Begin anew

White cotton curtains framed the window overlooking silvery Puget Sound.

I, a Midwesterner, was waking in a strange room, alone and far from home. In fact, nearly the entire United States wedged between me and my husband.

What had I done?

What I had done was step toward a dream: to get an MFA—one on Whidbey Island, Washington preferably. And here I was.

Soon I hurried over a sidewalk that appeared to end in the Sound. Beyond that illusion were the violet-shaded Cascades. To my right perched several Victorian houses, our classrooms at Camp Casey.

Classrooms? I knew classrooms. I was middle-aged—45—and had been nearly two decades at college teaching. I taught writing. For years. What could I learn?

As I neared the second house, I slowed at its doorway. To be in another’s class, I realized—to be a student again, I needed to do something. I needed to set down my accomplishments: my teaching career, my writing conference, my whole nine yards.

As the workshop class began, Professor Bruce Holland Rogers asked us what we were thinking as we entered. When I explained my conviction, he gave me a phrase I needed: “beginner’s mind.”

He said, “We get arrogant because we get used to projecting an image of competency.”

An antidote to this bad adulting habit, he suggested, was beginner’s mind. Let things be new. Let our humility open new knowing.

Parker Palmer visits this theme too in On the Brink of Everything and applies it to our writing. “To get unstuck, I must let go of my ‘career’ as an established writer and begin again as a novice. In truth, I am a novice in every new moment of every day.”

Needing to show our competency will only shut us down—perhaps especially in our writing. Begin again. Move forward with beginner’s mind. Let yourself go.

Photo by Anne Splatt

Publishers Weekly freelancer talks writing from home

Our writing game plan—our process—matters. Without sturdy micro-practices we don’t write. Just a wee bit important, right?

Freelancers like today’s guest Ann Byle know and use practices that get the writing done. They must. Ann has gotten a great deal of writing done while raising four kids.

Ann writes for Grand Rapids Magazine and Publishers Weekly, and is the author of several books including The Revell Story and Christian Publishing 101. She also coauthors and is working on Two Lives, One Lifetime with a victim of prostitution.

Ann’s newest book, The Joy of Working at Home, is a joint project with three other freelancers. This book offers best practices from creating useful workspace and using helpful technology to setting boundaries and blending work with family.

After working for a publisher and a newspaper, you moved into freelance writing. What drew you into freelancing?

Becoming a freelance writer worked best for our family as my husband began his teaching career. I was able to be home with our children and build a writing career. It wasn’t easy blending motherhood and writing, but it was worth the extra effort.

For some time you didn’t have an actual writing room. How did you improvise?

I worked where I could: first at a desktop computer in a chilly basement “office,” then at a desk under the basement stairs, and then in a designated office space in our bedroom.

As kids started to move out, I claimed a bedroom. My own office is a wonderful thing!

What are several habits you use that helped you succeed in writing from home?

Working from home is always a balancing act. I learned to juggle several stories at a time amid the responsibilities; developed the ability to focus on writing amid chaos (working in a newsroom helped a lot); and decided to let some things go, like a spotless house and chef-worthy meals.

In The Joy of Working at Home, you talk about the notion “prompts” that serve the writing process. But what exactly are “prompts”?

Prompts are things you do to get yourself in the work mindset. Getting dressed in the morning, grabbing that cup of coffee, sitting down at your computer, and checking your email: all of these little things focus your mind.

With so many working from home now, creating prompts that function best for you helps you get into the work routine each day.

Ann and her co-authors are excited to share their expertise in The Joy of Working at Home as many people struggle to learn how to balance home, family, and work. The book is available here as an Amazon e-book for $2.99.

Novel Research & One Hurt Foot, Part II

Who knew? Even a hurt foot can serve novel research.

There I was trying to stand in Dr. Loop’s splendid 19th century yellow mansion. To see it, I had traveled three hours to the edge of Port Sanilac, a small town in Michigan’s Thumb. Before me was Shirley, a Sanilac County Historical Society volunteer, exuding details about the house—and my foot needed elevation. I was ten minutes into having entered the grand home and I only wanted to sit down.

Months earlier, a fluky accident had broken a toe and damaged tendons in my right foot. Sure, I was equipped with a scooter and boot, but my scooter was downstairs and I was upstairs. Swelling sent my foot to throbbing. I despaired.

“Uh,” I finally said, “I have to sit down.”

Shirley and Brenda, my research pal, clucked my way before disappearing up another set of stairs. The attic! I was going to miss it. Instead I sank onto a little chair in the hallway and elevated my foot, which immediately improved things. What should I do?

It was then that I saw the gift.

There to my right on the landing was a patch of window light. But this wasn’t just any patch of light. No. The patch wore a shadow-lined pattern from the green shutter the light had passed through.

Brilliant!

I grabbed pen and notebook and wrote. Had I not visited the house, I would not have imagined window light passing through a shutter. And had I not been forced to sit, I likely would have missed it. This shadow pattern would heighten any scene’s verisimilitude.

