I’m in a log cabin in Strawberry, AZ with a group of friends this weekend, working on my next book—trying to get back into the flow of the story. It’s like our own little art retreat. I’m hoping for me it will also be sort of like a “reset” button.
Lately I’ve done very little writing, and I’m not entirely sure why. Part of that might be because my “other” life, patients and my business, have been pretty consuming. Even when I sit down to write during my usually scheduled time, I’m often distracted by something else (like the other day, when I couldn’t stop thinking about one of my patients, so I scrapped half of my writing time—which was only an hour to begin with—to process and research her case more fully). When I’m trying to get into the flow and “produce” something in thirty minutes, only my outline helps me to keep putting words on the page.
Aside from the usual life distractions, though, I’ve also had this nagging sense that much of what I do feels like a chore. This seems absurd, because I make my own schedule. I am one of those very few lucky ones who gets to *choose* how I spend my time. But because of that, I have to be self-motivated: the only way I can avoid frittering my time away is to adhere to a strict schedule.
And here comes one of the biggest everyday life difficulties for most of us: this concept of balance. The Bible says that “the law” brings rebellion. It’s referring to something specific, but really, anything can be a “law.” Exercise can be a law. Meditation can be a law. Eating healthy can… and so can something that started out as pure enjoyment, like writing. So when do I give in to distractions in the interest of not creating a “law” out of my self-imposed schedule… and when do I resist (because the alternative may be to only to write for two hours that week)?
Discipline has its place… indeed, it’s absolutely essential. But too much discipline can kill the joy.
I have a friend who writes terrific music, plays it, and records it himself on free software. Once I asked him why he didn’t try to make a career out of music. I wasn’t referring to the hit-the-road-and-hope-you-make-it-big kind of approach, either; I’m a pretty practical person, all things considered. But I also believe in shooting for your dreams, and it seemed to me that making a demo and sending it out to a few places wouldn’t require a huge investment. His answer was something I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I do now: he said that if music became a career to him, he would no longer enjoy it. He had to be free to do it, or not, as the moment struck him.
Most artists are spontaneous like that.
Me… not so much. I often wish I were more spontaneous. I’m so structured and focused on efficiency that I often scarcely even notice my surroundings, and before I know it another day has passed me by. I enjoy the time intentionally spent with people I love, but little sensory details of my day to day experience nearly always escape my notice… and I think a big part of the joy of everyday life is in precisely those details. (Perhaps this is why writing description is the hardest part of writing for me. I just want to get to the action already!)
So I’ve created a new note in one of my many Evernote notebooks (side note: best. program. ever. If you don’t know about it, go check it out right now. It’s like having an extra brain). The point of the note is to encourage myself to focus on small sensory details long enough to put words to them. Things like the way wine or a good meal tastes, with all the subtle flavors. Things like the sunrise peeking through the clouds as I drive home from the gym in the morning, or the way exercise actually feels while I am doing it. (I tend to focus entirely on the end result, which for me is expending excess energy so that I can sit still for a whole day. But the feeling of blood rushing to my muscles, that sense of raw power, is actually pretty amazing.)
Come to think of it, the joy of writing always comes when I am fully entrenched in my world: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the emotions of the characters. Action, without these tinges of human color, is dry and lifeless. You can have a terrific plot, but if your characters are flat, nobody cares.
I tend to add layers of personality, characterization, and description only in later editing stages, but I suspect that’s why writing the first draft usually isn’t a lot of fun for me, and editing is my favorite part. It’ll be hard to change this habit. It might make me feel like I’m not as efficient as I am when I’m just hammering it out… and I gave myself a June deadline of having the first book in this next series out. But I’d rather enjoy the process, no matter how short or long it takes!
Alan Bloomfield says
There’s so much out there to experience and catalog our brains, it can be overwhelming…life is short and it really all comes down to living in the now, while doing the best we can to make wise decisions to benefit our futures!
C.A. Gray says
I definitely agree! 🙂
Jim Strawn says
You spent ten years getting to know Lilly and Peter. You became enmeshed with their character and personality. You may have added some expository detail in your editing but you already knew them when you did your outline. I think you need to get to understand your new characters that way so they don’t take you down paths you don’t want them to.
When you were first outlining/drafting the series were you still in med school? Was it an escape or a refuge? The new series can be the same type diversion from your professional world. A place to refind you.
Your retreat sounds like a good way to do this. Good luck in your cabin.
C.A. Gray says
Thanks Jim. Yes, I was in med school when I outlined the previous series, though I wrote half of the second and third after I’d finished. Definitely an escape though! I’m just struggling to make this one feel more like an escape too, and less like “work.” I think you’re right, it comes from getting immersed in my characters and my world, though.
Jim Strawn says
Like your musician friend, I also had several artist outlets in my youth — art, music, writing, photography — but I was also afraid that if I tried to make a career out of any of them I would lose the joy I found in them and they would become ‘work’. I consciously chose to leave them as pleasures and return to them now an then. It also means I never got very good at any of them.