Up-Ending the Pile

Blogging has unfortunately dropped to the bottom of the writing pile. Before it comes tweeting, facebook status-updating, grocery-list writing, emailing, powerpoint slides, website copy, grant applications, and magazine articles.

But this blog entry still comes before poetry and my book projects, which sit in boxes on the highest shelf, just out of my reach. Snippets of dialogue and images form in my head but always when I’m away from my desk, where it seems that only the extinguishing of daily fires takes place. When I sit there, staring at the screen, trying to create, nothing happens.

Sometimes there are just no words left.

Sometimes you can try too hard.

Maybe it’s time to up-end my pile – to reverse the order of things. Maybe I need to ignore the strange clipped emails from strangers whose words take too much brain power to figure out. Set my status to away. Save my 140 characters for the characters in my books.

No More Blinkin’ Excuses

Last week while talking to some friends of mine at the Book and Bean, I busted through a creative wall.

Since completing For the Love of Flying back in the spring I’ve felt the full range of emotion you’d expect with completing a book: euphoria, exhaustion, satisfaction, anxiety… but mostly, I’ve felt a bittersweet sense of loss.
I find there is nothing better than being in the midst of a major project. I love that sense of purpose and the feeling that you’re moving toward something. Momentum is a magical thing.
Inertia, on the other hand, is hard to overcome. I hate starting new projects. Despite the excitement at limitless possibilities, I actually prefer limits – one storyline, one set of characters, one raison d’etre. And then there are all the reasons not to begin a project that all boil down to one thing: fear of failure. That editor or reader sitting in your skull telling you that the project – in this case a novel – will be a lot of work with no guarantee of success.
So for the past few months I’ve been haphazardly doing research, exploring characters and plot lines, but haven’t committed to the novel entirely. Then my friends told me about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir (later made into a film) literally blinked out by Jean-Dominique Bauby to his nurse after he suffered a major stroke that caused locked-in syndrome.

I know I often take for granted my ability to communicate through speech and especially through words. Hearing about this man’s experience – which could happen to any of us – really got to me. What kind of a hell on earth would it be to be trapped in my own mind with only my eyes to transmit needs, wants, complex ideas? How tormented would I be if I couldn’t get these stories in my mind out onto the page to share with others?

The answer: plenty tormented. So just in case I ever suffer a brain-stem stroke (touch wood) I want to finish as many projects as possible while I still have the ability to manipulate a pen & paper, keyboard & mouse, and voice recorder. And then hopefully make a mint so that if I am ever “locked-in” I will have the funds to hire a patient nurse and will have a publisher willing to send someone to take dictation, one blink at a time.

Fall (Re)Training

October, I decided, is about getting back into shape.

I feel like the last few months I’ve been letting both my mind and body lie fallow. This isn’t a totally bad thing. After all, think of farming: agriculturalists know you’ve got to give a field a chance to rest, to regain nutrients, so that it can sprout forth a new crop next season. So the summer might have meant a mushy brain and less than stellar commitment to hard-bodyism, but it was what the two needed to come back with renewed vigor.

It’s often hard to change habits, though, and a helping hand can be useful to pull us to our feet or give us a much-needed smack. My help has come in the form of Yvonne, a personal trainer at the Green River Recreation Center I’ve begun seeing. The first time we met, we spent two hours going over my current fitness and nutrition plans. “You know you’ve been coasting,” Yvonne told me with a kind but knowing look on her face. “It’s time to step it up.”

Stepping it up first involved figuring out my baseline numbers, which meant getting a wrist heart-rate monitor I’m still not adept at using. The instructions say to hold it up level, making sure the strap is fastened securely and lays flush against the skin. It also says I may need to moisten my finger when I push on the sensor – but not too hard, because that creates “muscle confusion.” My muscles are already confused, but this heart-rate thing is scrambling my brains too! How am I supposed to get a heart-rate reading (nevermind a decent workout) when I have to stop moving, hold my left arm in the air while licking my right finger to press delicately against the sensor?!

