2013 Clarion West Write-a-thon

At the end of May, I did a writing retreat.

I found a gorgeous shared room on Airbnb, packed up my knitting and a pile of books, and had two lovely days to myself. I wrote a memoir story for the Sketchbook Project, submitted a grant application for a Just Write Weekend event, and read David Whyte in the bath. Heavenly.

I also got quiet and listened to myself. I took several giant steps back from my whirlwind life and started contemplating the existential questions: “Why am I here? What am I doing? What does my life mean?” Often those questions are accompanied by despair and depression, but not this time. I was aware of my own insignificance, of the futility and vanity of my accomplishments, but it didn’t make me sad. I just felt removed from life, as though I were looking at an elaborate game being played out.

“Okay,” I said to myself, “If life is a game, what game do you want to play?” As though I were choosing between chess and Uno and Settlers of Catan.

And that’s how I decided that my game for the summer would be to finish Pilgrimage of Desire.

It’s the first time I’ve set a writing goal in a while. When the electric fence was up, I couldn’t make plans. But now that it’s down and I can work on the book again, I feel like this is a game I have a fair chance of winning.

One of the things that makes me feel confident is that I just signed up for Eric Maisel’s Deep Writing workshop at Hollyhock on Cortes Island in August. I can just imagine myself finishing the book there, given five days to immerse myself in writing with Eric’s wise coaching for support.

So I started on June 1, writing 500 words a day. The first day was during my retreat, so I had a luxurious two-hour writing session in bed. The second day, Sunday evening, 500 words flowed out miraculously in half an hour! But as I entered the work week, it got harder and harder to keep up. I was blearily writing 500 words before falling into bed at midnight. I was writing really rough sections and promising to come back and edit them in later. I caught up on Thursday at my writing meetup, but by Saturday I had given up completely.

What this tells me is that there really isn’t any margin in my day right now. If I shoehorn something new in, other stuff falls out the other side ~ my productivity at work dropped noticeably, I was scrambling to make meals, and I was skimping on sleep and laundry.

Thankfully, I have some respite coming up. The kids are almost finished school, which means I won’t have to make lunches while they’re in day camp! That will save me at least 30 minutes a day, plus emergency grocery runs and anxiety. My work deadlines are easing off, and I’m going to give myself client status and work on Pilgrimage during the day.

And just at the right moment, it’s time for the Clarion West Write-a-thon!

The Write-a-thon is a fundraiser for Clarion West, a distinguished writer’s workshop in Seattle, Washington. I learned about the Write-a-thon a few years ago through Kelley Eskridge, author and editor at Sterling Editing. One year her challenge was to write and analyze a new piece of work every day for 41 days! Last year she sent out detailed musings and progress reports to her sponsors every week.

This year I’m honoured to be one of the twelve writers that Kelley is encouraging sponsors to support.

I’ve signed up for the Write-a-thon because I want to meet my goal to finish Pilgrimage of Desire by the end of August, and also because I’m a fierce believer in the importance of writing workshops. I want writers to get the support, instruction, and inspiration they need. And if Kelley’s behind Clarion West, then I’m there too. You can read all about the good work they do here (they have amazing instructors like Neil Gaiman, Samuel R. Delaney, and Margo Lanagan!).

Want to join me? There are two ways you can help:

  • Sponsor me for the Write-a-thon. AND if you pledge $50 or more, I will do a 1.5-hour write-in with you, one-on-one. We’ll book a time, connect by phone or Skype (or in person if you’re in Vancouver), chat for 15 minutes about what we’re working on, do an hour of heads-down writing, and then check back in for 15 minutes at the end. Cool, right?
  • Sign up as a writer for the Write-a-thon. Clarion West is aiming to sign up 300 writers by June 22. Be one of them and use the Write-a-thon as a labyrinth for your summer writing goals!

I did get a lot done in that week of 500 words a day on Pilgrimage. I finished Chapter 10 and started Chapter 11! I also learned that for every hour of writing time, I needed an hour of prep, research, and editing time. So I’ll be making space for that in my schedule too.

This isn’t going to be easy. But it’s important. The Write-a-thon is a challenge I want to conquer.

Game on!

P.S. I’ll be posting regular (maybe daily?) Write-a-thon updates on my Facebook page, so hop over there and click Like if you want to see how it goes!

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I had a breakthrough with my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire.

