Tag Archives: creativity

Quote for the Day

“Nothing will stop you from being creative as effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”

–John Cleese

How’s that for a piece of insight from a highly creative actor and writer? Fear is an enormous barrier, a hindrance that some of us never seem to move past. It doesn’t just affect newbies writing their first few stories. It can strike a writer at any time, at any stage in a professional career.

Let’s say you’re inspired by a new plot idea, one that excites you. As you plot it, however, doubts creep in. Is this plausible? Yeah, seems to be. Can I do it? Not sure, but I think so. Has anything like it been done before? Not that I recall. Is there a market for it? Uh, maybe not. Should I try it? Probably not. Why did I think it would work? No editor is going to buy this. Better put it aside for now.

How many good story ideas are lost forever because we’re afraid to write them? If they’re new and truly different, they don’t fit the market. And so we back away. Or we follow editorial hesitation and abandon what might make us a star.

Every huge hit or new genre in commercial fiction begins because a writer dared to be different.

Tom Clancy was an insurance guy that channeled his obsession with all things military into a novel that he wrote in his basement in his spare time. It was an era when the U.S. military was understaffed and underfunded. It had acquired a reputation for ineptitude. It was struggling and unappreciated. But Clancy dared to be different. He admired our people in uniform and wanted to celebrate what our military did right. Whether he ignored his fears or was unaware of the market, he wrote The Hunt for Red October and pushed it into the market in an unconventional way. It worked. The military embraced it first, then President Reagan read and praised it. Which meant every CO of every American military base read it. Word of mouth spread to the general public, and Clancy’s career was launched.

Jim Butcher admired the novels of Laurell K. Hamilton back in the fledgling days of urban fantasy. He wanted very much to emulate what she was doing, yet he came up with his own unique spin by inventing a wizard private detective. He combined noir mystery with fantasy, and forged a successful path for himself.

Alexander McCall Smith spent many years living in Botswana. After returning to Scotland, he created a female detective called Precious Ramotswe, the first lady PI in her community. Her cases are entwined with philosophical musings and ethical dilemmas; that, plus the African setting, are unlike anything else out there. Smith’s fans are now legion.

If any of these authors had allowed fear or doubt to hold them back, think of our loss.

I realize a lot of writing advice–mine included–focuses on the market, its ever-changing trends, and what editors or readers want. That’s necessary but writers also have to be willing to take risks and write what lies inside them. It is never easy. It can be downright scary, but even so, we have to trust ourselves and our innate story sense.

As for fear of the writing itself … years ago, I tried to coach a student with considerable talent, but she had made up her mind that every word she wrote had to be perfect. She was determined that her “first novel” be of bestseller quality. Now any writer should know that a first draft is a rough draft. It’s not precious. It’s not perfect. It will undergo many changes, tweaks, or rewrites before it’s ready to put before the public. Stubbornly, however, she clung to her fear of failure. She clung so hard that she could not accept constructive criticism or feedback of any kind. She wrote one chapter and quit, driven away by her fear of writing anything she perceived to be a mistake.

My view is, how can you ever learn or improve if you’re afraid to make mistakes? You have to try, fall short, try again, still fall short, keep trying in new ways, until you master it.

Years ago, I watched my small puppy try to climb the back porch steps. He happened to be a problem-solving breed, independent and stubborn. He made up his doggie mind that he would climb those steps. But his legs were too short. He could stretch enough to place his front paws on the bottom step, but he couldn’t wiggle the rest of himself onto it. So he would jump and jump with his hindquarters, to no avail. Except the following week–still trying–he got a hind foot on the step and was up. He had grown a little bigger and a little stronger. He immediately reached for the second step of three, and fell through the gap in the boards. Once he regained his breath from that thump, he went at it again. My point is that he never gave up until he mastered those steps. He was not afraid to fail, and he stuck with his objective until he achieved it.

When doubts sprout in your mind like weeds, what is their source? Is it the voice of some family member that has mocked you for even daring to dream of writing? Is it a memory of someone in a critique group that brutally eviscerated you in front of everyone? Is it your own inner critic at work–tearing you down psychologically before you have a chance to try?