In How Novels Work, Professor John Mullan asserts, “Novels have always been intrigued by odd details, by the clutter of life.”

Research hunts for the “odd detail.” And there in the midst of details, my hurt foot slowed me down enough to see a gem.

Novel Research & the Kindness of Strangers, Part I

My historical fiction, The Seaborne Series, demanded in-depth research. While COVID had nixed my Ireland research trip, my Irish characters, thankfully, had migrated to Michigan. I now needed local facts.

What was life like in the mid-1800s for those settling here? Brands? Habits? I wondered. What would a mattress be like? Were there mattresses? Google helped, of course. But I reached a point. I needed more. I needed proximity.

I began exploring pioneer museums websites. Yes, COVID had closed them to the public and to groups. But might they open for one novelist—who masked? I emailed two Thumb-area museums and received a gift: the kindness of strangers.

“What would you like to see?” emailed Robin Zurek of the Bad Axe Pioneer Museum.

Everything, I replied. “I’d give my eyeteeth to get inside the Ullrich log cabin—and I’m a dentist daughter. I don’t part with my teeth very quickly.”

“Well, let’s see what we can do.”

A flurry of emails later, a date was set, and soon my pal Brenda and I were arriving in Bad Axe, near where my Irish great grandfather immigrated.

Getting inside the Ullrich’s cabin was invaluable. The details it gave me enlivened story scenes: its rough log siding and interior, its low ceiling, the pantry that was the size of a walk-in closet. (Think about those 50-pound bags of flour!)

The two-story cabin was only 20×30. How did the Ullrich family with its twelve members do this tiny space? One volunteer explained, “The children slept horizontally—across the bed.”

A nearby bed revealed what a mattress was like. It was a large “bag” made from cotton material filled with pine needles. A pine needle tick. The mattresses my 1840s characters would have slept on. I touched the tick. It was squeezable—and a little prickly. I scribbled these details.

Historians, like Robin and the other Bad Axe volunteers, gave of their time and opened their knowledge vault . . . to help a stranger—and help this novelist they did.

Guest novelist Cathy Parker: Yes, writing what you know is exciting!

Write what you know—any craft article or book will so advise you. You read this advice and you think: What I know could put a cowboy to sleep during a steer riding contest.

I beg to differ.

Write Yourself. Today let’s limit ourselves to what you know best: yourself. The trick is to write “you,” as the character, and then supercharge what you know: tweak and twist “yourself,” drop “yourself” into unexpected places and crises for unexpected reasons.

You are the undercoat, and the undercoat consists of your experiences, occupation(s), and personality traits (cerebral, social, loner, mixer, one friend or one hundred, quick temper, calm as the sea at slack tide, voluble, silent, energetic or laid back?). Paint your characters with these traits. Create a “why” for such traits, or create your exact opposite. Or imagine taking such traits to the extreme—the uses are endless.

Pay attention to your idioms. Your pattern of speech. The way you interact with people. What, when and how you eat. Sleep patterns. Your relationship with animals. And on and on it goes. How could you create with what you see in yourself?

Details count in creating characters. Look yourself over. Notice what’s there. Find a way to use it. Your hair for example: what if something interesting happens because of a character’s hair? Maybe your protagonist falls down a crazy rabbit hole because he answers an ad for a clinic treating baldness. Maybe your character’s fortunes change the day she gives up trying for the long hair she’ll never have, and gets a short dynamite cut.

Know, and then imagine. This is only the beginning. You still have your experiences from childhood through school and all the big and little jobs you’ve held or wanted but didn’t get, stayed at or left. Friends. Vacations. Family. All stepping off points for the imagination.

            What you know will give your work truth.

            What you imagine will give your work wings.

            Come on now, go out and write what you now know!

Cathy Parker is a former journalist and attorney. She can be contacted through her website, AuthorCathyParker.com. Her book Power of Three is available on-line, and the sequel, Power Multiplied is available for preorder. Subscribers to Cathy’s newsletter who send digital proof of preordering will be receiving three stories surrounding her Power Rising Trilogy.

Picture by Ashim D’Silva, unsplash.com

Soul Vitamin: Idle Brain Time

Neuroscience rebuffs long-held prejudices against idleness and play. In Autopilot: The Art & Science of Doing Nothing, scientist and engineer Andrew Smart explains that focus actually suppresses our hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex.

This means that when we focus, we decrease blood flow and oxygen to our brains. But when we “space out”—yes, daydream—blood and oxygen supercharge those parts of our brain.

Idle brain time refuels the Default Mode Network (DMN). How important is our DMN? This network gives us our “aha moments.” Consider how vital ideas are in creative work.

So, if we as writers require such moments, how can we have healthy DMN?

1. Allow yourself time where you stare off into space, nap, walk, paint a wall or shovel manure.

2. Give yourself a union break, a sabbath and/or a good night’s sleep.

3. Cultivate solitude.

Excerpt from Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process and Creative Soul Care. Available at cynthiabeach.com.