Sidestep the Poet’s Pitfall {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 19}

In previous lines of work, when I sat at the teacher’s desk adapting curriculum for little English language learners, or when I wrote and edited and created design full-time for church ministries, I’d hear the bell ring or watch the clock tick to 5:30 to close out my day. I’d put my papers in files, click save on all my documents and shut down the computer overnight. The next day, I’d come back to a clean desk and empty screen, a little picture of His mercies showing up fresh every morning.

Now, in my role as a mother and manager of the home, there’s no bell or clock that says my day is done. There is the kids’ bedtime, but even after that there are dishes to wrangle, lunches to pack, and clothes to rewash because I’ve forgotten them in the machine for two days.

When I tuck in the beautiful chaos of motherhood and kiss the kids goodnight, I finally come in to my office to write and find a whole different kind of chaos, not such a rewarding one.

There’s my desk, its own accidental collage of doctor’s reports, Bible study materials, early reader books, discarded print cartridges, crayons and scissors, cameras and the scraps of a design project that’s been hanging over my head. My shoulders slump at the sight of the many things I should be doing instead of writing. Thoughts shuffle in and out of one another and come up jumbled like the mess of papers in front of me.

Every time I see the piles sky-scraping, I think of Gordon MacDonald’s insight on how our physical surroundings mirror our inner lives: “When I am slipping into a state of disorganization…I know it because my desk takes on a cluttered appearance. The same thing happens to the top of my bedroom dresser. In fact almost every horizontal surface in the path of my daily travel becomes littered with papers, memos to which I have not responded, and bits of tasks that are unfinished.”

I feel like the writer friend of author and psychologist Karen E. Peterson who came home from waiting tables thinking she’d get to work on her fiction writing, until she opened the door to the sight of “her desk covered with a chaotic jumble of half-written scenes, numerous outlines, a cracked mug with a one-inch layer of calcified coffee….” She couldn’t do her best work there. She could hardly get her creativity flowing at all in the midst of the visual block.

The undisciplined life can hold back even the best writers. Reflecting on the disorganized, undisciplined ways of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Barclay wrote: “Coleridge is the supreme tragedy of indiscipline. Never did so great a mind produce so little…. It has been said of him: ‘He lost himself in visions of work to be done, that always remained to be done. Coleridge had every poetic gift but one–the gifts of sustained and concentrated effort.’ In his head…he had all kinds of books ‘completed save for transcription.’ But the books were never composed outside Coleridge’s mind, because he would not face the discipline of sitting down to write them out.”

No matter what our level of tolerance for chaos, there is most decidedly a connection between the order of our environment and our enthusiasm for creative projects. If our motivation wanes, if our efforts won’t sustain, maybe we need to practice a little more discipline, reigning in the excesses of our surroundings and our schedules.

Maybe we simply need to pick up the debris from the last creative project to prepare a clean slate for the next. Maybe we need to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives” to make for a better rhythm in the home, including blocking out a daily or weekly time for creative writing. Maybe we need to do a clean sweep and scale down the number of our belongings to relieve the cluttered mind. Maybe we need to work with a trusted friend to get control of our space and streamline the systems of our home or office for easier upkeep.

To create a more disciplined writing life, to lead those thoughts and drafts to their potential, to avoid the pitfall of the poet Coleridge, we may need first to create a more disciplined life in general, one in which the horizontal surfaces of our space invite like clean slates ready for writing and revision. In the next post, we’ll talk about adding personal touches to your desk or office to turn it into an inspiring place, but for today, will you join me in clearing some space?

{How does orderliness (or lack thereof) in your writing space affect your concentration? What steps will you take today to make your space less distracting and more motivating?}

This is Day 19 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

Don’t want to miss a post? Be sure and follow via email on the homepage sidebar or click “Get the Message” on the main menu.

(This post contains affiliate links to items that I personally use and enjoy. When you purchase through these links, you encourage continued creative community here at Message in a Mason Jar with no extra charge to you.)

A Creative Compost {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 18}

More than half of the trees have lost their leaves. My green pepper plants have shriveled up and fallen over. The newest tomatoes have suffered frost bite. The veggies have grown through drought and flood in this hearty stew of compost and peat and vermiculite, but now it’s time to clear out the garden and put away the shovels and shears.

But even as the plants give way to the season, there is potential in the slow and still. The garden extras, the piles of crunchy leaves, the scraps from the kitchen, if I allow them the space, they’ll come together and create a whole new substance.

While your notebook is tucked in a drawer and you are resting from your work, something is happening in that stillness. When you pick up someone else’s book, when you sit face to face with the good people in your life, when you venture out of your writing world into fresh contexts, borrowed thoughts mingle with the ones already written.

Onto the heap of our drafted ideas, we throw new clippings and scraps. Sometimes inspiration will come from talking directly about your idea (though I wouldn’t do too much of that or you may lose some of your steam!), but most often it will come in surprising forms, the cast offs from listening to a stirring sermon or someone’s take on a current events issue or a family struggle.

All these apple peels, blades of grass, egg shells, used tea leaves, pine needles, these textures and flavors of all sorts come together and sit a while. Then ideas turn over one another and heat up like compost in the bin.