Who–and what–holds you back?

And when–and how–will you break free?

As Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously said in his first inaugural address:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”




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Time to Trust

All summer, I’ve been busy working on a book on plotting. As I’ve pondered, analyzed, and explained technique for this manuscript, I realized how easy it can be to over-think fiction. Sometimes, you simply have to back up . . . and let go.

Usually novice writers start out by falling in love with fiction. We absorb books like plants do water and sunshine. Then there comes a day when we decide we’ll write our own stories. Our imagination is teeming. We’re excited. We throw ourselves into our fledgling effort and either zoom to the end–yippee!–or we hit a stumbling block and stall out.

Wannabe writers who zoom along with no awareness of problems often become what I call scribblers. They write effortlessly and heedlessly, oblivious to their mistakes, and happily create drivel in the certainty they’re producing terrific stuff. With such hobbyists, I wish them well but hope they never seek publication.

Other beginners, however, realize quickly that there’s an entire universe of things they don’t know. They falter and stop, overwhelmed by the enormity of what they need to learn.

Of this second group, some pull themselves together and seek training or continue to hunt and peck their way through exploration and discovery. The rest declare writing to be too hard and drop out.

Those who keep trying by joining writers groups, taking writing classes, networking, seeking mentors, and devouring books on writing while generating story after story will improve. Their hard work will pay off, eventually.

But sometimes the determination to learn so much and to overcome difficulties can lead to over-thinking. The placement of every comma; the heroine’s dialogue rewritten and read aloud and rewritten, rewritten, polished, tightened, rewritten and rewritten; the worry over how a subplot is going; the concern that several scenes aren’t quite right, etc. can all lead to a hyper-critical state that becomes counterproductive.

You can become so conscious, so aware, of the process that you make the mistake of trying to control it. And that’s not what pros do. Instead, they trust.

Learning and mastering technique is important because it helps you navigate the challenges of awkward plots and difficult characters. Knowing what you’re doing gives you confidence. Best of all, as Ray Bradbury pointed out, once you’ve mastered technique you don’t have to consciously think about it anymore and you can then concentrate on your story.

Therefore, relax. Accept that the process will always get you there. Learn to trust it and let go, the way when swimming you trust the buoyancy of water so you can float. Allow your story to unfold without agonizing over every word. Write the rough draft from a spirit of fun. Believe in your idea. Follow through with it and stick with what you’ve planned, but allow for little quirks and the extras that are going to occur to you when you’re in the flow.

The actual creation of rough draft should not be censored, criticized, second-guessed, or analyzed as you go. That’s too restrictive, and it will hinder you so much that you may develop writer’s block. You should never attempt to edit yourself while you’re creating. As I’ve said many times, the editing function and the creative function operate in separate brain hemispheres, and the human brain is not designed to utilize both hemispheres simultaneously. Work on one function at a time.

When an idea comes to you, embrace it and indulge it at first. Then analyze and test it. Send it back to the idea-maker and create anew. Then analyze and examine it as much as you need to until you have a solid outline. That’s what you trust–all the upfront work to check plausibility, check feasibility, check plot holes, fix plot holes, think and tweak, etc., until you have a solid plan. Then close your doubts and uncertainty, and just write.

Write with all your heart–not your mind. Write fast. Write passionately. Write until you barely know who you are when you leave the keyboard. Live with your characters. Be your characters. And wear their skin through every scene as it unfolds. Don’t look at them from some remote and safe vantage point. Stand in the dusty crossroads as war refugees trudge along. Smell the dust and fear. Listen to the rumble of trucks and the distant pounding of artillery too far away to see. Feel the beating of your heart. Clutch that silly candlestick that belonged to Aunt Ziva, the one that’s stood on the mantel as long as you can remember. It’s now a symbol of home, all you have left. Hang onto it. Don’t drop it because if you do, you’ll somehow lose connection with the past, with family, with memories of when life was happy, and with any hope that life one day will be good again.

When you’ve finished the rough draft, you can once more put on your editor’s hat. You can think, criticize, revise, and pick at it until it’s tight, clear, and riveting. Just remember that when you revise, be honest. Did you come close to what you planned initially? Or did you fall seriously short?

