Start with Ugly

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This week, I read a great article in the magazine Fast Company by Ed Catmull. Entitled “How to Unleash Creativity,” the article explored animation studio Pixar’s use of creative collaboration through their “brain trust.” This group of creative minds, constantly changing with the needs of each project, is a key to what sets Pixar films apart. Compelling stories are hashed out and shaped through ideas that emerge in these brain trust meetings.

Catmull, who has led Pixar since 1979 and rubbed shoulders with Steve Jobs, John Lasseter and the other Pixar greats, has an amazing perspective on the development of a story, which is what really caught my attention in this article.

“At some point, all our movies suck–they really do,” he says of the journey through the creative process. In another portion, he says, “[A movie is] a baby….we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it’s not attractive, and it requires protection.”

Toy Story, ugly? Yep. The Incredibles, ugly? Yep. Finding Nemo?! Yes.

Writing a novel is not much different. First draft. Ugly. So ugly. Not-even-gonna-show-your-mom ugly. This is usually when the voices start screaming in your head to quit, to hide the manuscript, to burn that piece of crap!

Don’t listen.

As I work through the revision process, I am seeing tons of garbage, but in the midst, I am finding gems. There are things about your story that are worth saving. There are compelling themes and images that drove you to get it down on paper in the first place.

Find those things.

Dig them up.

Hose them off.

Study them.

Then use them.

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This was a photo I took in Scotland. The artist had done this on the back of a finished painting and I just fell in love with it. It is rough, unfinished, rustic, but it draws you in all the same. No one else will see this side of the canvas, only the artist, but it is a place to begin, an inspiring moment that propels the artist forward.

These inspiring moments are your anchor, your home base from which to focus and sharpen the rest of your story. It’s okay that everything is ugly in the beginning. Besides, some may argue (and I would be among them) to start with ugly is better than not starting at all.

Don’t be afraid of ugly. The greats start with ugly, and while everyone else scoffs, they craft a masterpiece. Don’t give up.

Do you have trouble working through the “ugly” of writing to find the beautiful? What has helped you in forging through the creative process?

 

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True Grit: The Writer’s Best Friend

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I read an inspiring post by Jeff Goins recently called “The Difference Between Good Writers and Bad Writers.” You can see the whole thing here, but there was one quote in particular that stood out to me.

“[Good writers are] resigned to the fact that first drafts suck and that the true mark of a champion is a commitment to the craft. It’s not about writing in spurts of inspiration. It’s about doing the work, day-in and day-out.”

It’s definitely spring here in Portland. We’ve had a few sunny days, my electric bill is finally falling, and the trees are in full bloom. I saw the one below this morning when I pulled into work.

flowers

Writing these days has been good and I am fully immersed in the editing process. To my surprise, it isn’t nearly as awful as I thought it would be. In fact, I’m kind of enjoying myself! I love the story even more than when I first began writing it, and the characters have become comforting and familiar to me. I know their tendencies, their fears, their darkest secrets and their happiest moments, and as I edit, these things are only coming into sharper focus. In short, I guess I didn’t expect editing to be as rewarding as it has been.

Still, perseverance is playing a key part, and that’s where Jeff Goins’ quote above comes into play. In order to meet my May 31 deadline, I need to get through at least three and a half pages a day, six days a week. This is achievable, but it definitely doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.

Now that I know where I stand, I’ve got my eye on the goal. My first draft is a mess. It’s full of lousy writing, inconsistencies and lovely little rabbit trails leading nowhere, but it’s mine, and it’s finished. What sets me apart now, what sets you apart as a writer, is a dogged determination to make your piece the absolute best it can be, and then to share that finished product with the world.

Perseverance. Courage. Determination. How are you exhibiting these as you pursue the writing life today?

Why do I Write?

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This painting is my favorite piece of art that I own. I rescued it from a garage sale, proclaiming it as magnificent to many bewildered bystanders, and it now hangs in my bedroom. No one else seems to agree with my assessment, but that’s okay. In my opinion, it’s imaginative, and the Alice in Wonderland quality of it makes me happy.

mushroomies

I feel this way with writing sometimes. Well, maybe a lot of the time. Others may not understand, they may not see why you sit hunched over your computer day after day, banging away at the keyboard like a crazed looney. Once they see your work, they may not even ‘get it.’ It seems like an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears with very little to show for your pain.

So, why write?

1) For Happiness – like my mushroom painting, no one else has to understand it. That painting simply makes me happy and that is enough. The best by-product of pursuing the writing life is that I derive happiness from the ritual of writing on a regular basis.