Maybe your essay or blog post or short story feels stuck. You shove it in the drawer and wonder if it should stay. But bring yourself into a new context and see what happens.

Maybe you’ll be like the man in the 1960s who left a failure of a project at work over the weekend. He turned out the light and locked the lab door on this new formula for glue, one so weak that the pages barely stuck together.

But in the choir loft on Sunday, amid the reverb of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, he looked down at the hymnal with his makeshift bookmarks, torn pieces of paper falling all around like confetti. He scrambled that morning to reopen the page for the choir number, but he’d never have to do that again.

Weak glue? Paper that barely sticks? A hymnal sprawled open letting plain paper fly? All these problems came together to give him the perfect idea for a hymnal marker, one that would stick but wouldn’t tear the page when removed.

In this moment of synergy, in this completely different context, a place of rejuvenation, the man’s subconscious did the work for him and the idea for the Post-It Note was born.

We refine our writing when we enter new contexts, engage in conversation, or soak in the words of a treasured author, even with our own story put away out of sight.

I had written a draft for my Gift from the Sea series detailing my night swim in the luminescent waters off of the islands of Thailand when I set my own writing aside to do some reading. As I came across the words of a fellow blogger through a link-up, I read some punch in the chest quotes from Surprised by Joy, a book I’d been wanting to read for quite awhile. I grinned when I came upon the shelf at the bookstore. The spine of Lewis’ memoir stretched tall, just four books down from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic written in the same year, these two works sitting together in a picture of synergy. Joy sneaks up on us, they both said in their own way. And my story agreed.

On the small scale of a blog post, the ideas compost in a matter of hours or days. When it comes to larger stories in creative non-fiction and novel writing, we can expect a much longer process. I mulled over the theme of Dress of Many Colors for more than five years before I felt the story was ready for dedicated writing. And even now as I’ve taken a break from it, the ideas continue to react to my everyday experience.

Whatever the nature of our work, when we venture out of its bounds, we let ideas commingle, we stir them up and let them sit again. We put the happy process on repeat and soon the pile turns dark and earthy, each ingredient becoming part of the whole until we can’t tell one idea from another, all of them blending into one rich compost, the boost our story needs to flourish.

{Are you getting out enough? Are you listening enough in conversation? Are you reading enough? How have you experienced the synergy of ideas in a current or past project?}

This is Day 18 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

Don’t want to miss a post? Be sure and follow via email on the homepage sidebar or click “Get the Message” on the main menu.

(This post contains affiliate links to items that I personally use and enjoy. When you purchase through these links, you encourage continued creative community here at Message in a Mason Jar with no extra charge to you.)

A Well-Punctuated Writing Life {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 17}

This past summer, Austin Chapman clicked up the volume on a song he’d never heard. When the sound of angelic descants whirled into his ears from a recording of Mozart’s Lacrimosa, the young man wept. It wasn’t just the first time he’d heard this piece of music, it was the first time he’d heard music at all.

Sure, he had felt the boom of bass notes or the room shaking with the beat of a drum, but with revolutionary new hearing aids, he was now able to hear the most delicate of notes and discern the nuances of a song.

People all over the world have been weighing in on what bands or genres he needs to listen to next. He’s been working his way through the centuries and decades, tracing music’s journey and hearing the wide spectrum of sound.

But he has his limits, his ears still sensitive to all the new input.

Ironically, he finds himself turning his “hearing aids off more often than before,” enjoying the pause between notes of conversation or the soothing melodies he’s come to love.

“Silence is still my favorite sound,” he said.

In the comments under the Atlantic article, one reader, abk1985, carried on with the theme saying we should all experiment with a sabbath of sound: “I would recommend putting away the earbuds and keeping the car stereo off for a couple weeks. Then, pick a quiet Saturday afternoon when you have nothing you have to do, and deliberately sit down and listen….to go from [silence] to actually hearing it: always a spine tingling experience!”

We come back with ears fresh for the full experience of music. The pauses between notes lend greater power to the sound. The silence gives us margin to ponder the last tone and anticipate the next.

As much as writing may feel like a fun hobby or a fulfilling outlet for us, when we are writing consistently for a readership in the form of blog posts, magazine articles or books, writing can be work…even bordering on squirrely overactivity at times.

But then there’s God who showed His artistry in speaking Word to make the world. He carved out a Hebrew sequence of 56 Sabbath words on the Sinai tablets, three verses full in our translation. He wrote the fourth commandment longer than the rest and He must have done so for a reason.

Last weekend at a writer’s conference, 24/6 author Matthew Sleeth shared words that resonate with the linguist in me: “God did not intend your life to be one long run-on sentence. You take out the punctuation when you take out the Sabbath.”

So, gather your bits of story, draft a mess in your scratch journal, then let your words rest a bit. Enjoy a sabbath. You’ll come back to your work refreshed and ready for crescendo.

{How does the idea of sabbath play into your work as a writer? What sorts of things do you find restful and restorative? What results have you seen when you’ve set your writing aside for a time and come back to it later?}

This is Day 17 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

Don’t want to miss a post? Be sure and follow via email on the homepage sidebar or click “Get the Message” on the main menu.

(This post contains affiliate links to items that I personally use and enjoy. Thank you for all you do to encourage continued creative community here at Message in a Mason Jar.)