Establishing Sustainable Writing Habits – and Being Happy, Too

This is a quintessentially Santa Fe photo to me. I took it at Radius Books, where my lovely author friend Megan Mulry works. I stopped by on a hot June afternoon to pick up some books from her, and this dog-in-residence was enjoying the cool stairway. Or being part of an art installation. In Santa Fe, even the dogs have a keen appreciation for aesthetics.

My life is pretty wonderful these days. I live in a beautiful place, I have lovely friends, and I’m actually pulling off this writing full-time gig. David and I are both working hard, but we’re making progress. Every once in a while, I kind of catch my breath and realize that I’m truly making my living as a writer. After twenty-five years of putting the effort toward that goal – and *not* getting there – it still feels unreal. 

So, I’m counting my blessings and my lucky stars. 

I’m also still learning how this works. I don’t think I’ve posted recently on word count goals and sustainability. For a while there, when I went to writing full time, I tried for 5,000 words/day. And I can do it. I have the time. I can write that much in a day, and I can sustain that output for a week or two, working five days/week. Which is great for getting 50K in a couple of weeks. 

BUT…

And I set that out as a big, bold BUT – my overall productivity for 2016 went down, despite this elevated goal. I sat down with my spreadsheets (FTW!) to figure out why. It turns out those 25K weeks come with a high price for me. I would follow those with rebound weeks where I got very little done. I’d work and work… and come up dry. I’d drained the well. 

This makes no sense to me, as it feels like there shouldn’t be an energetic limit on creativity. I tried all sorts of methods to find a way to sustain the higher daily wordcounts. 

Nope. I always paid the price in lower productivity. Even when I *thought* I was doing fine, my wordcount majory dropped. The numbers don’t lie.

So, in 2017, I resolved to keep my wordcount goals to about 3K/day, five days a week. Not only does this feel relatively easy, I can sustain it, week after week. I no longer get those unproductive rebound weeks. The upshot is, though I’m getting 10K less per week, I’m on track to beat my 2016 wordcount by a significant margin.

This also means that I typically finish early in the day – usually by 1 or 2, since I’m a morning writer – and I sometimes feel at loose ends. After so many years of managing two careers, it feels weird to have free time and not use it to work. So, I’m doing things to fix up the house. I’m gardening, reading more, seeing friends. 

And I’m contemplating the value of a creative hobby that isn’t about income.

When I was a new writer and taking every class I could, the US Poet Laureate at the time, Ted Kooser, came to the university to give a week-long class. I’m not really a poet and poetry has never been my focus, but I took every opportunity that knocked.

He was just terrific and I learned a great deal from him. But what sticks out in my mind has nothing to do with the craft of writing. What I’ve always remembered about him is that he also painted – beautifully – but had a hard and fast rule that he wouldn’t sell his paintings. He only gave them away. People sometimes argued with him about this. Why not sell this art, too? And he explained that he wanted that one thing to not be about earning money.

That came back to me recently during a conversation with Anne Calhoun. She made a quilt for her sister’s wedding and commented on how fun it was to simply Make a Thing that was unconnected to money. I replied – with some envy – that I used to quilt all the time, and loved it, but gave that up because I needed to spend that time and energy on writing.

And I now understand what Ted Kooser meant. There’s a value to creating something without thinking about paying bills with it. It’s restful in a way. Refilling that well. 

I might take up quilting again. 

A few extra things. I met a debut author Genevieve LaViolette and she wrote a charming blog post about it. Features lovely comments about me, so I had to share.

Also, I mentioned Sunday about my PRISM finals – that list is up here. Congrats to all!

Piecing It Together

I used to sew a lot. My grandmother was a great seamstress, so I suppose I come by it naturally. In my twenties, I really got into quilting. Some of them turned out pretty fabulous, too, including a King-Size Wedding-Ring quilt I made for a college roomie.

Eventually I had to quit. I quilted more than I wrote, so I finally gave it up. Following a dream requires sacrifices and that was one of mine.

When we moved, I even gave away my sewing machine, along with bags and boxes and piles of fabric. It really kind of broke my heart to see it go. But it was one of those table sewing machines and I absolutely knew there would be no place for it in the new house. Plus I wasn’t sewing. I let it go with a pang, and a promise that if I did want to start sewing again, I’d get a snazzy portable machine.

I really hadn’t given sewing much thought lately, largely because my attention has been on novel-writing, as it should be. But I used the old family Christmas-tree skirt this year, the one my mom forced me to take when we cleaned out her house. That’s the skirt in the top picture. It used to be a white felt skirt, that my mom had everyone in the family sign. Then she embroidered the names in red yarn. We did that when I was about six or seven. Over the years, the white got dingy and stained from various pets and accidents. My mom asked me to cut it up, saving the embroidered names and make a new skirt that matched her living room. Which was *not* red and white.

