I have no empty drawers in my house. No empty shelves. No empty closets.
I have too many things. Am I materialistic? As a typical American, the answer is probably yes.
The myriad knickknacks, magazines, and (dare I say it?) even books are suffocating me.
Batteries, business cards, binoculars…
Clothes, candles, cords…so many electrical cords…
Half-dead plants, pencils, papers. An astounding number of papers.
I try to ignore the stacks of stuff when I walk into my den. And my bedroom. And my kitchen. But they dance mockingly in my peripheral vision. The clutter taunts me.
I can ignore a messy room. Until I can’t. Some people have a tipping point. I skip straight to the exploding point. I MUST get rid of some clutter NOW.
Don’t Mess with Creativity
They say that messy people are more creative. That working in a messy environment encourages new ideas. But can it be too messy? Can you have too much of a good bad thing? You know, the Law of Diminishing Returns and all that.
I can’t create while seeing the clutter and knowing that I should be doing something about it — instead of writing.
So, to help my writing — and to help the people I live with and whom I love so much — I will aspire to own fewer things. My new motto? Possess Less.
I will accomplish my goal one junk drawer at a time.
It’s hard to take little steps while you’re exploding.
Creating is hard. So is trudging through the Sahara without a canteen. If you’re in need of a cool drink, pick up a copy of Cartoonist Stephen McCranie’s book, Brick by Brick: Principles for Achieving Artistic Mastery.
Beautiful and wise, Brick by Brick has taught me about the creative mindset in a way few other books have. It’s packed full of insight and whimsical artwork drawn in soft shades of peach, brown, and aqua.
The title comes from the idea that a tower is built one brick at a time. “That means your measure for success is not how tall your tower is, but whether or not you’ve laid your bricks for the day” (p. 16).
In the introduction, McCranie says the comic essays stemmed from what he’d learned in his first two years as a professional cartoonist. He realized his experience might help other artists, but rather than tell artists how to create, this would be a “book about how to be a creator.” More than a “how to” manual, it’s a “how to be” book.
The comic format, a harmony of illustration and prose, grabs me in a way other books on the creative process have not. It’s written with honesty about his own failures, his struggles with self-doubt, and the principles that got him on the right track.
With a hearty dash of humor (I love his “deadlinosaurus rex”), he warns us to set realistic goals, break them down into small steps, and plan “backwards so you can live forwards” (p. 29). He offers tips to improve your craft and stay motivated while avoiding potholes along the journey.
The most helpful chapter for me (though it’s difficult to choose just one) is “You Are Not Your Art” – a pep talk for anyone who has invested too much of their identity in their creative pursuit.
“Hug the Elephant” is an insightful peek into the nature of beauty. “Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect” explores how to improve your skill by studying the experts in your field, and he gives tips to learn through imitation.
Other section titles include:
“Turn Your Pain into Plans”
“Planning for the Possible”
“Two Fallacies to Watch Out For”
“Taste is your Teacher”
“Be Friends with Failure”
“Know Your Artistic Lineage”
“Diversify Your Study”
“Get Stuff Done”
“Fun Gets Done”
“Divide and Conquer”
When I flip the last page of the “Conclusion,” my vision is sharper, and I’m motivated to follow McCranie’s advice: “Go outside and look for dragons.” Creatives of all types will find Brick by Brick amusing and inspiring.
Writers, artists, dreamers, read this book. It’s nothing short of powerful. You can buy it on Amazon or on McCranie’s website doodlealley.com where you’ll find more resources and see a sample of his drawing style.
Update: Yesterday, I received a copy of McCranie’s newest book, Space Boy. If it’s half as honest and uplifting as Brick by Brick, it will be well worth the read.
One bright morning, my husband and I flew in his little Maule MX-7 from our crooked, grass strip to his parent’s house sixty miles away. As we cruised toward the sun, a few cotton-ball clouds dotted the patchwork of fields below us, but the skies above were clear.