I was at my Thursday night Just Write meetup as usual. I wasn’t looking forward to working on the book. Ever since I picked it up again in February, writing sessions have ranged from discouraging to excruciating. In three months, I have managed to do the following:

  1. Read through the manuscript (and become convinced that the whole thing is awful).
  2. Read some journal entries from our time in Malaysia (heartsick with missing it).
  3. Do some exercises from Cate’s Re-Entry Reality book.
  4. Freewrite some random crap.
  5. Post a blog article (You Can’t Bake a Cake Without a Cake Pan).
  6. Write ONE paragraph.

The manuscript has been like a solid sheet of ice, cold and unyielding. I bloodied my fingernails trying to prize in that one paragraph. I tormented myself with thoughts that the book would never open to me again, that I would have to walk away leaving it half-formed.

Then last week, as I re-read Chapter 10 yet again, my heart was warmed with love for the words, for the person I’d been when I lived and wrote those scenes. They were good. I wanted to add to them. I tested the ice with my foot, and just like that it gave way, breaking apart to lively water underneath. I inserted a sentence. I reshaped a paragraph from my journal and placed it in. A new paragraph appeared, spontaneous and playful.

I was writing!

After 90 minutes, I had 997 new words in Chapter 10. Relief? Enormous. Suddenly I could imagine working on the book in the mornings, finishing a few chapters on a writing retreat. Pilgrimage had let me in again.

This experience reminded me of resistance. Because the difference between the book one week and the next was so palpable. To change analogies, it was as though an electric fence around the text, buzzing and menacing, had suddenly been switched off. I thought about how Steven Pressfield describes Resistance as a force field, repelling you away from the work.

I do believe that resistance is real, even though I disagree with a lot of advice for dealing with it.

Forcing yourself to work, citing discipline and “turning pro,” seems to me as foolish as crossing a live electric fence.

Yes, you might make it, but what damage will the voltage do? Wouldn’t it be better to cut the power first and cross over unharmed?

Before this great writing session, I read a post from Anne Lamott about the excuses people give for not writing, and how they’re “a total crock. There will never be a good time to write. It will never be easier. If you won’t find an hour a day now, you won’t find it then.”

The answer, Anne says, is just to decide to write.

I know there are people who need to hear her message, but I also know I’m not one of them. The reason I hadn’t been writing for an hour a day was because the electric fence was still humming. Pilgrimage was telling me she wasn’t ready yet, and I wasn’t ready. Maybe this sounds like an excuse, but I humbly suggest that my weekly Meetup appointments with her attest to the fact that I was not giving up, even while not hurling myself uselessly at that high-voltage fence every day. When I couldn’t write, I found safe things to do around the perimeter.

So why did the electric fence around Pilgrimage suddenly go off?

I don’t know exactly why, but I have a few guesses.

  • Because the spring weather and the flowers have been glorious.
  • Because I’ve been working with my coach on how to re-engage with the book.
  • Because I wrote Pilgrimage a love letter back in March.
  • Because I read a Facebook post from Danielle LaPorte that said, “Enjoy your sadness. It won’t last long.”
  • Because I said a channeling prayer beforehand.
  • Because I’ve been biking.
  • Because I have proven my faithfulness every Thursday.
  • Because I published an update about how things are going.
  • Because enough time has passed.

This is just a theory, but I think that the current running through an electric fence is emotion. Mine was charged with grief, disappointment, nostalgia, and shame. A potent mix. Faced with all that emotion, it’s not enough just to say, “Write even when you don’t feel like it.” The emotion must be acknowledged and worked through. You can’t think or act your way around it.

The line between waiting and making excuses is a fine one, to be sure. But I trust myself to know which side I’m on.

I trust that I am not lazy. I trust my writing intentions. I trust my instinct that forcing would be harmful.

So, to answer my question in the headline.

When do you make a creative push and when do you wait?

You ask yourself.

Will pushing feel like healthy exertion or like being electrocuted?

Will waiting feel like patient presence or like evasion?

Then you pick the one that feels respectful of the work and of your writing desires. You don’t listen to the people saying “Real writers write every day,” or “Writing will never get easier.”

If you’re waiting, you make a regular appointment with your work and you keep testing the fence. Is it still on? What’s powering it? Is the voltage weakening? Do you want to look for the off switch?

