What It Means To Start

Up in the treetops

Over the summer, I enrolled in Sarah Selecky’s course, Story is a State of Mind. I was part of the Summer School intensive, which meant I was going through the course in real-time with my classmates, and was accountable each Monday to post my assignment to our Wiki group, comment on the readings, and give my classmates feedback.

For me, it’s easier to start writing something when I’m accountable to someone else. I think it feeds into my desire to meet other people’s expectations of me, but that’s a psychoanalysis for another blog post.

Ever since the course ended in early September, I’ve been sitting on this draft of a story that I started during the program.

I think about the story and the main character all the time. I actually feel a little bit haunted by one line in particular that I wrote. I don’t know where it came from, but it startles me. And I know that’s good writing.

But getting started with the next step of the process is sort of killing me. The story needs to be finished, first of all. And then it needs revising and polishing. And another set of eyes on it for good measure.

But again– starting is killing me.

This is nothing new to you writers and artists out there. I’m sure this form of resistance is an old song and dance for many creatives.

It’s the same feeling I had when I went zip lining for the first time this summer. I was in New Hampshire with my husband and my family. We went to this aerial adventure course in the treetops of Loon Mountain. There were multiple zip lines throughout the course, ranging in length and height off the ground.

On the first line, I felt resistance. I hooked in my harness the way the instructor showed us. I had my hand in the right position to keep my body facing forward as I zipped through the trees. The prep work was done, but I physically couldn’t get off the platform. Every inch of my being resisted stepping off.

Someone recommended leaning back into my butt, where the harness basically cradles your entire body. When you feel that support, you know you can let go and be safe.

They were right. Once I leaned back just a touch and felt the support o the harness, I knew I could push past the physical resistance and just let go. So I did. And you know what? It was freaking great! Zip lines make you feel like a badass.

How does this relate to writing? Well, I’m standing on the platform with this story. I’m harnessed in. I can sort of see the other side. I just need to start the process and get back into the story. I need to lean into the harness and trust. And the harness is there, in so many forms– an MFA, feedback from other writers, encouragement from writer friends, a general sense of knowing this can be done because I’ve done it before, after all.

Why is it so hard to start? Because of what it means.

To start means to surrender, to have faith, to risk it all. To take the chance that the harness might snap mid-line, but to do it anyway.

Yet to start also means to take the chance that the harness will hold you until you get to the end of the line, that it’ll cradle your efforts the entire way, and release you safely on the other side. And then you’ll have to accept the fact that you did it. Even if your work never gets published, or earns you thirty rejection letters, or ends up spending the rest of its life on an external hard drive collecting dust, you did it.

What it means to start is this: letting go, and giving yourself a chance to see what you’re made of.

That’s me on the zip line!
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Write Despite… Being Away From The Page For A While

When you come back to the page after too long away, you might feel stiff.

You haven’t been here in a while, so the first words will be the most difficult. And they’ll look the worst.

You’ll judge them for being wrong, for looking stupid together, for not living up to the potential they had in your mind.

Being away from the page for a while is ok. Coming back is what matters. Putting word after word, sentence after sentence until you’ve climbed your way out is what matters.

So write despite feeling rusty and out of practice. Write despite the distance that’s grown between you and your writing. If it calls to you, just start where you are.

Meet yourself here, in this moment, and begin again.

Where Writers Write: Hannah Jones

After a short hiatus, the Where Writers Write series is back for more glimpses into where our fellow writers actually do their work. Please welcome Hannah Jones to the series this week. If you’d like to share your writing space in this series, shoot me an email at kristinoffilerwrites@gmail.com.

I have a full time editorial position at a social science publishing company (which I love!) so my own writing is something I squeeze into the margins of my daily life.
The academic nature of the non-fiction manuscripts I work with during the day provides a nice balance for when I come home and want to write creatively; primarily, I write young adult and middle grade fiction, short stories, memoir, and am currently hard at work writing a pictorial history book about Byberry State Hospital (in Philadelphia) that is forthcoming from Arcadia Publishing.

Because writing creatively is a treat, I really look forward to and make the best use of the one or two hours of writing time I get.

What is your writing space like?