If you made technical mistakes or lost your way through part of the manuscript, trust the process you’ve learned and fix the errors. Then step back, say “good enough,” and let the story live. Don’t kill it by polishing the zest and breath from it.

Plan. Trust. Write. Fix. Believe. Submit.

It’s never easy. But it really is that simple.




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Superstitions and Rituals

Do writers need these? Do they work? Are they important? Why do they matter? What’s the difference between them? How can they do harm?

Superstition is when one believes–without proof or a clear connection–that a certain object or behavior will bring either good or bad luck. For example, a tennis player who always wears a particular shirt when competing in important matches.

I used to avoid writing a dedication to any manuscript I was selling on spec. Once I sold the book to a publisher, then I would add the dedication or acknowledgment page during production. I developed this superstition early in my career because one or two manuscripts with dedications never found a publisher. It was silly, of course, and this superstition went away once I began to land book contracts on the basis of proposals instead of submitting complete manuscripts. In other words, I outgrew that superstition.

As long as a superstition is harmless, it can remain private or become an anecdote at parties. But if a writer allows superstition to interfere with writing production, marketing, or professionalism, it becomes another matter, one that requires investigation and possibly eradication.

Let’s say a writer develops an aversion to writing on cloudy days–and happens to live in an area of heavy rainfall. I’d say something psychological is going on. Is the writer in question just procrastinating?

One of the most charming superstitions I’ve encountered is a man who liked to write his book outline on index cards, and his wife would give him a new fountain pen at the start of each project, saying “Your next bestseller is inside this pen.”

Ritual is habitual behavior organized around a specific purpose. We’re told that–besides a supportive and comfortable mattress–achieving a good night’s sleep involves a regular bedtime, shutting down TV and all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, dimming the lights, bathing, reading, etc.

In much the same way, rituals help writers to focus their thoughts as they prepare for their day’s writing session. Whether it’s brewing a cup of coffee, lighting a scented candle, going for a walk, putting on favorite music,  or rereading yesterday’s work, a simple activity repeated each day becomes a habit and trains us to set aside distractions and commence.

For example, Balzac is said to have oriented his desk in a certain direction. Other authors–in the days before computers and word processing–used rituals such as cleaning their typewriters, sharpening pencils, filling fountain pens with ink, and changing their blotter paper. Such mundane tasks required little attention, allowing the imagination to wander back to whatever scene was in progress.

Today, some of my  rituals include waiting for my ancient, wheezing computer to grind, thump, and growl itself to readiness–along with what seems to be an unnecessary amount of beeping and clacking from the printer–switching off my cell phone so some random text message doesn’t blow apart the perfect line of dialogue I’m about to write for my protagonist, switching on the lamps in my home office for optimal task and ambient lighting, and making sure my dogs have had their chance to visit the backyard.

What I don’t want to do is check my emails or text messages. That activity doesn’t work for me when I’m preparing to write. It provides a distraction, not a focus. It shifts my mind from creativity to responsivity. I can look at messages after I’ve written, when I need a break and want to think about something other than my characters or setting. Other writers, however, may need to check their messages first simply to get them out of the way. But for me, just as I don’t want to scroll through Facebook or work email  before I go to bed, neither do I want to deliberately distract my thoughts before I write.

You no doubt know already what works best for you versus what gives you an excuse to dodge that knotty plot problem you can’t seem to solve.

Productive rituals, good habits, self-honesty, and harmless superstitions equal a happy, working writer.

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Passing Along Inspiration


Instead of yet another post in my meandering series on what shatters a reader’s suspension of disbelief, today I am sharing a link to a “Brain Pickings” newsletter article. it was passed along to me by a former writing student, Steven Thorn, and it conveys its nine points far more eloquently than I could.

May you be inspired today, if only through acknowledging your worth and creativity. Remember always that you have value, and believe in what you can do.




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Roaming Writer

As a writer, I’m always seeking a new, fresh experience — which can be as simple as leaving my house, my home office, and getting away from my computer. Routines, while effective, can tend to become ruts. It’s important to borrow a bit from Taylor Swift and “shake it off.” In this context, however, shake off the staid and mundane things once in a while. You don’t have to invest in a trip to Paris — although what an inspiration! Just get out and see with a different perspective — even if it’s only taking an alternate route home.

