Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Photo credit: RoganJosh from morguefile.com 
How often are you going happily along in your routines when—BAM!—some misfortune or difficulty derails you? One's natural instinct is to get through, get out, get away from the hardship as soon as possible, looking neither to the left or the right.

But there’s another way to think about life’s rough patches—as opportunity.  This perspective is something I’ve been raised with, but didn’t always appreciate. A mishap with the plumbing in our hundred-year-old urban rowhouse was a poignant refresher course.

In early August 2009, I had a harrowing night when our third floor toilet’s water line broke. The problem went unnoticed for about 20 minutes, until the water started raining into the second floor through a light fixture and continued downward into the first floor and basement. The next few hours were eaten up with bailing, mopping, tamping down towels, laundering towels, running fans. The next morning, as I stumbled around, fatigued and worried a ceiling might still collapse, I couldn’t help but remember what my mother always says about these sorts of disasters: “it will make a good story later.”

If my life is a story, then it’s the messes, mishaps, and failures that actually make it interesting. Not that I seek these things out, but when disaster does occur, it carries with it the promise of bringing something ultimately transformative, maybe even redemptive. “It will make a good story later” makes me notice things I otherwise wouldn’t, from the shape of stains on the ceiling to the way my husband’s shoulders slump as he contemplates them.

Watching Mom over the years ferret away details in the midst of turmoil then transform them into captivating comic stories has been quite an education. Not only have I learned to see the humor potential in all things (and to never take myself too seriously), I’ve also gained a habit of attentiveness when life goes awry—a valuable skill in any writer’s toolbox.

As you come to grips with the possibilities of  “it will make a good story later,” you can begin to develop both a habit of attentiveness and a new perspective on what makes you truly the writer you are, with stories only you can tell.

Life’s interruptions to routine can be a creative gift to you. They put you in new places with access to new relationships and experiences. They force you to understand suffering, fear, frustration, anger, sorrow, and all other shades of negative emotion necessary to create deeply real characters that readers connect with.

Don’t panic when life interrupts your writing routine. Pay attention. It will make a good story later.

What hardships have made you the writer you are? What storytelling mentor has shaped your approach and how?
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: RoganJosh from morguefile.com 
How often are you going happily along in your routines when—BAM!—some misfortune or difficulty derails you? One's natural instinct is to get through, get out, get away from the hardship as soon as possible, looking neither to the left or the right.

But there’s another way to think about life’s rough patches—as opportunity.  This perspective is something I’ve been raised with, but didn’t always appreciate. A mishap with the plumbing in our hundred-year-old urban rowhouse was a poignant refresher course.

In early August 2009, I had a harrowing night when our third floor toilet’s water line broke. The problem went unnoticed for about 20 minutes, until the water started raining into the second floor through a light fixture and continued downward into the first floor and basement. The next few hours were eaten up with bailing, mopping, tamping down towels, laundering towels, running fans. The next morning, as I stumbled around, fatigued and worried a ceiling might still collapse, I couldn’t help but remember what my mother always says about these sorts of disasters: “it will make a good story later.”

If my life is a story, then it’s the messes, mishaps, and failures that actually make it interesting. Not that I seek these things out, but when disaster does occur, it carries with it the promise of bringing something ultimately transformative, maybe even redemptive. “It will make a good story later” makes me notice things I otherwise wouldn’t, from the shape of stains on the ceiling to the way my husband’s shoulders slump as he contemplates them.

Watching Mom over the years ferret away details in the midst of turmoil then transform them into captivating comic stories has been quite an education. Not only have I learned to see the humor potential in all things (and to never take myself too seriously), I’ve also gained a habit of attentiveness when life goes awry—a valuable skill in any writer’s toolbox.

As you come to grips with the possibilities of  “it will make a good story later,” you can begin to develop both a habit of attentiveness and a new perspective on what makes you truly the writer you are, with stories only you can tell.

Life’s interruptions to routine can be a creative gift to you. They put you in new places with access to new relationships and experiences. They force you to understand suffering, fear, frustration, anger, sorrow, and all other shades of negative emotion necessary to create deeply real characters that readers connect with.

Don’t panic when life interrupts your writing routine. Pay attention. It will make a good story later.

What hardships have made you the writer you are? What storytelling mentor has shaped your approach and how?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I don't know about the rest of you, but August can be a very chaotic month for me, with vacations and back-to-school preparations and a total lack of routine in far too many areas. My daughter's dance lessons are "drop ins" and her guitar teacher shifts days around, some church activities don't meet, while others are more frequent.

But even when I feel this scattered, I have a couple of routines that help me not lose all track of my writing.

Walk

Image by jorgeyu, morguefile.com
A fifteen to thirty minute walk first thing in the morning makes me more alert and helps me gather my thoughts. I bring no gadgets, no music, no companions. This is distraction-free time when I can just think.