And if you decide to push, you begin carefully, warming up and building slowly. You check in to make sure the pushing isn’t damaging you or the work.

Trust that you are not lazy. Trust your creative intentions. Trust your instincts about pushing or waiting. 

And keep showing up.


Here’s the love letter I wrote to Pilgrimage. You can see it’s pretty emotional. I still feel strongly about her, but now it’s more like an electric blanket than an electric fence.

Dearest,

I love you and I miss you. I’m sorry that I’ve dealt with my painful feelings about you by ignoring you. That’s not fair to you, and it doesn’t help me in the long run either. We’ve had outside things keeping us apart ~ the summer busyness and our move and my illness and the other book ~ but I’ve also kept myself away from you because I didn’t want to know how much love or fear was there. But we both deserve better than that.

You deserve to shine in your fullness, to have your beautiful pages turned, to catch people’s tears and laughter, to see their epiphanies. You are worth any money. And I deserve to have you move through me, in all your pain and truth and delight. I deserve to deliver you to the world. Apologies for the melodrama, but you bring out the depths of me. No creative work has ever asked for more of me (although I know there will be others in the future). But the fact that you scour me out tells me that this is important work we’re doing together.

I do believe that the time we’ve spent apart will make you stronger and better. Your joy will be cut with bittersweet. You are more dimensional, and I am wiser in the way of cycles.

You make me want to be a better woman. More courageous, more self-caring, more in integrity. If no one else is touched by a sentence of you, you have been my teacher. My labyrinth. My mirror. You are worth the sacrifice, because you pay back a hundredfold.

Dearest, let’s begin again. I’ll be gentle. I won’t try to force myself back into your graces, I’ll approach deferentially, and we’ll find our rhythm again. I never could force you to come to me; you deserve to be courted. “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” to quote Mr. Darcy.

“Curiosity does, no less than devotion, pilgrims make.” — Abraham Cowley

Let us continue this pilgrimage of desire. I am ready to be broken open again.

A. xoxo

Tell me. Have you pushed? Have you waited? How do you decide which to do when?

Photo Credit: Randy Son Of Robert via Compfight cc

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Sidewalk labyrinth in our new neighbourhood of Kitsilano

In January, I felt like mush. 

Like I was rebuilding everything I knew about myself and my life. I went to a retreat with Jen Louden on Bainbridge Island, and when she asked us to choose a new name for ourselves, I picked Stardust. It spoke to me of the elemental, the unformed, the diffuse. Jen’s teaching encouraged me to go back to my long-ago study of the feminine journey, and I realized that I was not back at the beginning as I had thought. Rather, I was entering my third act.

I needed to gather support.

I was in the process of ghostwriting a book for a client, and I needed a nurturing environment to do that. I was finding it hard to get things done at home ~ I felt lonely, and it was too easy to waste time or do housework.

So I researched co-working offices and arranged to visit three downtown. This endeavour gave me some excitement and a sense of purpose. I also met with a guy, Mitchell, who was starting a co-working office in my neighbourhood. We discovered that we lived basically on the same block in Kitsilano! I thought he was a really sweet, terrific guy and I hoped he actually got his enterprise off the ground.

I also searched on Meetup.com and found a group that was like coffee-shop co-working for writers. It’s called Just Write Vancouver, and it has weekly meetings all over the city where people gather with their laptops and notebooks and just write. I started a Kitsilano group on Thursday nights, and there I met great writers who were all dedicated to their projects and their writing time.

Finally, in February, I finished the ghostwritten book! 

Some of my most productive sessions were at Just Write meetups or on my coworking days. And slowly I started getting back to work on Pilgrimage of Desire. I thought I would work on it full time, or at least a few days a week, but . . .

Alright, let me tell you about my work life. For seven years, I worked full-time as a tech writer for a software company. Then I quit in 2005 and did freelance technical writing and editing. I started my creativity coaching practice in 2010, but I still took writing contracts as I was building my business.

Between kids, travel, writing, and contracting, I haven’t made the time to build coaching into a full-time income. Many wonderful things have come of my foray into entrepreneurship:

  • I have worked with amazing writers and artists, and I have been privileged to accompany them on a leg of their journey to wholeness and flow.
  • I have expanded my professional network and made new friends.
  • I have learned sales, marketing, and copywriting.
  • I’m really proud of what I’ve written for my blog at www.gresik.ca.
  • Training as a coach and then articulating my philosophy of the art-committed life has loosened and strengthened my own artistic practice so much. I am a much more prolific, more inspired, more relaxed, more confident writer than I was three years ago.