I spent Memorial Day 2015 returning from the land of cotton to the open prairies. I was driving a vintage pickup and pulling a trailer along miles and miles of lowest-bid built interstate highways, listening to whatever tolerable music I could tune up on the FM, non-satellite radio. Give me pop; give me bluegrass; give me R&B; give me funk, or give me Mozart, but I can’t abide most rap, and that seemed to be my choice other than modern country music or classic country. I chose the classic, because it was featuring a lot of boot-scooting and/or patriotic songs, and it reminded me of my childhood when I learned to listen to George Jones whether I wanted to or not.

My favorite tune of the day was Elvis belting out “Dixie.” It’s wonderful, but it also seemed right while I was driving along the top of a levee road and gazing across flooded fields, out-of-bounds rivers, and swampy woods that only ticks and chiggers could love.

Now I haven’t pulled a trailer since my teenage days of showing horses on the itty-bitty local saddle club circuit, so I was definitely rusty and taking extreme care with a twelve-foot U-Haul filling my rear-view mirror. I wasn’t sure how Ole Red would handle a big trailer either. Back in the day, this Ford could pull anything, but the pickup is four years shy of becoming an official automotive antique and hasn’t towed since its operation (emergency installation of a new engine). It did fine, especially once I crossed the state line and could buy real gasoline instead of ethanol. Since I was trying to scoot into central Oklahoma before the late-afternoon boil of severe thunderstorms, heavy rainfall, and/or tornado activity — the delays caused by wimpy fuel due to poor acceleration, struggling wallows over hills, and more frequent stops to refill — proved exasperating. Still, with real gas finally in the tank, Ole Red was able to zip out of range of a tornado roaming the east side of the state, and then there was only a severe thunderstorm to hunker through on the roadside shoulder before cruising on home.

In between these modest highlights of my day-long road trip, I had plenty of time to think about plot and characters.

Bing! I have a new protagonist for a new spin-off science fiction series.

Bing! I figured out how to simplify and shorten the storyline for my current fantasy project, in case I don’t want to write yet another trilogy.

Bing! In my head, I wrote a new scene to be inserted into my WIP.

So although it’s easy to pull my introverted-writer card and shy away from anything that might draw me from the comfort zone of my computer and imagination, I took on a physical challenge and vanquished it. I managed to thread my trailer through the hazards of fast-food parking. I met a delightful couple by sharing a table at a super-busy Braum’s where there weren’t enough tables for the crowd of holiday travelers. I even chatted with these folks and learned that there are no summer mosquitoes in Mount Nebo, Arkansas, which was where they were planning to spend a few days in a lake cabin. Who knew there were any mosquito-free zones in Dixie?

Now how could a day be more productive than that? I just wish I’d thought to attach a US flag on the truck to honor America’s fallen warriors.

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Creativity Beyond Words

This past weekend, I took a break away from my newest fiction project and attended a vintage market show. I didn’t go to buy. I went to walk around and see what imaginative and creative people who aren’t writers are doing.

Now, I go to antiques shows a few times a year, but this was different. I expected to see painted furniture, but aside from that I found vintage doll heads stuck atop lamp bases with tiny crowns made of marbles. I found wreaths made of cotton bolls. I found handmade primitive dolls. I found rusty tractor parts, chairs with ripped seats, salvaged hardware bits and bobs, and light fixtures made from old galvanized roof turbines.

(Did I take any pictures? Alas, no. The crowds were thick, and frankly I was too busy ogling and goggling to remember to snap pictures.)

I wanted to observe what people bought and what they might use their purchases for. After all, I keep hearing about the trend of repurposing from blogs and television. So what exactly, I wondered, were people doing and with what?

I saw customers gravitating toward antique typewriters and wooden shipping crates. I saw them caressing rusty lamps, murmuring over whether they could find someone to do rewiring. I saw them pondering the selection of chalk-type paints in one booth. I saw them deliberating over whether to buy signage.