2) For Understanding – Flannery O’ Connor once said “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Yes! In writing, there is processing, and this is glorious. When I write, the ‘real me’ comes out, the one that is tumbling around inside my head all day needing to escape.

3) For Others – Have you ever thought about the fact that certain people need to hear the stories you have to share? My writing is not all about me. The power of sharing what I write can create an amazing ripple effect in people’s lives.

Why do you write? I’d love to hear about the core motivations that keep you returning to the desk day after day!

Also, I just updated my Resources Page, so feel free to have a peek!

 

 

First Draft? Check.

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Today, I finished the first draft of my current novel. I could wax eloquent about how it’s been quite a struggle and I fought my way through to glory and blah, blah, blah, but honestly, I know how much work is ahead of me in revision, so I’ll spare you the victory dance. Instead, I’ll just make this face:

photofinish

Yes, I am excited. I started this draft in earnest the first week of December and I’ve worked steadily since that time to get it done. I finished four days after the original deadline I set myself.

Now, I have another deadline ahead of me: May 31. This is the day I want to complete revisions and ship this baby. Will I make it? I intend to, and saying it out loud(or writing it out loud, whatever) certainly adds a weight of accountability.

On that note, don’t shy away from setting deadlines for yourself as a writer. Why?

1) There’s a visible completion point. Chances are, you’ll be more likely to stay committed if there’s a sunset to it, even if it’s a momentary sunset (like mine today). There’s nothing worse than working on into infinity with no real sense of imminent completion.

2) You’re practicing for the writer’s reality. If you’re paid for your writing, you almost always work with a deadline. Why not practice putting the heat on yourself before someone else is doing it for you?

3) You’re able to measure your progress. I may be nerdy that way, but I love breaking stuff up and being able to see success one completed chunk at a time.

Joe Bunting has a great article about finishing writing projects through deadlines here at The Write Practice if you’re interested. Great stuff!

How have you achieved success in your writing through deadlines? Feel free to share in the comments!

Tunnel Vision: How the Successful Writer Thinks

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I was talking with a friend the other day who was explaining her husband’s unfolding career path. He still has quite a chunk of school ahead of him, as well as internships, paperwork, interviews and exams. At the end, he will (hopefully) land his dream job.

“Well,” I said in response, “At least there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Yes,” she replied. “But more important, it’s a good tunnel.”

beachie

Profound. Her response immediately made me think of the writing journey. So often as writers, we make the mistake of thinking only of the light at the end of the tunnel. When we finish this draft, when we get published, when we make a name for ourselves, when we can support ourselves fully through writing, then all of this will be worth it.

Guess what? It’s worth it anyway.

If you take any sort of serious stab at writing, you find out quick that most of your journey as a writer is lived in the tunnel. You are constantly creating, typing, revising, thinking, dreaming, scribbling and just generally working away. No blaring trumpets, no big parades, no feature articles and no glamorous photo shoots. Just plain old work.

But there is vision to be found in the tunnel.

Greatness is forged in those moments when you don’t feel like writing and you do it anyway, when you have enough courage to share your work with others, and when you wrestle to find exactly the right words in your fourth revision. You are doing the hard work that qualifies you to tell the world “I am a writer.”

Remember, the destination is to be celebrated, but the journey is to be embraced. Regardless of whether or not we reach the destinations we dream of, it’s a good tunnel. I want to keep writing through it, and I hope you do too.

What inspiration have you found in the midst of your writing journey when things are tough or unglamorous? Leave a comment to encourage others!

 

February Reading

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Well, Dad and I are at it again. We compared notes at the end of February, and this time, I’m proud to say, I was the victor! In case you missed last month, my dad and I are doing a 2014 reading contest. At the end of every month, we compare page counts and see who finished out the month ahead. Technically, I think he’s still ahead of me because of how much he read in January, but I’m choosing to ignore that little technicality for now.

Are you making time for reading as a writer? This is so critical. It is a daily challenge for me, because especially at night, when I’m tired and I’ve had a long day, it’s just easier to sit in front of a screen and zone out. But this is poison to us as writers. Hear the words of writer Lauren B. Davis:

“Read. READ EVERYTHING. I can’t tell you how many students show up in my classes wanting to be writers, but when I ask them what they read, tell me “Oh, I don’t read much.” Good Lord. Then you aren’t a writer.”

Ouchie. If you want to read the full interview, go here to Advice to Writers (which is a great website from Jon Winokur, by the way).

So, how do you make yourself read, even when you don’t feel like it? How has reading helped refuel your “creative juices” for writing? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.