As wonderful as these results are, they have not been accompanied by a big cash flow. Which I’m okay with. My life is still unfolding, and I know that nothing is wasted. I do believe I could build a viable coaching practice if I made it my priority and put the required labour into it.

But I know that coaching is not my first love. Writing is.

I pursued coaching in the first place because I wanted to make my living doing meaningful work. Tech writing felt hollow. It sucked the life out of me. I was good at it but it didn’t feed me.

With coaching, I had part of the equation. Meaningful work, check. Making my living, not so much. So I continued to take contracts. Then, a year ago, I got a different kind of client. He wanted to write a book to help people live more meaningful lives and make the world a better place. He hired me to do that for him, and you know what? Writing that book was easy. Not in the sense that I didn’t exert myself, but in the sense that I knew what to do ~ I had all the skills and knowledge I needed, and I brought them to bear with persistence and confidence.

So here I am in Vancouver, a very expensive city.

My kids are in daycare and gymnastics and art lessons. We started skiing, because how can you not ski when you live 20 minutes from a mountain? All that stuff we sold two years ago? We had to buy a whole bunch of it again (mostly secondhand, hooray for Craigslist!). We need two incomes at the moment. So I’m working full-time for the first time since we had kids six years ago.

Mitchell came through and I joined his new co-working office, Suite Genius. Every morning by 9 am I bike over with my laptop on my back. I work and work and work ~ copywriting, creating content strategy, and overseeing my client’s publishing and launch process. I have blocked all the naughty stuff I use to procrastinate (Metafilter and Boingboing and Facebook) using Chrome Nanny. I log my billable hours in FreshBooks ~ five hours in a day is a good day. Then I bike home and pick up the kids from their afterschool program. Throw some dinner together. Put a load of laundry in. Maybe watch an episode of Mad Men with Shawn and fall asleep.

Dude. Working full-time is hard!

The memories are all coming back to me.

  • So tired.
  • So behind on my email. I answer the urgent stuff and the rest just piles up alongside my guilt.
  • So squeezed. Like everything must happen back-to-back with no space to breathe.
  • So sad about not working on my memoir.

Thank goodness for my Thursday night writer’s meetup. It’s my guarantee that I’ll work on my book for at least three hours every week. I’m here now, writing this. At my last session, it took all night to write one new paragraph, the first one I’ve written since last September.

Tonight I was handwriting in my notebook, dredging up memories of working for that software company.

And I’m realizing I’m back in that place. In some ways. Not all ways, because the work I’m doing now feels meaningful and interesting and fun. But in the way of being tired and overwhelmed a lot of the time. And in the way of feeling swamped and always having 20 good reasons not to write.

And I’ve been thinking about you all. 

You are thousands of writers and artists from around the world who visit this site so I can talk to you. Be of service to you. Remind you you’re not alone.

For months I haven’t been able to blog because I didn’t know what the hell was going on with me or my business. I was sick and barely keeping my head above water. I had very little creative energy.

But I can feel my mojo coming back. The surge of inspiration that led to this letter. The craving to write that is no longer being sated by working on my client’s book. The way forward is coming into focus, the way I will re-create my art-committed life in this new place, under new conditions.

I am gathering support for my third act. 

That support takes the form of people, places, and systems that act as the cake pan for my gooey batter-y stardust self. Labyrinths that channel my creative energy in the meandering but relentless path toward the centre.

So that’s what I’d like to share with you, and that’s what I’d like to hear back from you. I don’t have all the answers; I’m still learning what works. But I am hopeful. And I am better with company.

Here’s today’s step forward.

Would you come to my Facebook page and tell me what your centre is right now? What is the touchstone creative project that compels you to keep moving toward an art-committed life? What’s the vision that won’t let you go, that dogs you day and night waiting for you to make it real?

Mine is Pilgrimage of Desire, of course. I’d love to hear about yours.

In love and solidarity,

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P.S. Oh! I should tell you that I’m still coaching. I even have a Vancouver client who comes to my co-working office for sessions! You’re always welcome to book a free intro session with me if you’re interested in focused, personal support in designing your art-committed life.

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