Nevertheless, when I have managed to get the darn thing to work, it has told me clearly that no matter how hard I push myself on cross-country walks and hikes, I’m not going to challenge my body. And if I’m not challenging it, then I’m not improving my cardiovascular system or torching the extra Tostitos I tossed back on the couch…

The next wake-up call was in mid-September when I realized the CIBC Run for the Cure was two weeks away. Last year I ran the 5km (my first!) a few weeks after moving to Wyoming. I was new to running and had just moved from sea level to 6,100ft so I was allowed to struggle. This year the 5km should have been a piece of cake. It wasn’t. Although I’d jog a couple of miles here and there, I certainly had not been training regularly. So I hauled my butt down to the Green belt for a test run, so to speak, and breathed so hard that I must have sucked in half a sagebrush plant because for the next day I had intermittent sneezing fits and my left nostril ran so much I had to stick a kleenex up it during mealtimes to avoid extra ‘dressing’ on my salad.

So for the last two weeks I executed a mini training plan and by October 4th I was able to do my 5km “Run for Mums” and fulfill my promise to my generous sponsors. Mind you, the run took place on a treadmill in the gym because mother nature hit us with hail, rain, snow and 45 mph wind that day. But I did it. And it didn’t even hurt that much.

Okay, so the body is cooperating alright and I find it really helpful knowing that in a month Yvonne will look over my fitness logs. Accountability helps. Praise is even better. And gosh darnit if I pull out my gold star stickers I could run a marathon, or maybe even make it through a spinning class!

But what about the mind? That is a trickier beast indeed. It is happy doling out stickers to the body that surrounds it, but mightily resists its own changes, challenges, and work. It is very good at distracting me, too: ooh – I should make muffins! Or clean out the closet! Or go for a run! These are all practical, useful tasks that seem rational, but they are designed to distract. So I’m trying to be crafty back: I took my brain to a writing workshop in Cheyenne, WY last week where it was impossible not to be inspired. Then I borrowed books from the library with such winning titles as “The Plot Thickens” and “How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction.” I also sit down every morning with a caffeinated beverage to try and get the old brain cells sparking, and slowly but surely I think they might be responding.

What I really need, though, is an Yvonne for my brain. Or maybe some really super-duper stickers…

The deadline neareth

Many people seem to think writers produce in a fit of creativity and mostly spend their days awaiting inspiration while going on cool trips to far-off places, and possibly drinking absinthe. While I get zaps of inspiration from time to time, I find creating any piece of writing mostly takes a lot of hard work. My writing life is made up of about 1% thunderbolts and 99% slogging. Not very glamorous, I know.

My friend, Luke, recently lent me a book by Stephen Pressfield called “The War of Art” (and it is a war – photo captions are currently my nemeses, sent down to punish me for my hubris!). Like me, Pressfield is a creature of habit who has created a routine and a special ceremony of sorts. He recites something to the Muses while holding a talisman. I light my aromatherapy candle, drink my tea, and turn on some Enya. Then I plug into the work at hand for a few hours, break for lunch and a walk, and get back at it.

This has worked very well in the past, but I’ve been finding it is nigh on impossible to get a rhythm going for editing, caption-writing, and so on when it involves doing more than five things at once. I once read that when you multi-task you’re really only doing more things worse. When my attention is divided and I’m constantly trying to stay on top of the latest email, mistakes happen, eyes cross, brains fry.

I am feeling particularly frazzled these days (which you would know if you read my last blog entry. Good news update: blood pressure much better today. No meds for me!). According to my publisher, the book should be at the printers no later than April 13th in order to stay on schedule. Sometimes I feel on top of this deadline. Other times, it might as well be tomorrow.

In the David Letterman tradition of top-ten lists, I decided to make a list for “You know you’re nearing your deadline and working too hard when”:

10. You’re writing a book on Canada and talk about things as happening “here” all the time even though you live in the States.

9. Your friends are sick of being turned down because of work so they stop calling.

8. You start wondering if you worked yourself to death, would that increase your street cred and book sales. (I’ve decided this is only true for literary books and doesn’t really work with aviation history).

7. The Domino’s delivery person knows your name and your dog’s favourite toppings.

6. You’ve gotten past the point where doing dishes is a form of procrastination. Now they sit there until they reach critical proporations and you have to wash them to reach the microwave (which is second only to the toaster for food preparation).

5. Going to the grocery store, having a shower, or sorting the recycling have become the “really fun” parts of the day.

4. Lean Cuisine goes on sale at the grocery store you get really excited, then load up (hence the need for the microwave).

3. Your husband makes rice crispy squares and they count as home cooking.

2. The only time the cat gets any physical contact is when he launches himself on the back of your desk chair and rubs against your head.

And the #1 way you know you’re nearing your deadline and working too hard:

You have nothing but work and your mental health to write about on your blog! 🙂

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.