Ten minutes later, a solid white blanket cloaked the ground.
Fog is intimidating when you’re on the road, but it’s downright hair-raising from the air, especially for this white-knuckle flyer.
After vowing silently never to fly again, I pointed out the obvious to my husband. “We can’t land in this!”
“It’ll lift before we get there,” he said, his hands firmly on the control wheel.
We followed the straight line on the GPS screen until we reached the destination point — his father’s farm. We circled the area and searched for an opening in the clouds but found none.
Anxiety taunted me: What if the fog doesn’t lift for hours! The plane will run out of fuel!
We circled again. I prayed, HARD. After one more go-around, the summer sun burned a hole in the fleecy cover, and we were able to land.
Despite my doubts, my husband knew what he was doing. He had studied the forecast and knew the weather conditions – dew point, temperature, and wind – were improving.
How Are Your Writing Conditions?
Sometimes, even the most conscientious scribblers inadvertently create their own WRITING FOG — a hazy state of confusion and bewilderment. Momentum slows, and finishing — or starting – a project becomes a tricky prospect.
If this occurs while you’re working on a story, you can’t see where the plot is heading. Or maybe your theme becomes fuzzy.
You may encounter Writing Fog between projects: one work is complete, but your vision for the next is blurry. You become disoriented, panicky, uncertain of your goals. You’re afraid you’ve lost creative energy. You’re afraid of crashing.
What Causes Fogginess?
Lack of planning. When I was a homeschooling mom, I was a dedicated (compulsive) planner. I scheduled every thirty minutes of my day. If I didn’t, I couldn’t get the laundry done. Or the meals. Or anything.
But I reached a point where my ever-increasing To Do list was making me nervous. So, I swung to the opposite extreme and NEVER made a schedule. No plans, no calendars, no lists. This also had its problems, such as missed appointments, late bills, and a serious lack of focus.
Winging it with your writing will give you similar results. That’s not to say you must write a fifty-page outline before you draft your story. And it’s okay if you can’t envision exactly what your next project will be. But a little planning can prevent you from getting lost. Think of it as GPS for authors.
This condition is a symptom of the never-ending, futile quest for Perfection. It’s a trap. A labyrinth of circular thoughts which leads right back to Start, or worse, to No-man’s-land. When you over-think, you edit beyond the point of practicality. Is revising your work for the thirty-ninth time really going to make a significant difference? Or are you simply stalling? Finish the thing already. Excessive analyzing stems from not trusting yourself, which leads to another pitfall…
Too much advice. I love my writing podcasts, blogs, vlogs, courses, books, and #writingtips. But they can be too much of a good thing. All the brilliant but conflicting voices become a jumble of blah, blah, blah, until I don’t know what to believe. One expert says to create extensive character profiles; another says to allow characters to grow organically. Who’s right? In the end, you should go with your gut.
Over-dependence on others’ advice makes you passive. Passivity leads straight into the pea-soup of self-doubt and indecision.
If you’re in a muddle, and you can’t see the next story, the next scene, or the next sentence, consider whether one of these three conditions is to blame. Here’s hoping the mist will clear and bring your thoughts back into focus.
I wrote a novel. It was technically my second — I completed my first novel for NaNoWriMo in 2013. But I hid it away, and I have no regrets on that score. It was truly terrible.
I spent three months on the first draft of my second story. This was THE story I wanted to tell, the one that came from deep down. It gushed out of me like a geyser in the space of three months. Then I rewrote
Image by Mitchell Joyce via Flickr
it three times over the next five years.
During those years, I read a million writing books and took a course on novel structure. I submitted chapters to Critique Circle – a great place to learn from other writers and readers.
I polished the story as much as I could, but I needed expert advice to mold it into a masterpiece worthy of the greats: Austen, Bronte, Dickens. Well, at least to make it good enough to self-publish.
To reach my goal, I hired a highly recommended editor (who shall remain nameless) and sent her the first five chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t expect coddling. I expected criticism. How else could I improve the story? I wanted criticism.
