In Which I Restart My Creative Practice

I don’t know about you, but my creative practice kind of stopped mid-March.

It took me until the end of August to start doing anything that even resembled a serious creative endeavor. I made a few attempts at getting back into the creative practice habit this summer, but it was kind of like “Nicole goes through the motions of being serious in the hopes that creativity will result,” and it didn’t. I was doing for the sake of doing, but it was unfocused and deprioritized and I didn’t really know what I wanted.

I found my way back in through journaling.

At first I simply wrote about what was going on.

Then, exactly like Julia Cameron suggested might happen in The Artist’s Way, I started making connections between things. (You might say, if you were of a profound turn of mind, that making connections between things is the essence of creativity.)

I began to prioritize my journaling. Made it the first thing I did every morning, before checking email or the news or anything like that. Just a few minutes with the blank page and as many thoughts and emotions as I could jam onto it.

I had an unexpected, almost mindblowing artistic growth moment at the very end of August — and oh my goodness I really should write about that, shouldn’t I — and after I realized what I needed to do next, getting back into the daily creative practice routine was relatively easy. (The hardest part was, of course, figuring out where and how to schedule it.)

Although, as I recently told a friend, this newly revived practice was all about studying other people’s work (at the piano, in this case). Not generating anything new.

“Maybe it will be a technical year,” I told her. Sitting down with Mozart every morning can teach you just as much as writing something of your own, after all. Maybe more.

But then I saw this tweet from Atomic Habits author James Clear:

For the last week, I have started each day by writing “What do I want?” at the top of a blank page.

It’s surprising how useful it is to keep asking yourself this question. Each time, my answers get more precise.

Once I know what I want, I translate the answer into action steps.

I added the question to my daily journaling ritual, and kept coming up with the same few responses over and over. One of which was “I want to make things.”

And then I had an idea — it came to me, literally, in a dream — and I woke up and I wrote it down.

And then I started waking up a little bit earlier every morning so I could have time to work on it.

Which brings me to now, 6:55 a.m., the sun still yellow at the horizon. (My new office faces east, which is one of my favorite things about it.) I’ve done my journaling and my making-something-new, and when I’ve finished with this post I’ll do some yoga and share a cup of coffee or tea with the person I love and get ready to sit down at the piano.

And when I’m done practicing, with the rest of the day still ahead of me, I’ll start my freelance work. ❤️

How Are You All Doing?

My day-to-day life hasn’t changed all that much since we all started self-isolating; I work from home and live by myself, so I was reasonably self-isolated to begin with. I mean, I’m well aware that I’m not interacting with people the way I used to — I’m not going to the YMCA, I’m not going to choir rehearsal, I’m not getting coffee with other writers, and I’m not even visiting my parents (they’re doing fine, by the way).

On the other hand, I was already good at interacting with people on Slack, FaceTime, and Skype (for both business and personal purposes) so… you know… a little more of that, a little less of the face-to-face, a long walk every afternoon after work, and otherwise my life is pretty much how it always was.

What about you? I’m pretty sure my situation is fairly atypical — so if you’d like to share yours, the comment section is open. ❤️

Also, here are some of the resources I’m referring back to every morning:

The Financial Times’ coronavirus tracking data (includes lots of curves at varying stages of flatness or growth)

The New York Times’ coronavirus cases by U.S. county (my county’s cases jumped from 42 to 71 in the past 24 hours, which I know is still a lot better than many places, but we didn’t see our first confirmed case until March 21 and I suspect our curve will trend upwards for a while)

Mathematician Brenda Fine’s Twitter feed (lots of info on whether the numbers are moving in the direction we want them to move, and how we can tell whether social distancing efforts are working)

Thoughts on Working From Home

I’ve been working from home for, like, eight years—and that encompasses “working from a home that includes four roommates,” “working from the home where my parents live,” “working from hospital waiting rooms,” and so on. I have not worked from home while simultaneously caring for young children, which I know a lot of people are doing right now, but I have filed copy, conducted interviews, attended virtual meetings, etc. from all kinds of different locations and situations, some much more stressful than others. (The day after I got hit by a car. The day when my apartment flooded. Days in which I needed to drop nearly everything else to help somebody out.)

