actually happened? Of course not.

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