I got it. Plenty of it. On every page. As I read through her sometimes blunt comments on the first couple of chapters, I saw many errors I had missed. She pointed out other elements I had failed to develop. But she was spot-on, and I knew I was getting my money’s worth. I was enthusiastic about revising…
Until I got to her comments on the fifth chapter in which I introduced another prominent character, the Love Interest.
In a nutshell, the editor told me not to “waste my time” on the novel because this character was fatally flawed.
I am, admittedly, sensitive. If, like me, you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve – or if you insert your heart into your story — BEWARE. Less-than-gentle (yes, harsh) criticism can cause acute myocardial infarction.
I have also been known for taking things too personally. But in this case, it felt personal. You see, anxiety and I are old friends, and the character in question suffered with an anxiety disorder. The editor couldn’t believe that someone with severe anxiety could also be high-functioning and rational in other respects. Ouch!
I asked many questions about her conclusion and explained the character arc — her growth from fear and solitude to strength and victory.
The editor stood her ground.
It’s been a year, and I haven’t had the fortitude to delve back into my novel since I received feedback. At the same time, I can’t get the story out of my system. It haunts me. Family and friends have encouraged me to send the chapters to a different editor. Maybe I will.
Over the past few years I’ve submitted short stories to four other editors. Each offered words of instruction and encouragement while not sparing the red marks in my manuscripts. They made my stories better without crushing my spirit. They were worth every penny.
Hopefully, my experience will help someone else. So here are a few lessons I’ve learned:
1) Don’t wait FIVE YEARS before you get professional advice on your story. A good editor will catch developmental weaknesses that will save you time in the long run. And everyone needs an editor because everyone has blind spots. Even editors need editors. You may not agree with everything they recommend, but they will catch mistakes you missed.
2) If you don’t gel with one editor, hire another. You are paying them to HELP you, not tear you down. Some people will say it’s their job to tell you the cold hard truth, but the WAY they tell it can encourage or discourage, inspire or demoralize. Find a professional who gives it to you straight in a constructive way.
3) If you feel strongly about a story, don’t allow ONE person’s opinion to hold you back. I’m still learning this lesson.
Perhaps this should be number four: if you can’t work with one editor, don’t wait a whole year before you find another. Maybe it’s time to dig through the box by my easy chair and pull out that manuscript…
I read a wonderful little book by Kristine Kathryn Rusch titled The Pursuit of Perfection and How It Harms Writers.
She says, “I spend most of my time in the craft workshops that I teach repairing damage done years, sometimes decades, earlier. That damage isn’t deliberately malicious. It comes from the assumption that perfect stories not only exist, but can be revised into existence.”
Hmm. I’m guilty of this faulty thinking — that if I revise a short story one more time, I’ll remove any weak dialogue or plot elements. My characters will shine with authenticity. My grammar and punctuation will be stellar without a comma out of place. The story will be practically perfect in every way.
I’m guilty of not showing anyone my manuscript (or blog post) because it might contain errors, those little gremlins that lurk unseen until you click “Publish.”
I’m guilty of not finishing a piece (or worse, not starting at all) because I’m afraid I can’t get it “right.” I become paralyzed by the fear of failure.
Of course my writing is far from perfect. It will always contain errors. It could always be better.
Here’s Rusch again:
“When you strive for perfection in your writing, you’re dooming yourself to perpetual failure.”
Producing an error-free story isn’t the goal.
I should aim to write a story that touches the reader and says something meaningful rather than one that follows all the rules at the expense of art. Like the pianist who plays Chopin with precision, every note spot-on, but his music lacks feeling. It is lifeless.
If I wait until a piece is flawless, I won’t put it out there at all. In fact, I’m tempted to spend more time on this post. If I worked on it for a few weeks, it might be almost perfect. I could make it funnier, clearer, deeper…
“Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit…Then release your book on an unsuspecting public. The book will never be perfect.”