My writing space is a 6’x 6’ corner of my living room. One desk–the one reserved for blogging, email, and bills–faces the rest of the room, the windows, and the television. The antique writing desk faces the wall and is a strictly computer-free writing space–I prefer to write first drafts by hand–which helps me avoid all distractions while creating something new.

Before I bought my own place about six months ago, I’d never really had my own official and regular writing space. Moving in and out of college dorms, apartments, and my parents’ house always prevented me from both organizing a space and setting up a regular writing routine. Since I moved into my new condo, it’s been an experiment and adventure in figuring out what facilitates my most creative and productive writing process.

At first, I was struggling with having just one desk because it was the catch-all: creative writing, bills, blogging, more bills, and junk mail all piled up on the narrow surface of my antique writing desk. Knowing I’d either have to pay bills or at least organize the mess of papers before I could dive into a new short story served as a deterrent; instead of being drawn to my writing space, I actively avoided it. I didn’t get much writing done in the first few months living here.

Now, rather than haunting my writing space, all my bills are organized and put away in colorful file folders and I only have to look at them if I pull them out to sort on purpose. With two desks, I have the luxury of reserving one desk to be solely for creative writing projects. If I want to write, it’s always clear and ready for me to start, the moment inspiration strikes me. The new desk also provides more desk space so I have room to spread out multi-page projects.

Do you keep a writing routine? If so, what is your routine?

I recently started up a routine that budgets a minimum of fourteen hours of writing time a week and so far, it’s working pretty well for me. I write two to three times a week on my hour lunch break, write for three to four hours on Monday and Wednesday nights after work, and try to write at least five hours total over the weekend. To make this work–and to really get myself to stick to the schedule–I had to create a color-blocked Excel spreadsheet. Checking in with it helps me turn off the TV or put down the book I’m reading during official “writing time” and focus. I originally scheduled myself to wake up an hour earlier a few mornings a week to squeeze in some writing before work, but it ended up being a false hope. I admire those writers who can wake up at 5 AM to write for four hours before starting the rest of their day!

What’s something unique and interesting about your writing space?

The most unusual thing about my writing space is my two desks. Not only the fact that I have two desks, but the fact that they are such completely different styles. One is an antique secretary desk that my dad gave me for my seventeenth birthday. It has carved claw feet, a thousand little drawers and nooks, and even has two secret hidden compartments. It has so much character and makes me feel “dressed up” when I write. The fanciness of it helps facilitate the daydream that I’m among the ranks of great American writers, currently writing the next great American [fill in the blank].

My other desk is much more contemporary. It has a built-in filing system for organizing messes of paper, a built-in corkboard which I use for post-it to-do lists and deadline reminders, and can be folded up and into the wall. Even though I dreamed of having two desks in my writing space, I didn’t think it was going to be possible because of how small my condo is (eight hundred square feet). But then I saw this space-saving, fold-up desk featured on Apartment Therapy and ordered it right away. Pure white, its fold-up design is perfect for conserving space when I have company over.

I have one chair for both desks, a classic carved wooden chair that I’ve borrowed from my mom’s office. I wish it could swivel and roll around too, so I could switch from one desk to the other more easily, as I’m constantly swapping desks during my writing time when I finish one task and move onto a different writing project, but for now it’s just right.

If you could have any writing space in the world, what would it look like and why?

A treehouse. One summer, I helped rebuild my childhood treehouse in my parents backyard. We ripped down all the walls, which were rotting and waterlogged, leaving just the roof and the frame. For a few weeks, with construction on hold, I would climb up there to write and it felt like I was in a glass room, surrounded by the upper branches of the forest and the wildlife, and protected from the rain (the best was staying up there to write during a thunderstorm). It was incredibly peaceful and felt sort of magical. When we finally put the new walls up, it felt closed in again, contained and normal like a house, and it lost that special feeling. Someday, I’d like to have a writing treehouse like that again.

Hannah Karena Jones is an assistant editor by day and a YA, middle grade, historical, and memoir writer by night. Her writing has appeared in The Susquehanna Review and Weave Magazine, among others, and has been awarded Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Young Adult Fiction Competition. Her book, Byberry State Hospital, is forthcoming from Arcadia Publishing. She blogs about writing and publishing at The (Writer’s) Waiting Room and tweets about everything @HannahKarena10.