An April 2014 study from Stanford University found "Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter." They also noted "Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting."

The good news? It's the act of walking and not the environment that matters. So when the weather's horrid, stepping onto a treadmill can give you similar benefits.

Of course, there are also health benefits to a daily walk, including reduced cancer, diabetes and heart disease risk. And if you're struggling with low energy, short walks are the ticket to breaking the vicious cycle of lethargy (lethargy tends to breed more lethargy). A bit of sun exposure during an outdoor walk will increase your levels of vitamin D, an important nutrient that improves not only bone health but also mood (why that is hasn't yet been studied in depth, but depression can be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency).

A walk can also be a great afternoon pick-me-up, especially when you've hit a crossroads in a story and can't decide how to proceed. Let your mind roam as your feet do, and your creative mind will offer ideas and solutions.

Write longhand

While I have no desire to return to the days of all longhand composition, I do find it extremely helpful to do some longhand writing every day, whether note jotting, brainstorming, or free-writing. I've tried all kinds of warm ups over the years and longhand is the one that never fails to "prime the pump" for me.

Apparently educators and cognitive scientists have been looking into why longhand writing is so beneficial to our brains. Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, used brain scans in her research on the benefits of longhand. She found that "as your hand executes each stroke of each letter, it activates a much larger portion of the brain’s thinking, language, and 'working memory' regions than typing." Keyword there? The language portion of the brain is more actively engaged.

Another study of elementary aged children found "writing by hand improves students’ creative writing skills, and elementary students actually write more quickly by hand than when typing. Compositions are also longer when written by hand...."  My experience bears that out--when writing longhand I'm more apt to write more ideas and edit less. There's something about the flow of the physical act of moving a pen across paper that keeps ideas flowing. (For more on this line of research, see "How Handwriting Trains the Brain.")

If you want to get out of the vicious cycle of having nothing to say, try journaling about it with a pen and paper. Chances are pretty good that you'll have more to say about having nothing to say than you might believe. Then voila, you've taken the first baby steps away from wordlessness and toward expression.

What routines do you try to maintain in chaotic times? What benefits have you found from walking and/or writing longhand?
Tuesday, August 12, 2014 Laurel Garver
I don't know about the rest of you, but August can be a very chaotic month for me, with vacations and back-to-school preparations and a total lack of routine in far too many areas. My daughter's dance lessons are "drop ins" and her guitar teacher shifts days around, some church activities don't meet, while others are more frequent.

But even when I feel this scattered, I have a couple of routines that help me not lose all track of my writing.

Walk

Image by jorgeyu, morguefile.com
A fifteen to thirty minute walk first thing in the morning makes me more alert and helps me gather my thoughts. I bring no gadgets, no music, no companions. This is distraction-free time when I can just think.

An April 2014 study from Stanford University found "Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter." They also noted "Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting."

The good news? It's the act of walking and not the environment that matters. So when the weather's horrid, stepping onto a treadmill can give you similar benefits.

Of course, there are also health benefits to a daily walk, including reduced cancer, diabetes and heart disease risk. And if you're struggling with low energy, short walks are the ticket to breaking the vicious cycle of lethargy (lethargy tends to breed more lethargy). A bit of sun exposure during an outdoor walk will increase your levels of vitamin D, an important nutrient that improves not only bone health but also mood (why that is hasn't yet been studied in depth, but depression can be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency).

A walk can also be a great afternoon pick-me-up, especially when you've hit a crossroads in a story and can't decide how to proceed. Let your mind roam as your feet do, and your creative mind will offer ideas and solutions.

Write longhand

While I have no desire to return to the days of all longhand composition, I do find it extremely helpful to do some longhand writing every day, whether note jotting, brainstorming, or free-writing. I've tried all kinds of warm ups over the years and longhand is the one that never fails to "prime the pump" for me.

Apparently educators and cognitive scientists have been looking into why longhand writing is so beneficial to our brains. Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, used brain scans in her research on the benefits of longhand. She found that "as your hand executes each stroke of each letter, it activates a much larger portion of the brain’s thinking, language, and 'working memory' regions than typing." Keyword there? The language portion of the brain is more actively engaged.

Another study of elementary aged children found "writing by hand improves students’ creative writing skills, and elementary students actually write more quickly by hand than when typing. Compositions are also longer when written by hand...."  My experience bears that out--when writing longhand I'm more apt to write more ideas and edit less. There's something about the flow of the physical act of moving a pen across paper that keeps ideas flowing. (For more on this line of research, see "How Handwriting Trains the Brain.")

If you want to get out of the vicious cycle of having nothing to say, try journaling about it with a pen and paper. Chances are pretty good that you'll have more to say about having nothing to say than you might believe. Then voila, you've taken the first baby steps away from wordlessness and toward expression.

What routines do you try to maintain in chaotic times? What benefits have you found from walking and/or writing longhand?