So I know all of the tips and tricks, if people are curious. (Get dressed before you start working, so you can put your brain in work mode. Work from a specific designated area, so your entire home doesn’t feel like a work zone. Take real breaks. Wear noise-canceling headphones or earbuds even if you don’t like listening to music while you work.)

I also know the tips and tricks to help you keep working even when you are anxious about what might happen in the future. (Stay off Twitter. Limit the amount of time you spend reading news sites. Stop looking for articles that will give you a definitive account of what might happen, because they don’t exist. Remember what is currently reality, what is currently speculation, and what actions you can take right now to care for yourself, your loved ones, and your community. Break up your work into small discrete tasks and complete them one at a time.)

I don’t have any answers for you—and looking for answers is actually one of the bigger wastes of time right now, since you won’t find them—but I can speak to the importance of keeping the work going, if that’s something that’s important to you.

It’s always been important to me, first because I am my only income source and second because work grounds me. Work is something I can do; it’ll help me right now, it’ll help me in the future, it’s made up of a series of tiny tasks that I know I can tackle because I’ve done it all before, and it’s something that gets my mind off other unsolvable problems.

So those are my thoughts on working from home during periods of heightened uncertainty or anxiety.

Don’t know if they’re helpful, but they’re all I’ve got. ❤️

Thoughts on Living in the Midwest Again, Now That I’ve Been Here for a While

Vaxtyn requested I write about this, so here we go:

The interesting thing about beginning my third year in Cedar Rapids is that I already feel like I’ve been here for a longer period of time than any other place I’ve lived as an adult, even though I know mathematically that isn’t true; I was in Washington, DC for four years, and in Seattle for just over five.

At first I thought it was because I’d been in the same apartment for longer than any of my previous homes, but even that isn’t true; although I’ve rarely maintained an apartment or roommate situation for more than two consecutive years, I did keep my DC apartment for the four years I lived there.

So I think that, in this case, the sense of temporal expansion comes from finally being part of a community.

Arguably, time is supposed to speed up when you do the same things over and over, whether that’s singing with a choir every Sunday or going to the same big outdoor festival every summer. But there’s also this sense of here we are, singing another concert, or oh look, the art museum has a new exhibit that I want to go see, or well, I guess it’s time for another board meeting.

And because everything changes, just a little bit, every time, it doesn’t feel like you’re repeating yourself. It feels like you’re adding on to something.

I didn’t have anything to add onto when I lived in Seattle. There was work, of course, and building my career, but very little of that happened in connection with the city. I can work from anywhere, as long as I have my laptop and access to the internet; so the sense of being in Seattle, as a place, with locations I visited regularly and people I saw on a daily basis, didn’t precisely exist.

It was more like I lived online and, once a month or so, visited Seattle to see a friend or attend an event.

I very definitely live in Cedar Rapids, now. People know me, both in ways I’d like to be known and ways that surprise me. I’ll meet people in a professional context, for example, and they’ll say “wait, I recognize you, you’re always walking the track at the YMCA!”

I’ve also had the privilege of spending time with my parents on a very regular basis, which is very different from seeing them five days a year at the holidays. I wrote in The Biographies of Ordinary People that when you see family only rarely, years get compressed into yesterdays; you’re still viewed as eighteen or twenty-five because that’s how you were the last time they spent any significant time with you. We haven’t gotten to see each other change, so we all work from our last point of context.

Maybe that’s why it feels like I’ve been living in Cedar Rapids for much longer than just over two years (I moved in November 2017). I have all kinds of context now, and memories associated with places and people who are actively present in my day-to-day life.

Which is very different from the kind of life I lived in larger cities.

And yes, moving back to the Midwest is still one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. ❤️

In Which I Reveal That I Dreamed the Ending of ‘The Good Place’ When I Was a Teenager

When I was maybe sixteen years old, I had the kind of dream you never forget.