So I pieced a skirt of mauve silk and burgundy velvet and appliqued the names with a bit of lace edging. I totally don’t remember doing this, just that I did. So this Christmas I used it, as I hadn’t thought I would. It took a bit of cleaning up and so I noticed what a good job I did on it. The seams are strong. It lays nicely, holding up well these twenty years later. I used beads from one of my grandmother’s necklaces as buttons, with satin loops to hook them. Most of the people who signed it are dead now, so I’m glad we saved it.

It’s funny to me to think that I probably could not do as good of a job on it today.

But I’m taking this class, with Alexandra Sokoloff, in an effort to learn her screenwriting tricks to better structure my novel. I needed to make a storyboard and, rather than run to the office supply store, I pulled out my grandmother’s cutting and measuring board.

It’s one of the few pieces of sewing equipment I kept, not only for sentiment, but because it’s a really useful tool that is nearly impossible to find these days.
And now I’m laying out The Body Gift events on it. I’ve only just completed Act I and already I see things I couldn’t before. Blue is the heroine’s POV (point of view, for the uninitiated) and yellow is the hero’s.

Yeah – I’m thinking I’m going to lose his POV altogether. A shocking move that may be exactly what the book needs. Then I’ll applique and embroider in what’s missing.

My grandmother loved to read, too.

Discrimination

I’ve mentioned before, my life lately is all about the cutting away.

I spent the weekend getting rid of stuff. If you haven’t been following along, we have to clear out the house by August 13. Next Thursday, for the calendar-challenged among you. Yes, we have time. But I can tell you, this particular stone has accumulated a serious amount of moss over the past 21 years. In an arid climate, too.

My moves before this were either as a young woman who owned practically nothing (18-22) or within the same small town over a few blocks. I’ve lived a lot of places within Laramie, but only two in the last 16 years.

When David and I moved out of the (much smaller) house we’d shared for 11 years, it went okay until we hit the basement. Time slowed as we dug out the sedimentary layers of toys and obsolete computer parts. Things we’d moved into the house and never used were in the far back corners, whispering quietly to themselves in the dank dark.

In this house, it’s the attic.

My (wonderful) Aunt Karen drove up from Montrose, Colo. (read: a long way) to help for two days and drive home again. She felt like she didn’t make much of a dent, but she helped me clear the attic spaces. Even though she had to ask for a flashlight to get back into the dark, “scary parts.” Dark, scary parts filled with decades of obnoxious roofing dust from when they ripped off the roof last fall to replace it. Second only in sinus-yuck factor to coal dust from when David and I remodeled the old coal bin in the previous house. Blew black snot for days. Looking into the blackened tissues, I thought of my Kennedy grandfather who died of black lung.

The attic is now clear. I rid myself of a thirty-year collection of fabric. I know. It’s a disease. I even had fabric I took from my other aunt when she had to build a separate shed to house HER fabric collection. You’d think it would have been a cautionary tale. No no no.

But I’m free now.

Gone is the sewing machine and all the fabric. No more quilting until I’m making a living as a writer. Tobiah’s baby quilt was the last, which is somehow fitting.

Gone are the Breyer model horses I’ve saved from childhood. Into the arms of a little girl in a sparkly purple body suit, who spun around and carried the box back to her mother’s Suburban, where her brothers impatiently waited.

I’m good with that. Gone also are the old bean bag chairs, the boom box with tape-to-tape record, the four-drawer filing cabinet and the boxes of overhead transparencies. All via Freecycle. I love Freecycle. You send an email to the loop with an offer and people respond. They come and take it away with happy smiles.

One of my friends who left Laramie a year ago asked how I’m managing the good-byes, since we completely blew having a going-away party. She did it well, arranging carefully sequenced farewell drinks and meals.

No such grace from me.

I’m using the serendipity method. Which is a nice way of saying I’m not arranging it at all. People have stopped by, knowing we’re packing. With all the fraught-ness that word entails. Ann offered to bring us sandwiches, which was one of the nicest things anyone could offer.

And I’m meeting the new arrivals in Laramie. The ones who are moving in for the new semester and love to have our ratty old sunroom couch. The girls from Texas, filling up their five-room house in Tie Siding with Freecycle finds while their boyfriends go to school at Wyo Tech. After that, they’ll go back to Texas, they assure us. We don’t know what they’ll do with all the stuff. And the mother of the little girl in the sparkly purple top, who asked me where to buy plants that would thrive so well in Laramie.

Blessings and good fortune in this little town to them all.