Using NaNoWriMo as a Creative Support

NanowrimoLogoUsing NaNoWriMo as a support, this month I’m setting up a routine that will really nurture my writing life. For those of you who are not familiar with it, National Novel Writing Month (which is a misnomer since NaNoWriMo is quite international) is a non-profit organization which supports writers both new and experienced, encouraging them to write the first draft of a novel—at least 50,000 words—in one month. NaNoWriMo gives writers all kinds of resources and encouragement to write, and with very active writing forums, it is a great place to connect with other writers.

NaNoWriMo is a real commitment, as 50,000 words in a month breaks down to a daily goal of 1,667 words a day. It’s not undoable for me to hit that daily goal by any means, but even during my strongest writing times, I can rarely take the time to write first-draft work seven days a week.

It’s particularly important to me in my new writing apostolate that I nurture creativity, because it seems that initially much of my writing is going to be short pieces, on-assignment, without much narrative to them. While this requires effort, craft, and creativity, it’s not the same for me as writing the longer, deeper, and narrative-driven pieces, which are both harder to write and feel more to the “core” of my God-given mission as a writer.

I will be called on to do this deeper writing, yet actually doing it and honing my skills and creativity for it will get pushed to the side if I’m not attentive, because there’s always other “urgent” stuff to write—but being urgent doesn’t necessarily make it more important. Deeper writing also nurtures my writing craft overall, so the “everyday” kind of writing that I’m currently doing will benefit hugely.

Since my role as writer for the Digital Publishing and Pauline Studios is still developing—I have barely scratched the surface in my first month here!—I find it exciting that I can shape it around the needs of the people we are trying to reach with the Gospel. NaNoWriMo gives me the perfect opportunity to set up creative routine, providing goals, challenges, resources, and a writing community.

My Motto for NaNoWriMo 2013

My Motto for NaNoWriMo 2013

So, my plans and goals for NaNoWriMo 2013 are:

◆ Rise earlier to pray so that I can take 45-60 minutes every morning for creative writing on my NaNoWriMo project

◆ Take an hour at least 5 evenings a week for NaNoWriMo.

◆ Write creatively every day, at least 500 words. I’m not so worried about quantity as quality, which is counter to NaNoWriMo’s culture. But a low word count goal works for me. I’ve never “won” NaNoWriMo; at least one time hitting that higher word count was so problematic for me that I just gave up early in the month. At 500 words a day, my word count/goal is actually quite low: only 15,000. That doesn’t take into account the writing that I’ll be doing during my usual day, nor the evenings I’m taking to do final edits on my latest nonfiction book. My goal is to write every day, not to complete my children’s novel. But I’m actually hoping that by setting my goal so low, I’ll exceed it. Won’t that be fun! (Word wars, anybody?)

◆ I may actually try to jump into a local NaNoWriMo write-in. Now that I have moved to Boston, I have to connect with new writers. Ideally, I’d love to find or form a local writing circle—either for narrative (screenplays and novels) or for nonfiction. If anyone is in the area, let’s connect!

The NaNoWriMo widget is on the sidebar and will display my daily word count, so if you’d like, you can follow my progress. If you are doing NaNoWriMo and would like to connect, send me an email or you can find me on the NaNoWriMo site as “paulwriter.”

 

How To Maintain a Writing Focus

I am facing a relatively new challenge in my writing these days.

Usually, challenges to my writing focus more around how to delve into my writing, or how to go back and forth between the highly introverted self that is able to dig deep and write from that deep place, and the highly functional, friendly, almost-extroverted “public” self that gives lectures, plans and hosts events, leads faith and film dialogues, makes “cold calls” on the phone, etc. While I enjoy both “modes” of being, they represent extremes for me. Going back and forth between these extremes–especially when I’m writing deeply, or doing a series of workshops/lectures, is actually painful and disorienting for me. This continues to be my greatest challenge in writing–perhaps in part because I’m juggling so many deadlines as well.

This week, I have transitioned from almost two weeks of nonstop events where I’ve been my more “public” self, to a place where my introverted self can safely write more deeply–hopefully for the next two weeks. (My hope/goal this week is to write the second draft of two and half chapters of my newest book on the Eucharist.) I do not often have the opportunity to “delve deep into writing” in my day-to-day life, but the topic of my book–adoration of the Eucharist–requires a more introspective mode to write. I have to admit, I’m quite excited because out of the two “modes” of being, this mode is definitely my favorite. But two anxieties continue to hover in the back of my mind:

1. That I have nothing of value to say 

2. That I won’t be able to maintain focus and write; that my energy and focus for these two weeks, which requires intensity, depth, and long hours, are going to wear out in less than a couple of days 

Praying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit for writers: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, and knowledge.