I dreamed I went to Heaven, which was the kind of concept that unnerved me when I was awake. I was well aware of what infinity meant, and even the idea of an unending eternal paradise was too much for me to bear.

I mean, how would you be able to stand it?

In this Heaven, the one in my dream, you didn’t have to.

Instead, when you arrived—when I arrived—you were told that you could do anything you wanted. Anything you’d loved doing on Earth, anything you’d never gotten the chance to do on Earth, anything that would be theoretically impossible on Earth (like flying, with your arms and not a plane).

Because I was sixteen years old, give or take, I decided I wanted to finally have sex.

In Heaven.

With my high school boyfriend, who was also apparently also dead in this scenario.

So that happened. Then the dream got interesting.

After you’d done everything you wanted to do, you were allowed to depart your physical body and let your soul ascend into the collection of souls that surrounded Heaven. You would no longer experience time, or your own thoughts, or anything beyond a sense of peace and contentment.

Which I did, in this dream. I remember being conscious (in my unconsciousness) of feeling both nothing and feeling completely happy.

Then I dreamed that God called all the souls back into Heaven, so we could gather around Heaven’s IMAX and watch as a new Messiah was born on Earth. God explained that Earth was in need of some guidance, and so a guide had been sent.

And we watched, as this infant grew up into a young man, and somewhere in all of this I woke up and thought well, if Heaven turns out to be like that, I don’t think I’ll mind going there.

And then I saw the last two episodes of The Good Place.

I’m going to assume you’ve already seen those episodes or been spoiled for them, because they are nearly identical to the afterlife I dreamed as a teenager (minus the overt Christian influences and the idea that God was sending numerous Messiahs to Earth at regular intervals).

In the Good Place (as presented on The Good Place), you can do anything and everything you want, for as long as you want—and then, when you’re ready, you can leave. Let your soul depart your body, and be at peace forever.

I am still kind of taken aback at the idea that the Heaven I imagined for myself as a sixteenish-year-old in the late 1990s was the same as the best version of the afterlife that all the philosophers and writers working on The Good Place could come up with.

Not that I believe that’s actually going to happen, after we die.

But if it did, it would be a beautiful and wonderful thing. ❤️

Thoughts on Writer’s Winter Break

This is where I’m supposed to write you a very long post about everything that happened at Writer’s Winter Break.

The truth is that I’m still processing most of it.

I would say, for starters, that if Catapult and William Morris Endeavor do it again next year — and I am fairly sure they will — you should go. (Understanding that you’ll need to be able to both cover the costs of the retreat and take the time off work, so this advice isn’t applicable to everyone. But if you, like, have the resources/ability and you’re on the fence? Go.)

I got to run into the ocean, which I hadn’t done in… three years? We had dinner at this restaurant by the bay and there was a path down to the beach, and a few of us decided to get up and walk it, and then I took off running — and people told me afterwards that they were impressed by my spontaneity, and then I had to explain that it wasn’t spontaneous at all, I had worn plastic sandals and a white cotton dress so I could do exactly what I’d planned, because I knew the moment was coming and I wanted to run directly into it.

But we can look at that as a metaphor for the writing advice I got during the retreat — which was, essentially, to take advantage of the full abilities of both my head and my heart.

Everyone else before this has just said heart.

I have heard so many times that I need to tone down my intellect and my desire for structure and the secret music and math I tuck into most of my writing even though I know most readers won’t know it’s there.

I have heard so many times that I just need to let go and feel and be messy and all of that.

And I was messy, at that beach dinner. Everything from the knees on down was covered in sand and salt.

But I was able to run into the surf wholeheartedly because I knew there would be a surf for me to run into and dressed for it.

And that’s what I was encouraged to do with my writing. To be as smart and structured and forward-thinking and open-hearted and ambitious and thoughtful as I actually am.

To see the story I want to tell and the way I want to tell it and then to take off running until I hit the waves.

So that’s what I learned, at Writer’s Winter Break.

And yes, I woke up early this morning so I could keep writing. ❤️

Writer’s Winter Break Class Prep

So today I’m going to share with you the short piece I put together for the Writer’s Winter Break retreat/conference I’m attending later this week.