But mainly I saw folks fingering random pieces of hardware, playing pieces salvaged from games, odd forks in tarnished silver, clock faces, old apothecary bottles, and rusty industrial springs. They were curious and obviously fascinated, but booth after booth seemed to offer more items to make things with than pieces reflecting actual imaginative re-use.

Mainly, it seemed to be less a venue of artistry and craftsmanship, and more a supply source.

As I was picking out some outdoor faucet handles — things that used to be in every garage sale and have now practically vanished — the vendor was asking me what I would use them for. Surely, I thought, you should be showing new uses to me.

But perhaps my expectations were off-base. All I know is that the place quivered with possibility. On every shelf, and at every turn, I saw the capacity for inventiveness just waiting to be seized. Table legs and wooden spindles … what can be made from them? What might be done with them?

The feet salvaged from an old clawfoot bath tub … could they be turned upside down to become bookends?

Looking at things from different angles and new perspectives, what a terrific exercise in imagination! Can an empty clock cabinet become a display case? Can a bed be re-carpentered into a bench? Can a battered piece of industrial iron become a work of art?

It’s so refreshing to move away from the abstraction of words from time to time and consider other means of self-expression. Besides, you never know what might spark a new story idea.

For example, I collect old nineteenth-century photos, also known as cabinet cards. I particularly like wedding photos.

These are what I purchased:

couple 1

couple 2

couple 3

On one level, the clothes fascinate me. Who is the most stylish couple? Only one bride is wearing the type of wedding dress and veil our modern perceptions might expect to see. couple 1The other young women are attired in finery, but not what we would consider bridal gowns. Look at the grooms with their well-cut suits and fine cravats.

On another level, I like to study their faces. Body language is difficult to decipher because of the stiff poses required by photographic methods of the day. But one couple is holding hands.couple 2

One couple has linked arms.couple 3

And one couple is standing stiffly side by side with only their elbows touching.couple 1

Fashionable poses? Or can we surmise stories about them and their relationships?

My other treasure (besides faucet handles) is this green glass doorknob.green door knob Is it authentically vintage or a reproduction? I’ve seen clear glass knobs and those sun-turned a delicate lavender tint, but I have never encountered an emerald green one before. Real or phony, it’s beautiful. I have no idea of what I’ll do with it, but I love it anyway.

green door knob

Who knows? Perhaps one day it will inspire a story about the fabled emeralds of some magical kingdom.


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Read 100

There is light at the end of my tunnel. I can look ahead past the stacks of student manuscripts and deadlines to a summer where my time is my own.

My imagination is presently staggering, malnourished and underfed. It craves vitamins and nutrients. It craves fun, creativity, good story, fast pacing, involving characters — all the elements it hasn’t been receiving in sufficient quantities lately.

Therefore, I plan to feed it by reading at least 100 books this summer. I hope the number will far exceed that, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve never been a bean counter. Any past attempts to document my reading through listing the titles and plot summaries in some kind of diary have usually fallen by the wayside. I know I read a lot, but I never know how much. As long as I’m getting through at least one or two novels a week, I’m happy.

However, I want to be better organized than this, so I propose to go through my house and gather up 100 novels that I haven’t read as yet. All those to-be stacks of books spilling off the tops of overloaded bookshelves and stacked beneath chairs … time to pull them out, dust them off, and crack them open.

I think I’ll corral them in a large plastic tub and park it in the living room. If I start a book and dislike it enough to toss it aside after the first few pages, then it won’t count toward my quota. If I should empty the tub before the end of summer, then I’ll refill it with another 100 books and keep going.

Too ambitious?

I have no idea. I keep thinking back to my childhood, when I spent most summer days reading one to two books daily. I don’t intend to shoot for THAT, but the well needs filling and I aim to do it the best way I know how.

Meanwhile, there are new books to be chased down and captured as well. John Sandford’s new Prey title was released today. And the latest Miss Julia offering from Ann B. Ross came out earlier this month. My fingers are itching to order heaps of tomes. I visited bookstores three times this past weekend, racing up and down aisles with a sense of joy and abandon, surrounded by books on all sides.