Praying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit for writers: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, and knowledge.

The first worry is always present, something that I suspect most writers just learn to live with, and I’ve blogged about it a lot.  But the second is a relatively new concern, since I’m only used to one-day intensive writing days, or perhaps a two-day stretch. I’m thinking “onscreen” here: how can I maintain both focus and stamina in the midst of my everyday life? 

Perhaps I need to re-visit previous blog and journal entries about nurturing my writing self and the writing life. Here are a couple of things I will try…and I’ll post how it goes for me. 

1) Less is more. 

I’ve set my goal for this week, and now I need to forget it. Taking it slow has always worked for me. Even to the point that sometimes, I “waste” my first writing session by just journaling, unwinding, brainstorming. The problem is that I like to feel in control and I like to evaluate my progress constantly. But that’s not really writing, which is about listening, surrendering in the moment, and discovery. Pushing myself when I’m writing is like driving while looking behind me–not only will I be distracted, but I’ll likely crash into something.

2) Take care of myself. 

This is a requirement for most of the time that I’m writing. Writing this intensively requires that I be relatively serene, rested, nurtured, exercised–perhaps even more than usual. When I make a retreat, the first thing I make sure to do is to rest. (I even try to arrive for retreat well-rested, but if not, then I make sure to get extra sleep those first couple of days.)

3) Immersion.  

Holding my writing project gently in mind, allowing it to be always present, always “on my mind” is a great way to keep focus and to allow my subconscious thoughts and feelings about the writing to emerge. Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing. Of course, I will take breaks during the week, such as emptying my mind before I go to bed, or in chapel, or during short snacks. But in those in-between moments of my day, whether I’m stuck in traffic, taking a walk, or waiting for water to boil, I can return to this project gently.

The key for me here is to be “gentle.” What is the writing saying to me? Is the Holy Spirit inspiring me? How do I feel about the paragraph I’m working on, or the focus of this chapter?

4) Trust. 

To combat the daily, hourly, or momentary doubts that always arise during my writing, I will make a simple act of trust in the Lord. The main reason that I write is because I feel that the Lord has called me to–and in this case, I feel that the Lord has invited me to write this particular book. Never mind that I don’t feel ready, or worthy, or that I’m writing about one of the greatest mysteries of faith, a Mystery that theologians and saints have struggled to express.

My act of trust will be spontaneous, but I suspect will be something like: Jesus Master, I trust in You, in Your call to write, in Your love for me and Your presence with me. Hold me in Your Heart and inspire my every keystroke and word. I trust in You, Sacred Heart of my Master! 

The A’s of Advent for Writers: Awake

IMG_0069-2012-12-3-09-02.jpgIn St. Anthony Messenger’s Press booklet, Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr–Daily Meditations for Advent, Father Rohr uses five adjectives to describe the attitude with which we want to approach Advent: awake, aware, alert, attentive, alive. These adjectives fit very well into a writer’s approach to his or her writing as well. But my favorite adjective of the five is awake, because it encompasses the other four.

Awake: The advent of winter–for those of us in the northern hemisphere–is a powerful reminder of the changing seasons of our lives. Another year is passing! Of all the seasons in the northeast, winter is hardest to ignore. The cold invigorates. Stepping outdoors from the cozy warmth of our home immediately perks up our senses, no matter how much our shivers protest.

Advent is the Church’s invigorating call to awaken to the meaning of life, and to the invitation to eternal life with the Christ-who-comes. Every time we “wake up” to the reality of the shortness of our lives, we want to take advantage of the gift of each moment. When we reflect that Jesus is inviting us to share in the fullness of life with Him, our time here becomes not only precious, but hope-filled. We have an eternity of joy to look forward to, if we take the opportunity to get ready now.

Advent is meant to wake us up spiritually, to enliven our spiritual perception.