(Assuming the weather doesn’t keep me from flying out on Wednesday. It has been snowing constantly since Friday afternoon.)

Here’s the context: for the class I’ll be taking with Meg Wolitzer, I’ve been asked to bring one page of my own writing, one page of another author’s writing, and up to two pages addressing an issue in my own work.

I’m bringing the first page of The Biographies of Ordinary People, the first page of Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers (which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago), and the following statement:

I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People in 2015 and 2016, with funding support from Patreon; after the novel was finished, I queried it and was told that, while the writing was lovely and the characters compelling, it was too quiet to be marketable. One agent said “I can work with you to develop something that might be more appealing to a large audience, or you can keep what you have as an art book that will appeal to a select few.”

I chose art book, published and marketed and toured it myself, and the people who loved it loved it.

Then I told myself I needed to learn how to write something that might be more appealing to a large audience.

In the past two years, I outlined one speculative fiction novel about Mars that went nowhere, drafted a second speculative fiction novel about parallel universes that I immediately trunked, and got most of the way through the draft of a cozy mystery with a Millennial-aged amateur detective (she’s got student loans and a social media obsession). My writing is no longer as lovely and my characters are no longer as compelling; I’m writing for “the market” and it’s not working.

I don’t think this is necessarily a genre issue; I read avidly and love all genres. One of the reasons I picked Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers as my published-writing sample was because it is either a literary fiction or a science fiction novel (I’ve talked to indie booksellers who didn’t know where to shelve it) and I would love to write something like that.

The other reason I picked The Wanderers is because the opening chapter does what I was trying to do with the opening chapter of Biographies — introduce us to the world of a woman who lives mostly in her head, who has issues being honest with the people in front of her and is about to leave everything she’s ever known — but it’s tighter and more satisfying and plotty in a way that Biographies is not. 

You turn the first page of The Wanderers wondering why Boone has called this meeting, what he’s going to ask Helen to do, and whether she’ll agree to do it. (To be fair, you also turn that first page feeling pretty sure that she’ll agree to do it. This is how stories work, after all.)

You turn the first page of Biographies remembering what it was like to live in a tiny apartment in the Pacific Northwest in 1989. That was actually what I was going for, and why the people who appreciated this book did in fact appreciate it, but… it’s not enough for what I do next. 

And I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I want it to be better than what I’m writing now.

I’ll be back from the retreat next Monday, and I’ll let you know how it goes. ❤️

(also there will still be a guest post on Wednesday)

(don’t miss the guest post)

On Creativity and Insomnia

So… I don’t think I’ve had a true week of good sleep since my birthday.

(Which, in case you don’t already have it on your calendar, was in the beginning of November.)

There was some Life Stress stuff on the weekend prior to my birthday, followed by me drinking the first cup of coffee I’d consumed in god knows how many years (and eating a pile of candy for the first time since going off sugar) then not sleeping for most of the entire night.

And I kept trying to catch up, to give myself plenty of time for rest and do all of the good sleep-hygiene things that I already know all about, and things kept happening and sleep kept not happening.

Not every day, thank goodness.

But at least once a week.

At this point I’m half-asking myself whether I need to buy a new mattress or an entirely new bed, because I know enough about how CBT works to understand that I’ve started to associate my bed with not sleeping—and because my silly internet foam mattress has started to develop a hip-shaped depression in the center of it anyway, a year or so after the 100-night grace period has worn off.

And then I go sleep on the sofa, which is still as firm as the day I bought it.

(I cannot tell you how much I love my sofa; how the minute I sat down on it at the furniture store I was all this one, no other sofas need apply, and how I’m literally writing this post from the sofa right now.)

But the reason I’m telling you about this now, after roughly two months of watching my Fitbit sleep score drop from the high-80s to the mid-70s, is because not sleeping is starting to make it harder for me to make things.

I’m still getting all of my work done, of course; that’s something I’ve always been able to do. I’ve written articles from planes and buses and emergency rooms and beds and sofas. I was completing freelance work the day after I got hit by a car. I’ve also got enough buffer in my schedule that I can time-shift stuff if I really need to step away from work for a day or two.