During the past few months, I have been restricted on book purchases. Nothing like paying off the bills for eye surgery to dent one’s bank balance. But although this weekend I meant to buy only one book because payday cometh soon, I couldn’t quite achieve such self-discipline. Let’s just say I managed to get out of the store with only two sacks full of reading material, my credit card groaning all the way. How I wanted more!

What are your reading plans for the summer? Right now, I’m heading for the bookstore with maybe a detour past the library.


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In Search of a Giant

Some days, you think your morning is going to be yet another ordinary experience, and then–from the blue, bam!–a sentence rocks your world.

Today before breakfast I was reading the October issue of English Home Magazine because
1) They still have content, unlike all too many American magazines;
2) They still serve up huge, luscious photography instead of tiny, thumb-print sized pics increasingly prevalent in American magazines;
3) They still seem to believe their readers possess intelligence and education;
4) They are MAGAZINES, not imitators of blogs;
5) They usually ignite my imagination in some unexpected, serendipitous way.

While reading the Mrs. Minerva column–one of my favorite features within English Home, incidentally–I came across a nugget of sheer creative gold. It was a sentence casually suggesting that parents take their children to see St. Michael’s Mount. There, the author mentioned, you pause on the heart-shaped stone in the causeway to listen to the giant’s heart beating beneath the sea.

Whoosh! My imagination caught fire. I gobbled my breakfast, raced to work on my usual commute, fired off my usual pre-lecture emails faster than usual, and as soon as my first class ended, I switched on Google to run a search.

St. Michael’s Mount is located in Cornwall. The National Trust’s Website calls it “the jewel in Cornwall’s crown.” The Mount is a hill rising out of the sea just off the shoreline. The castle atop it dates back to the 14th century, although the site was an important port as long ago as the Iron Age and a chapel was built on the Mount in the 11th century. Also in the 11th century, a tsunami flooded the Cornish shore with the sea engulfing woodlands and creating the present-day configuration of the island.

History is always fascinating to me, and although normally that alone would set my heart beating a little quicker, today it was the giant I wanted, the legend. Not tsunamis or granite outcroppings.

Turns out, this is where the legend of Jack the Giant Killer started. A giant named Cormoran lived on the Mount. Every day or so, when the tide ran out, Cormoran would wade ashore from the island and steal cows and sheep from the local fields. One night, while Cormoran slept, a boy named Jack rowed out to the island and dug a deep pit on one side of the Mount. At dawn, he blew his horn and woke up Cormoran. As the giant ran down the hillside, the rising sun dazzled him. He failed to see Jack or the pit and fell in or was bludgeoned in, never to trouble the village again. In gratitude, the village gave Jack a sword and belt, the latter embroidered with
“This is the valiant Cornishman
Who slew the Giant Cormoran”

When people ask me how I develop ideas into plots, this kind of thing is often how I start. A snippet, a fragment, a phrase comes my way and ignites my imagination.

Now, having spent my spare moments today reading the ancient nursery rhyme about Jack the Giant Killer and gleaning through several variations of the legend I summarized above, I have no intention of recreating the legend in some fantasy novel. Nor do I want to write it as a deconstructed fairy tale. Charles de Lint has already done a wonderful job of that with his Canadian story of a girl called Jack and boggarts who ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

I’m less interested in the actual legend now that I’ve read it, and more intrigued by that image of a child pausing partway to the castle and listening to the shifting restless waves for a giant’s heartbeat.

The online site Ancestry.com says there’s a stone shaped like a heart lying on the path above the well. Generations of children have been told to put their hand on their heart so they can feel the giant’s heart beating. Uh, duh, I guess they will.

Somehow, I like the image of the child pausing on the causeway better.

Where will I go with that? I don’t know as yet.

Do I have a plot? Not yet. None of this is even a premise.

What grabs me is the innocence and wonder within a young child–one not yet spoiled by electronic toys and the endless pulses, beats, and yammer of our modern age. Modern parents cram young children’s lives with gadgets that fill in colors on a screen as the little one simply pushes buttons. No matter what the experts and toy designers may say, I think that such widgets and whizzbang boopity-boop on batteries succeed only in suppressing imagination.