The awakened state of Advent helps me as a writer. Part of being a writer is striving to be always “more” awake, because sleepiness kills creativity. When I am looking for an idea, whether I’m writing an article or a chapter, what I’m really doing is hoping to be awakened. I’m looking to discover something new, to make new connections, to see a new insight. The more spiritually awake I am, the more likely I am to make a new connection or see something in a new way. Even if I am not writing specifically about faith and I’m not describing the Something More for Whom we all long, that longing for the Eternal and sense of the incompleteness of our lives is infused in my writing.

Advent reminds us that our lives here on earth are a gift for the moment and a preparation for eternal joy with God. This perspective of faith makes every moment, every detail of our lives, precious. As a writer, if I can cherish the luminosity behind the day-to-day of my life, my writing will inevitably help others to awaken to the radiance hidden in their everyday lives.

Musings with St. Paul

Monday: Musing with St. Paul  

For some reason (perhaps because Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays were already taken), our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, encouraged us to honor and pray in a particular way to St. Paul on Monday. I thought maybe I could carry that practice over into this blog into a weekly reflection. St. Paul, one of the greatest communicators who ever lived, has so much to offer us as Christian artists and communicators.

This past Sunday’s reading is from Ephesians 2:4-10. I’ve linked to my favorite translation of this passage, the New Jerusalem Bible, in which St. Paul uses the word love three times in the first sentence. But what really stands out for me is the way this passage is put together. First, St. Paul reminds us that God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. Secondly, he reminds us that everything we have, we have received as gift, as grace (including the gift of salvation.) Then, only after making sure we have this solid foundation upon which to build our lives and calling, St. Paul tells us not only that we belong to God, but that we are God’s handiwork, God’s masterpiece, whom God has entrusted with a unique and special purpose.

This is a wonderful explanation of the Christian vocation. It is also a wonderful description of the calling of the Christian artist. We are God’s work of art, and our “good works” are to shape our entire way of life, so that we may truly serve the unique purpose for which God made us.

I love that the “first” or most important work of art that we are to craft is holiness–to make our own lives God’s masterpiece. Blessed John Paul II highlights this in his Letter to Artists. This does not take away from our art, from our dedication. Rather, our spiritual lives shape our dedication to our art and form it, so that our writing, music, visual works of art, etc., have an authenticity and transparency that is possible only for those who are deeply in touch with the truth–about themselves and about all of creation.

Leaving the Safety of the Shore

When I returned from vacation/retreat/etc., I gave myself until the first of September to settle back into a writing routine. While I am planning to tweak my schedule a bit more, it’s worked. Starting off gradually, I’ve eased myself back in remarkably well. The past few days, I have been writing regularly.

So this morning, as I was rejoicing that I’m back, I suddenly realized that I am nervous about September’s project–my next screenplay. I even started playing around with the idea that I could, instead, focus on my next book. And then get to the screenplay whenever…

And then I read today’s Gospel reading, from Luke 5:1-11, where Jesus invites Peter to “put out into the deep” for a catch of fish. And I realized that God might be inviting me to put out into the deep as well, with this screenplay. Like Peter, I am ready with reasons to resist: “But I already tried that, and it didn’t work”; “I’m tired–that’s so much work!”; “What if nothing happens and I waste all that time and I’m left with an empty page?”; or “What if I write the script and it’s terrible?”

But Peter doesn’t stay with his resistance. “If you say so, Lord, I’ll go.”

I don’t believe that this passage from Luke just “happened to be” the reading I meditated with today. So, in his own way, the Lord is inviting me, too, to put out into the deep.

What does it take for us as writers, communicators, artists, to leave the safety of the shore and delve deep into our material, into ourselves, into our stories? What does it take for us to take the next big risk?

Above all, for me it takes trust in God, that he will continue to lead me despite the unknowns. I have to trust God enough to let go of the need to feel in control. But I also have to trust in myself–kind of as an extension of my trust in God–because God is the One who created, called, and gifted me, and now seems to be inviting me so directly to write this particular story.

So, I’m finishing this blogpost and setting out. And just to give me a sense of adventure, stormclouds have gathered while I’ve been blogging and thunder is beginning to rumble.

Resource for Christian Writers

The days seem to flee by. I mean “flee”–they are not just flying away, they are in a hurry to leave once they are over. It’s not that I feel that I’m living at a hectic pace, though I certainly have a full schedule. It’s more that at the end of almost every day, I stop and realize, “Another day already gone? That was fast.” Yet, I’m enjoying each day as it comes and flees. I still can’t believe May is over, and now the first week of June… Perhaps one reason I don’t feel that I’m living at a hectic pace despite the escaping days is that I’m getting out to enjoy the weather, though the unseasonable jump to summer-like weather has surprised even my warmth-hungry metabolism.