But the fiction-writing side of things is getting more difficult.

In part because I’ve been taking the time I’ve set aside for my own work and using it to take naps. (Which I know can mess with your circadian rhythm, I own Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep and refer to it frequently, and I only nap in the early part of the afternoon.)

So my new goal is to get myself rested before this Writer’s Winter Break next week, because I spent most of the Maggie Stiefvater writing seminar I took last year absolutely exhausted (I was in the process of shutting down The Billfold, which was not “conducive to sleep”) and I don’t want to feel like I’m not fully myself while I’m there.

Wish me luck. ❤️

Goals (and Anxieties) for 2020

Soooooooo… I feel like I ought to share my goals for 2020, because that would be the correct thing to do on my first post of the new year, but some of my goals are so fresh and so tender that I don’t want to make them public quite yet.

Here’s what I can share:

You already know that I want to finish drafting MYSTERY BOOK, and not just “in 2020” but “as soon as possible.” I’m 39,570 words in, with maybe 15,000 words to go.

The trouble is that I’m at the part of the story where all the pieces are coming together, which means I need to think about each individual move as carefully as if I were playing a sokoban game—and this means I can only write about 500 words at a time before I have to stop and think about the next move for 24 to 48 hours. (This is also how I beat Cosmic Express, if you were curious, and how I’m currently tackling Sokobond.)

But writing the BIG SCARY SCENE with the CAR and the DANGER was fun, and no that isn’t a spoiler because what is a cozy murder mystery novel without a BIG SCARY SCENE where our amateur detective is trapped with THE PERSON WHO MIGHT BE THE MURDERER but PROBABLY ISN’T because THERE ARE STILL 15,000 WORDS TO GO?

In terms of freelancing and budgeting and all of that: I set up my 2020 budget under the assumption that I would have another six-figure year—which seems likely, based on my current workload and projections—but also gave myself plenty of room for adjustments if things change. Personal expenses are still capped at an average of $2,500/month; I put a lot more (theoretical, unearned) money in the business column this year, but those are all expenses that can be cut if necessary. Fewer conferences, less money on professional development, and so on.

The real question—the one that is occupying my brain when I’m not thinking about how murder mysteries get solved—is whether I’m going to try to hit Disneyland Paris or Tokyo Disney in 2020. I keep running the numbers on what it would take to do a business class overseas flight on points, and I don’t think that’s going to happen, and part of me isn’t even sure this summer is the best time to take an overseas trip, and I know that if I do visit Paris or Tokyo I really need to combine that with a visit to see friends and relatives who live on either the East or the West Coast (depending on which park I choose), and then of course I keep reading (and writing) all of these articles about the environmental cost of international flights.

But I still want to visit every Disney park in the world. Sooner rather than later, because I don’t believe in “someday.”

Even if I don’t add a new Disney park to my tally this year, I do want to take a for-serious, two-weeks-in-a-row vacation—even if one of those weeks is a staycation where all I do is watch movies and bang on my piano and read books. (I had a few days to myself this holiday break to do exactly that, and they were wonderful.)

Also that writing retreat that I’m attending in (*checks calendar*) SIXTEEN DAYS. I should not be worried about this, it is supposed to be a retreat in which I can spend serious time improving my writing, but I keep thinking about the part where I’m going to get to take classes with Meg Wolitzer, and how I won’t be able to think straight because all I’ll want to do is tell her how much The Interestings meant to me—I mean, my eyes literally filled with tears just typing that, and I am not the crying type.

Also I’m worried that everyone else is going to be cool and artsy and really good at wearing scarves, and I am going to wear the same utilitarian striped dress that I bought five of so I could take them on book tour (because it’s going to be Florida in February and those are the clothes I have for that weather), and I know I shouldn’t worry about it because it doesn’t matter and I look great (or at least good enough) in that dress.

But still.

Wow, I didn’t realize that retreat was sixteen days away until ten minutes ago.

Better get back to drafting MYSTERY BOOK. ❤️