But here is a little girl or a little boy, not yet caught by the ennui of modern childhood. A child clutching an adult hand, stopping obediently to listen. Can’t you see her face, eyes slightly unfocused in concentration before they suddenly flare in wonder? The child has heard it, whether that “it” is an actual sound or one born of sheer imagination. It doesn’t matter because in that instant, the child believes. And that, my fellow writers, is the enchantment.

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Creative Gold

I always think of October as “the golden month,” probably because of the quality of sunlight. It changes to a mellow radiance that, combined with the wide blue skies of the prairie, makes me very happy. Some of you are lucky enough to live where the trees are turning color. Here, where we probably won’t have a frost for another month, when a tree turns yellow in October we have to wonder, is it turning … or dying from heat and drought?

I grew up in a southern state with bounteous rainfall. I had woods to play in as a child, and my favorite trees in autumn were hickories because they turned bright yellow and white oaks because their leaves turned scarlet. Then there were the little pops of orange from sassafras saplings–how I loved to snap off a twig and chew on the flavorful bark–and the bright red of sumac.
Tennessee river

fall landscape3

Around here, I get my fall tree fix from driving through some of the older neighborhoods where folks have planted non-indigenous trees and nourished/pampered them through sometimes brutal climate into stately monarchs of the boulevard. Instead of hickory trees, there are ginkos to provide bright yellow. Instead of white oaks, there are the massive, spreading shumard oaks that offer a dark, rich crimson. Good enough!

My biggest regret about October is that I miss so many days outdoors due to being locked inside at work. (And, no, my boss doesn’t incarcerate me. It just feels that way!) Still, there are evenings and weekends to savor as much of the glory as I can.

The cooler temps bring on the last big flush from the roses and raise my energy level. I can’t help but see my surroundings with fresh eyes.

Jefferson rose

front rose

The weather change also starts my creative juices flowing. My brain is teeming with book ideas–at least six on the burner right now, ready for me to choose one and start developing a plot from it.

I’m also fired up about landscaping. There’s the barren spot left behind by my beloved Linda Campbell rose bush. I want to plant spring bulbs, but it’s too early here. November is the best time for me to plant tulips since at present the ground is still too warm. (It’s always a gray day in late November, when the wind is howling at near-gale force, my nose is frozen, and I ask myself with every jab of my trowel what was I thinking to order an extra bag of daffodils.)

Still, while I wait for colder weather, I can’t resist doing something in the dirt. Yesterday I bought pansies and coneflowers. Anything at this point to take the space away from the milkweed and dock that persist in claiming Linda C’s spot.


Beyond my ideas for gardening and decorating the front porch–yes, I’m searching for a grand but cheap pumpkin–I’m thinking ahead to Christmas. It’s time to pull out the tubs containing all the stuff I bought last year at 90 percent off and create those garlands I saw in a magazine. Yesterday I found white wreaths at Michael’s, which means I don’t have to buy a green one and spray paint it white. Hurray! I want it to make a 4th of July wreath for next summer. As for Halloween, which is fast approaching, somewhere I’ve stashed a handful of craft paint bottles–their colors carefully chosen for painting a plaster skull in hues of mold and decay. Granted, I could have spent $5 and purchased a Styrofoam skull already looking grungy and creepy, but it’s not as much fun as painting one myself. If only I could find the paint! And where is that dratted skull? Probably tucked away in a box in the guest room.

skull craft

About three years ago, I stumbled upon a vast architectural table at a garage sale, managed to drag it home in a borrowed pickup, and installed it in my garage to use as a work table for sewing and creative projects. Of course, in my home any horizontal surface becomes piled with all sorts of objects–including stacks and heaps of books. At the moment, there isn’t even a corner of this table clear for use. But I need it, which means either holding a garage sale of my own or scrounging boxes and filling them up. Because, besides painting, scattering glitter, and sniping florist wire, I need to make curtain valances for several of my windows and this surface is large enough for cutting out fabric.

How many years have I now lived in this house, and the windows still aren’t dressed beyond utilitarian blinds?

If all of this sounds deranged, it’s only the way creative minds work. The process of making something is so appealing that it’s easy to forget a simpler, quicker solution is waiting in a store to be purchased, slapped in place, and done.