Where Writers Write: Olivia Bowen

This week’s post comes to us from brand and copy editor, Olivia Bowen, a super-talented writer I was lucky enough to meet via Twitter (where else, right?). If you have a writing space you’d love to share with us, shoot me an email at kristinoffilerwrites@gmail.com.

 While writing is certainly part of my work, I actually do more editing for clients, which I love. A rather unsuccessful college creative writing class helped me realize that making up stories is not where my talent lies; I am, however, skilled at helping others refine their ideas and expression so that what ends up on the screen or on the page is exactly what the author had in mind—only even clearer and with more sizzle.

As an editor who writes, my space needs to be part resource center, part inspiration hub, and comfortable enough so I can be there for hours on end, but not so comfy that I forget I have work to do. Here’s what I’ve come up with to meet those needs.

What is your writing space like?

I work from home, so I was able to create a writing and editing space that meets my specific needs. My husband recently helped me revamp the office to be more ergonomic—with all the time I spend working at my desk, having a setup that’s kind to my back and neck was a priority.

Because working with language is such a synthesis of heart and mind, I’ve filled my office with objects and resources that speak to both. I’m a sucker for reference books and probably have more volumes on grammar than many classrooms do, but I also keep more spiritual touchstones at hand: a framed picture I took of a Buddha statue in Tokyo, a daruma doll that reminds me to have patience but stay focused on my goals, photos of my family, and a vase crafted by a talented Philly-based potter that I fill with flowers or herbs whenever I can.

Do you keep a writing routine? If so, what is your routine?

I’ve tried to establish a routine in the past, but finally accepted that one of the things I like most about working for myself is having the freedom to write and edit when the mood (or deadline) strikes. A typical day starts around 9:30, but I don’t really “warm up” until at least 11. Editing projects require me to be really sharp, so I try to work on those from between 11 a.m. until 4 or 5 in the afternoon.

Then I’ll take a long break and go to yoga, make dinner, or just give my brain a rest and watch some Law & Order. I’ll usually get back to my computer for writing projects around 8 or 9, when my creativity peaks, and will work until around midnight if the words are flowing.

What’s something unique and interesting about your writing space?

Before I decided on a language-based career, I strongly considered a PhD in art history. Now the art is pure passion, so my office has some gorgeous original artwork and prints. A dear friend recently painted an East of Eden-inspired piece for me (two, actually, but only one is in my office); my aunt created a rich watercolor as a wedding gift; I have a print of Lucca (an enchanting Tuscan town about which my dad is a leading expert) that was also a wedding gift; and a framed print of the Pantheon, my favorite building in the world, that I got when I was studying in Rome.

If you could have any writing space in the world, what would it look like and why?

It would look an awful lot like mine right now—but with a view of the Eiffel Tower, more bookshelves, and a really cozy reading chair. I’ve deliberately created a location-independent business, so I hope that in a few years my husband and I can relocate to Paris for a year or two. I imagine that walks along the Seine, easy access to macarons, weekend trips to Bordeaux, and the spirits of the artists who’ve worked in the city over the centuries could only help my craft, right?

Olivia Bowen is a brand and copy editor. She runs Olivia Bowen Communications, which focuses on helping holistic and creative entrepreneurs refine the language for their web presence—from crafting irresistible bios to proofreading websites to make sure they’re flawless. A nomad at heart, she and her novelist/educator husband live in San Diego—for now. You can connect with her on Twitter @LivBowen or join the community of logophiles and entrepreneurs on Facebook.

WSW: Writer Seeking Writer For Mutual Ass-Kicking

Uhhh, shut up, creativity. We'll start the novel tomorrow, ok?

I write. All the time. For work, on this blog, when I’m putting resumes together, when I’m writing stories. When I’m making grocery lists, penning thank you letters, or writing out bills (gag).

Yet there’s something keeping me from being as productive and prolific with my fiction work as I want to be. What is it? Oh, just accountability is all.

You see,  I do really well when I have a deadline and someone waiting on a finished product from me. This is probably why I loved my low-residency MFA program so much. Packets of work were due to mentors by the first Monday of every month. I could write freely because there were perimeters around the projects– everything had to get done by a due date, no questions asked.