“None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Jane Austen, Persuasion
I beg to differ, Jane.
It was going to be easy. We’d done it before. We knew the route.
The plan? Motor our Pearson 365 sailboat from the Carrabelle River in Carrabelle, Florida through the Intracoastal Waterway to Panama City. A twelve-hour trip.
Why Panama City? Because the boat would be easier to sell there. Because after two decades of sailing, we realized that neither of us has the stomach for blue water. My husband was once seasick for thirty hours straight crossing the Gulf from Tampa to the panhandle. And I get sick within five minutes in unprotected waters. It is time to furl the jib, so to speak.
The first morning of our trip was cold — 43°F/ 6°C. My husband, aka the Captain, untied the six ropes which held the Pearson in the slip while I stood on the bow, boat-hook in hand, ready to push off the pilings. Leaving the dock is always a nerve-wracking process (especially for this anxiety-prone INFJ) because the river current pushes the stern sideways, putting our boat — and any vessels in the vicinity — at risk for damage. The Captain has learned how to compensate for the current, however, and is now an expert backer.
But this time, the bow swung sharply to the left. Nimble first-mate that I am (think Gilligan), I dodged the boom, leaped over sheets (ropes), and pushed off a wooden piling to keep our hull from scraping the cruiser beside us. The Captain was pushing from the stern, too. After a stressful half-minute we were free and clear of the dock and the pilings and the neighboring boats.
We were also drifting backwards downstream.
“I’ve lost forward and reverse!” my husband called out to me. “I don’t have any control!”
He raced down the companionway, and I heard him talking on the radio. “We’re dead in the water!”
We floated past the marina office where a man in a brown work jacket stood on the dock with his hands in his pockets, watching us. A woman came out of the weathered building, hugging herself to stay warm. She spoke to the man, and then she shouted to us, “He’s gonna get his skiff. He’ll pull you back.”
We were drifting dangerously close to a sandbar which rose above the surface of the river like the back of a giant white alligator. Just in the nick of time, the small white boat appeared. The Captain threw a rope to the man in the skiff who pulled us to the large dock adjacent to the marina office. We tied up and a few phone calls later, we had hired a diver to take a look at our propeller.
The diver, a twenty-something man equipped with wetsuit, knife, and scuba gear, plunged into the frigid water. Bubbles broke the surface for the next few minutes while he unwrapped a frayed rope from the propeller. Another fifteen minutes and he had scraped the prop clean of barnacles.
With our reverse and forward restored, we were ready to begin again.
Getting Underway — Again
We traveled down the river and out into the bay, following the buoys which mark the Intracoastal Waterway (IW)– green on the right side of the boat, red on the left. The St. George Sound is shallow on either side of these markers, and with a keel draft of 3’11”, we’re always careful to motor “between the lines.” A couple of nifty tools help with this: a depth finder, which tells us how deep the water is, and our Garmin GPS, which shows us exactly where we are on the map. The latter is a great aide for guiding us through the shallows.
Only this time, it didn’t.
We were well inside the IW near the four-mile-long St. George Island Bridge, in what should have been deep water, when the boat suddenly lurched. We had run aground. No amount of revving the engine or changing directions freed us.
It was low tide. If we waited another three hours, we might float off. But we’d already been delayed once that day.
The Captain launched the dinghy, grabbed an anchor and a lot of rope, and climbed in. He rowed off some distance and was about to drop the anchor in deeper water — a clever trick for pulling your boat off a sandbar — when the boat freed itself.
He rowed back and scrambled aboard while I motored under the bridge at a manatee’s pace in case we hit another shoal.
Without further incident, we navigated through the bay and down the Apalachicola River for a short stretch. Then we veered west when the IW split from the river.
I love this part of the Waterway. The canal is narrow, lined with lush palmetto bushes, oaks, palms, wild magnolias. And lots of birds: seagulls, herons, eagles, hawks, ospreys, owls, cormorants, and my favorite, pelicans. It’s rare to pass another boat, but you might pass an alligator. I’m 99% sure I saw one about five feet from shore. His pointy back broke the surface of the water, then he disappeared in our wake.