But what’s the fun in that?

However, by the time I tackle even a fourth of all these projects–realistically perhaps only an eighth of them–when will there be time to write?

Ah … but you see, these wonderful projects–from landscaping to sewing–are simply ways to allow my imagination free rein. It needs to play so that it will willingly serve up good ideas for the manuscript page. I know writers who make collages or dabble in mixed-media art for the same purpose. When creative juices are flowing elsewhere than the computer keyboard, the imagination blossoms. And then you can channel it productively once more toward plot ideas and lively characters.

Which means there’s a good chance that the plastic tubs holding my Christmas garland-making supplies will probably stay where they are for yet another year. But ssh! We won’t let my imagination know that yet.

roses morning glories


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Digging Holes

The cool spring weather of last week had me busy planting roses, pulling weeds, chopping down overgrown shrubs, doing battle with a briar overtaking my backyard flowerbed, and shifting daylilies and iris to new locations. I haven’t dug any holes in a year. It was last Memorial Day weekend when I injured my back and was ordered to move as little as possible for most of Summer 2013.

Yet finally, improved health and this lovely spring weather (so rare here on the prairie) have combined to rekindle my love of gardening.

While I was cautiously digging holes–tentatively at first, then with increased confidence–something wonderful happened. Hot and snagged by established, overgrown roses, I dug to the correct depth and width for nursery-potted rosebushes. I was slow and out of practice. Strapped in a back-brace, I was afraid I would undo months of slow-mending, yet everything held together. And during this slow, steady physical labor, I reconnected with the special mind-zone that’s generated by doing mundane chores.

Why are simple, repetitive tasks so conducive to creativity? Why does digging a hole or raking leaves or sweeping floors unchain our imaginations?

No doubt the psychologists have fancy terms for this effect. All I know is that it works.

When I was in high school–dreaming every day of becoming a published novelist–I would be roused early by my father and sent outdoors to exercise my horse. An empty lot adjacent to our house provided me with space enough to ride in a large circle–roughly the size of a small horse-show arena. Because I competed with my horse–strictly in a small, local show circuit–it was necessary to put him through his gaits and keep him in training. And while I loved to ride, it was boring going around and around that circle.

Yet my mind was free to roam as far as my imagination would take me. I plotted many stories during those morning rides. I plotted more stories while I folded laundry or scrubbed out the bathtub or groomed my horse or mucked out his stall.

There’s a famous quote from Agatha Christie about how the best time to plot stories is while doing the dishes. I’ve done that, too, in the days when my house lacked a dishwasher.

In our busy modern lives, however, we lack enough boredom–the kind that supports plotting and designing characters. There’s so much to do now. Such a barrage of multi-tasking, decisions, social media, and work responsibilities … so many types of entertainment–often inside our phones for the easiest, most convenient availability.

Tell me, when you’re sitting at your mechanic’s, waiting for an oil change, can you leave your phone in your pocket? My car dealership is so fancy that it features several huge televisions, a café, and a gift shop to keep customers happy while waiting. But if I watch Judge Judy or Rachel Ray, when can I think about my book?

As writers, we need to guard against watching TV on our phones or surfing through hundreds of channels on cable when we have nothing else to do. I’m not opposed to either of those forms of entertainment. I’m just saying that as writers, we need to be bored … and often.

Otherwise, when are we going to devise that next plot twist or mull over a scene we just finished typing? When do we have those windows of time where nothing is really happening?

We need that space, those spans of nothing going on, so that our characters can speak and dance and argue, sending us running to our keyboards to write.

I’m no dazzling housekeeper, and while I love to plant flowers I loathe weeding. I hire a man to mow my grass these days, and I dream often of hiring a cleaning service.

Yet, if I acquire such luxuries, or even if I rely on a Roomba to whisper along my floors, when will I plot?

At the keyboard, you may suggest.

No! Not then. The keyboard represents writing time, precious time that should be spent writing what’s already been planned out mentally.

And if I have to buy eleven new rose bushes just to dig enough holes to work out my new plotline, then it’s money well spent.


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