As I’m walking, I’m listening to a newly-discovered free online resource. I’m not sure how I missed it before. The Act One Program (a program that offers courses and support for Christian screenwriters and producers, a program which I cannot recommend highly enough), hosted a Story Symposium in 2008, Socratic-style. They put up all the talks and panels and entitled it:  Storytelling for the 21st Century.  As I wanted some inspiration as I start a new script, I’ve been listening to a few minutes every day as I walk. It gets off to a bit of a slow start, but is absolutely wonderful for any Christian artist wrestling with narrative. If you don’t use iTunes, you can also find it here on podbean.

 

Word puzzles can be fun writing prompts to get me started writing. This Saturday, I used one of my favorite word puzzles as an icebreaker for our discernment day. In only twenty minutes, the four young women who joined us creatively “solved” the puzzle, although the Scrabble game we were using ran out of letters, so we added our own. Check it out:

Since the morning is disappearing quickly, I better get back to writing!

Obstacles as Opportunities

All writers face obstacles. My list of obstacles is probably pretty similar to a lot of writers:

  • Other urgent tasks and a busy schedule
  • Too-busy attitude (not making space for creative thinking)
  • Lack of organization
  • Interruptions
  • Others’ criticism
  • Inner resistance: doubts, fears, difficulty slowing down, etc.
  • Complications in shaping material
  • Lack of skill

Up till now, I have used this blog to address mostly the inner struggles: the doubts and fears that make us hesitant to pick up the pen (or in my case, the automatic pencil), or to create that new document and start typing away the blankness. Today, I’d like to shift gears and reflect on an external obstacle: criticism.

When I first started writing my latest book of meditations on self-esteem in the light of Scripture, I was deeply surprised to face opposition from some mature, spiritual-minded Catholics whom I respected. They expressed the concern that, in light of our culture’s preoccupation with selfishness, self-esteem is no longer a relevant topic for true followers of Christ, if it ever was. The opposition surprised me, and, for a couple of weeks, stopped me cold.

After much reflection and prayer, I decided I radically disagreed. However, I also realized that our disagreement could depend on what was meant by the word “self-esteem.” I was using it in the typical sense that most dictionaries give as a first definition: self-respect, or a healthy regard for oneself. Those who disapproved of the idea of my book referenced a second definition some dictionaries add, in which self-esteem is equated with pride, or a conceited view of oneself.

When I use the word “self-esteem” now, I do so with that first sense of self-respect, but with an added nuance that I developed in light of the comments I received. Self-esteem is a healthy, truthful view of oneself in the light of the reality that we are created by God in his image, and that we are precious in God’s sight (cf. Isaiah 43). The negative comments forced me to clarify the focus of the book: less about psychology and more about our relationship with God.

While the criticism stopped me from writing for a few weeks, it helped me hone the book and enabled me to address some common misconceptions. I am sure that on some levels those who criticized my idea won’t agree with the book as it stands now. But in the end, I think the book is the better for the criticism I received.

Some Writing Tools

I’m doing so much writing in these days, I haven’t had as much energy to blog. Then, this morning I realized I was too focused on producing and needed to step back for a few minutes. So this is me “stepping back” and thinking a bit about my own writing process and some writing tools that I’ve found helpful.

I am currently reading Writing as a Sacred Path: A Practical Guide to Writing with Passion and Purpose, by Jill Jepson. I was drawn to the book because the author sees the connection between writing and spiritual experiences. The wealth of the book is that it draws from various spiritual traditions, but it also offers a lot of opportunity for writing practice or exercises. Like most books on writing, only a couple of the exercises really inspire me (I’m only halfway through the book), but I suspect that I will go back to those few exercises many times.

It can be expensive to collect writing books. So years ago, I started a notebook where I copied down from library books the writing exercises that I knew I’d want to go back to. Here is a short summary of some of my favorites:

From Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
-Blasting through blocks (in Week 9, Recovering a Sense of Compassion). Cameron encourages the reader to list any resentments, doubts or fear that we have about the project we’re working on. And then commit to the project anyway. In another place, she encourages the reader to answer all of the fears and doubts that arise–and I usually do that as well. It’s excellent when I’m tiptoeing around a project instead of delving in.