In a backwards kind of way, having restrictions around my creative process actually gave me more freedom to take risks and try new things, because all it took was the push to just write.

This also explains why I’m having a hard time self-motivating when it comes to working on my novel and churning out short stories.

No one in the world cares whether or not I get that writing done. I’m not answering to anyone. There are no consequences if I don’t pump out 3 chapters this week and revise 2 short stories before the month ends. The only consequence is that I feel lousy about myself, but as a writer, that comes with the territory from time to time.

So this is a classified ad of sorts. If you’re a writer who also needs some accountability and ass-kicking, holler at me.

I’m looking for someone who is up for the following:

  • Weekly check-ins with each other to discuss our progress on particular projects
  • Mutual ass-kicking, guilt-tripping, and incentive-offering
  • A long-term writing relationship that will provide both of us with a trusted ear, a reliable eye, and an honest opinion
  • Fun, silliness, and a lot of not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously
  • But at the same time, able to buckle down, give and take feedback, and write like the dickens

Does this sound like something you’ve been needing, too? Leave a comment or shoot me an email and we’ll chat!

Where Writers Write: Heather Stanfill

This week’s writer in the  Where Writers Write series is my dear friend Heather Stanfill. We were MFA buddies who have stayed close since graduating. Enjoy her post, today! And remember– if you want to be featured in the Where Writers Write series, email me at kristinoffilerwrites@gmail.com.

Hello all!  My name is Heather Stanfill.  I’m a fiction-writer-in-progress and a freshman English Comp teacher at Malone University.  One of my most prized possessions at the moment is a tee shirt that reads: “I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you for someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top—Your English Professor.”  I have so far resisted the urge to wear it to class.

I write mainly short stories but have been playing with a gob of words that are debating between coalescing into a novel or a novella.  I would love to write humor but find that most of my work turns out quietly tragic with (what I hope are) moments of hope.  If I had to describe my writing style in one word, it would be Midwestern.

I hail from Bolivar, Ohio with my husband David and our adorable but mischievous cat Bandit (he will jump great heights to steal most any people food—bacon, Wendy’s Frosty, sour cream, the list goes on).  Besides writing, I’m also passionate about scuba diving, gardening, traveling, cooking, scrapbooking, my church, and of course reading.

Thank you, Kristin, for allowing me a spot on your blog!  It’s a pleasure.

What is your writing space like?

I have a desk that was once my dad’s and has followed me through my childhood with many coats of paint (from a plain whitewash to pink with roses to black to its current incarnation).  It is currently in my “writing room”/office/spare bedroom/storage room.  The space’s multi-purposeness and lack of direct sunlight has led me to become a nomadic writer.  Thank goodness for laptops.  I find myself most often writing on our living room couch and in various empty rooms on Malone’s campus.

Do you keep a writing routine?  If so, what is your routine?

 Currently, I am in the process of attempting to establish a routine.  On mornings when I am not deliriously tired, I try to arrive at work early, find an empty classroom, and write until I have to teach.  This has been most productive.  Otherwise, I fit in my writing between grading papers and typical house chores.

What’s something unique and interesting about your writing space?

I love my desk in my writing room.  I decoupaged the top with quotes about creativity printed on an Old-World-looking parchment paper.  I also enjoy my British décor.  Someday I will manage to mount my British flag on a canvas and hang it on the blank wall in my space.

If you could have any writing space in the world, what would it look like and why?

I had the privilege of staying at a friend of a friend’s lodge on Squam Lake in New Hampshire.  My ideal writing space would be a small cabin with a screened-in porch and an open porch perched on the edge of that lake.  The place is wild in the best possible ways.  The sounds of the lake water lapping on the rocky shoreline and the eerie loon calls are both calming and inspiring.  And when it rains, the woods give off a mossy, fresh smell that’s intoxicating.

Of course, that’s only in the summer.  In the winter months, give me a cabana on a beach with a palm tree for shade and a cooler of cold beer.

Heather Stanfill is a graduate of Lesley University’s MFA program.  She resides in northeastern Ohio, writes when she can, and spends the rest of her time keeping her husband, cat, and English Comp students in line.