It was near this alligator sighting that we ran aground again, in what should have been deep water. It felt like the boat was skimming up a hill, but just as quickly as we hit it, we were free of it.
And thus, I have drawn the following conclusion: In the Intracoastal Waterway and in life, even calm water holds surprises. Expect Sandbars.
We overnighted in a horseshoe-shaped cove. And now I know what they mean when they say, The silence was deafening. The pure absence of noise was remarkable. And a bit spooky. Like we were hundreds of miles from civilization. (I checked: the nearest road was only a mile away.) The hoots of Barred and Great Horned Owls added to the eerie atmosphere. And in the distance, a high-pitched screeching cry (a bobcat?).
To state the obvious, that night was dark. Very dark. No street lamps. No car headlights. No farm poles. Not an electric light in sight. And yet, the sky was brighter than it is at home near the city. I saw more stars than I’ve ever seen before. More stars than void.
The next morning we continued on our way which took another five uneventful, pleasant hours.
We docked at the Panama City Marina around three in the afternoon. After being fingerprinted, signing a hundred pages, and undergoing a credit check, polygraph test, and FBI background check (I exaggerate), we were allowed to rent a slip.
After that, the marina personnel did everything they could to make us comfortable. It almost made me question our decision to sell the boat. I enjoy certain aspects of sailing — salty air, warm sun, cool wind, friendly dolphins, and the only sound coming from the lapping of the waves on the hull, the ping of the sail on the mast, and the laughing gulls overhead.
But sometimes, when I’m dealing with sensory overload, the ocean becomes too much of a good thing. And as I lay that night in the V-berth with a migraine, rocking, tipping, and bouncing with the waves, I felt seasick. I missed the calm water of the canal. This was why we needed to sell the Pearson.
Back to Carrabelle
We had reached the end of our journey, but we’d left our car in Carrabelle.
Plan A* was to rent a car and drive back to get our own, but nothing was available. ALL the rental cars in town were booked. So we settled for Plan B: call Uber.
We’d never used Uber, and being naturally wary, we downloaded the app with skepticism. My husband typed in our destination. A driver would arrive in eight minutes.
And he did. Like clock-work.
Our bags and gear piled around us, we stood next to the dock at the PC Marina and flagged him down. The trip had taken two days, but we’d been on board for three, and we probably looked like the weary travelers we were. We loaded our luggage into his Toyota Camry and took off. But when he realized the trip would take two hours, he balked: he couldn’t take us all the way because he had a doctor’s appointment.
Forty minutes down the road, we left our first Uber driver and took up with another — a thirty-something immigrant from Uganda. During the 80-minute trip back to Carrabelle, we learned a lot about him: how he’d lived in the slums but decided to leave his country, join the U.S. Air Force, become a U.S. Citizen, learn to drive, buy a car AND a house. He’s starting his own business in cybersecurity and driving for Uber on the side.
This up-and-coming Ugandan-American didn’t get where he is today by staying in calm waters, that’s for certain. No doubt he’ll accomplish something impressive, even if it’s not his current plan. Even if it’s his Plan Z. He’s a high seas sailor.
I am not. I don’t have the constitution for it. And that’s okay. I celebrate his achievements while realizing that different people are suited for different waters.
And our new plan? Sell the Pearson and get a trawler. A vessel that will take us places inland where the water is flat and the shores are filled with wildlife. Where we can hear the silence and see the stars. A boat that will navigate the Great Loop — a system of canals and rivers that spans the Eastern U.S. and part of Canada.
I haven’t told the Captain yet, but I have a name for the new boat: Calm Waters.
“He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.” Mark 4:39 NIV
*Fracturedfaithblog.com has a great post on Plans A to Z called “A Tree on the Line.” It inspired me to write this post. You can read it here.