From A Writer’s Life by Eric Maisel
His One-Day Writing Workshop gives a structure for a full day of writing. I’ve never stuck to the full schedule, but starting it has always gotten me into a full day of writing.

From Deep Writing by Eric Maisel
“Funny Mirrors” is a way Maisel suggests evaluating your work. It’s a wonderful exercise to do if you find yourself either being hypercritical or afraid to correct any part of your writing because the whole thing might collapse. Included in his list of mirrors before which we can hold up our work are: The Mirror of the Adjective, The Mirror of the Original Idea, The Mirror of the Ideal Reader, the Mirror of Narrative Flow….and he encourages you to make up your own mirrors, which I have also done.

And these are two that I want to try from Writing as a Sacred Path by Jill Jepson (pp. 12-16). Both exercises focus on fostering creativity. In the first, “Receiving Stories from Every Day Life,” Jepson suggests looking over our day in the evening, and picking one event from the day–it doesn’t need to be a dramatic one. Then, she gives a list of questions that help us to explore it narratively and imaginatively (through characters involved, impact, details, etc.). Then she encourages us to write it in some form. The second exercise is “Discovering Story Seeds in the World Around You.” She suggests setting your intention in the morning that you will collect a certain number of “story seeds”–which are not story ideas, but simpler, from which story ideas might grow. Then she suggests picking one and turning it into a story.

I have a copy of my favorite book of writing exercises: Making a Good Writer Great by Linda Seger. Years ago, I was really excited to hear Linda speak at a creativity conference sponsored by the Act One: Writing for Hollywood program. Rather than a potpourri of writing ideas, in this book Seger encourages the writer to develop her own personal set of tools and mentality that will nurture his or her unique writing life.

What are some of your favorite writing tools?

Inspiration for Writing

This is one of my favorite quotations from the Founder of the Pauline Family, Blessed James Alberione. He was prolific in his writing, preaching, and many initiatives to transform the world with the Gospel.

Queen of Apostles

“The writer-apostle must conform to the Bible as the model book. God created man and knows very well how his heart is made. God’s Word corresponds to the deepest needs of the human heart.”

Alberione didn’t only share in the Church’s faith that the Bible is God’s Revelation for us, but he also saw the Bible as a model for writers and communicators (I’m also thinking of the Biblical films that he produced). For him, the Bible wasn’t just a literary model, but a model in that God’s Word speaks deeply to the heart…and as writers/communicators, we are called also to connect deeply with those for whom we write.

This stained glass window of Mary reading the Bible is also depicting Pentecost, which is a key moment in Mary’s life that Father Alberione highlighted for us. He prayed to Mary under the title “Queen of Apostles” (with the understanding that every baptized Christian is an apostle–someone who bears witness to Christ). Since the novena to the feast of Mary, Queen of Apostles, starts tomorrow, I’ll try to find some quotations to share about Mary as a model for us as artists, writers, and communicators of Christ.

A Writing Lesson from Spring

I took a walk yesterday while I was wrestling with a revised ending for the script I’m writing. I took the walk more for inspiration than for exercise, and like I am every year, I was stunned by the beauty God brings forth every spring.

The trees are especially beautiful for me at this point–they are already beautiful with their buds and lime-ish new green, bursting with potential for greater beauty, and yet the structure of their branches still shows through. I think I am one of those people who appreciate the beauty not just of color and shape, but also underlying architecture, or structure. (This photo doesn’t fully capture the beauty, but it gives an idea.)

And it brought home to me once again how important is the structure of the narrative I’m working on. When I write a narrative form, I tend to focus on the characters. Yet, the structure of a story is important–not just to the overall story, but specifically to the characters’ development. When I rush rewriting an ending (as I’ve been trying to do–but the “rush” part has definitely failed), I need to go back and look at the overall structure. Because I can keep rewriting and rewriting, but if it’s not carefully thought out, I won’t be resolving the problems of my earlier draft, and I could even be creating new ones.

I’m good at creating leaf cover in my stories–developing extra plot lines and character moments–so that the underlying structural weaknesses won’t be noticed. My spring walk yesterday (and hopefully today, if the showers hold off) can be a good reminder of the importance of going deep into the “trunk” of my story.