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Writing Day In and Day Out: Living a Practice of Words

 

 

 

Writing Day In and Day Out: Living a Practice of Words

Andi Cumbo-Floyd

© 2015 by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means – electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, scanning, or other – except for brief quotations in critical reviews or articles, without the prior written permission of the author.

 

Many, many people have written deeply about the work of writing as a practice – Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, Alice Walker, Laraine Herring, Gayle Brandeis^^1^^ – and their words are far richer, wiser, more experienced than mine. So what I offer here is not newness, or at least not everything I say here will be new. But perhaps, by some act of grace, it will be said in the way that you need to hear it, or through stories you can relate to, or at a time when your heart is open for just this thing. If that is so, then I hope these few words help. And encourage. And offer a crumb of sustenance for your writer’s heart.

Thank you for inviting me in through my words. I’m honored in every way.

—Andi Cumbo-Floyd

July 2015

 

Waking

This morning, I woke, as I usually do now, when a basset hound began his morning wiggles. Sometimes, I stir as he does, our rhythms synced through a habit to which he has trained me. Sometimes, a tongue on my ankle or my armpit (I know, gross) is the signal.

This morning, our time for waking was 5:03 am. Most mornings, we rise between 4:55 and 5:30. It works for us here on the farm with animals to feed and vegetables to pick in these summer months. Plus, I am a morning person. I don’t love the early waking always, but I always love the time it affords me. (My husband will sleep for at least two more hours, and then, he will do the night shift of final visits outside and locking up and starting the dishwasher. It’s a fair trade.)

In these early hours, I will feed the chickens, the goats, and the Great Pyrs. I will harvest vegetables and pack Philip’s lunch. I will start a pot of exactly 6 cups of strong coffee, knowing that I will drink more if it is there for me to consume. I will also read – one chapter of my Bible, a page from my mother’s devotional, some of Thomas Merton’s words, and a few pages on farming. A ritual that starts my day in the spirit I want to abide with me.

Your morning may come on very differently. An alarm clock set to just the precise moment that gives you enough time to shower, shave, and grab a piece of toast as you hit the road for your commute. Or perhaps a pair of feet that have only been on this earth for two years will land solid on your belly. Or maybe your morning is at 5pm when most of the world comes home and you stretch and wake for your hours before the night shift.

Not everyone wakes to chores or time for reading. Not everyone gets those first moments as their own. That simply is the way it is.

Thus, not every way of living the writing life will work for every person. No matter what the writing experts say, 5am may not be the ideal time for you to write. No matter how much I find that I write best when I’m still in the shadowy dew, that time may just not work for you. No matter how much you wish you were a morning person, you may simply need to find another time to write.

What matters is not when you wake to your words, but that you DO WAKE. As many days a week as you can for as long as you can.

For me, morning is the ideal writing time. I have not yet gotten tugged into the challenges of the news that spin by on Facebook. I don’t yet carry the voices of the clients’ whose work I edit in my head. I haven’t yet let my “to do” list overwhelm my sense of balance. But I do have chores that must be done first, and so even I, who writes for a living and doesn’t have small children at home, do not get my first moments for words. So I must force myself into a ritual so that I can find the center where the words live for me.

Here are a few things I do to find that place:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I go to my office. I am blessed to have an entire building – the former summer kitchen at our farmstead – that is dedicated solely to my writing.

Not everyone has that gift. But most of us can find somewhere, the same somewhere preferably, that we associate with our writing. A favorite chair. A spot at the kitchen table where the light from the window hits just right. A café with the perfect level of white noise and human proximity. Whatever place works for you, even if that place changes, claim it as YOUR writing space.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I clear my desk. I put aside my lists and notes, tuck projects into folders, and move my coffee closer. I move the physical distractions away, and then I do the same on my screen. I close tabs and turn off sounds. I move everything away so I can focus.

You may need to slide stacks of homework off the dining room table or shift a load of laundry from your favorite chair. Perhaps you’ll need to dust off wood shavings from your workbench or put in ear buds at the café. Whatever you need to move away so that you can focus, put it aside where you cannot see or hear it for a while.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I read. I pick up a book of poetry – right now, I’m reading Justice, Freedom, Herbs by Peggy Rozga– and I read one poem. Then, I copy one line from that poem in my journal and start to write. I let my brain go where it wants, but I also force myself to sink in, to let the truest words rise up. Sometimes, I have a lot of fluff to clear out before I find something I really want to say, but if I give it a few minutes, I always come to a line that seems to ring. I write from there.

You might want to read a chapter from a novel you love or a piece of memoir. Maybe you’ll want to try poetry for a while or use the fire of a news story to ignite your language. Whatever you need to help you find the voice of your heart, read that and then write with those words ringing in you.

 

Perhaps your ideal writing time will be at 1:35 pm when your young daughter takes a nap. Perhaps it will be at 5:30pm when you’re home from work for 15 minutes before your partner arrives and your children return from practice. Perhaps it will be at 1am, after everyone else falls asleep and you get a few minutes. Maybe it’s 10am when you can steal away to a coffee bar for 30 minutes.

There is no perfect writing time that works for everyone. But time is necessary if you want to write, and so think about what times might work for you and try them. Test your energy and the ability of the people near you to give you a bit of space during that time. Then, when something works for you – even if that time changes from day to day – settle into it. Honor it. It’s yours to use.

Even if you sometimes struggle with the guilt of taking it.

Taking

Right now, our bank account is teetering on the balance of black and red. Quite literally, we are making just enough money to pay our bills, and that situation makes both my husband and I anxious.

Since he has a “regular” job that pays him a salary for set hours, I am the one with the potential to earn more than we have right now. I can work more hours, find new clients, sell more books. In our financial world, I am the one who has more opportunity, so to speak.

So sitting here for the time it takes me to write this chapter in a book that is not just published and may not sell to anyone means that I am not spending this time doing editing or coaching or marketing work that would bring more money into our household and farmstead. Some might call the choice to write anyway selfish.

In fact, a lot of us writers think that way. We think that if we are taking time to do something that does not make us money, tend our families, or beautify our homes, we are being selfish.

I understand that feeling. I’m battling it this very minute. I can feel the “you need money” demons chattering away in my jaw joints. But I am ignoring them for this reason:

Writing keeps me healthy. Writing makes me happy. Writing gives me balance.

So I have learned that no matter what the demands of the day, I need to do my best to write in order to be healthy. Take yesterday for example, I had a lot to do, but I wrote for 30 minutes, and honestly, my day went so much more smoothly without the weight of wanting to write on my shoulders. I just have to battle down the voices that say I need to make better use of my time and do it.

Your struggle may not be about money. It may be about the desires and needs of your family or friends or your wish to have a tidy house and yard. It may be about the demands of your job or the demands of your culture that say “art” is a waste of time.

Whatever your struggle about making time for your writing, I’m going to hypothesize that a fair amount of guilt is at the root of it. Guilt over not making money – that’s mine. Guilt over not spending time with your children or partner. Guilt over not keeping the house clean enough. Or even guilt over not enough relaxation and play.

If your mind is telling you that your hesitation about writing time is not about guilt, ask yourself this question – what do you feel like you SHOULD be doing instead of writing? If you have an answer, then you have guilt. The “shoulds” of life are always linked to guilt.

Here are a few things I do to help me silence the “shoulds” and get to the page:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I evaluate my guilt. What is making me feel guilty? Has someone said something, or am I imagining that people are judging me? Is there actually a reason I should be feeling guilty, i.e. I’ve been giving too much time to writing? Almost every time I do this exercise, I find that the answer is I’m making myself feel guilty for no reason beyond simple lack of faith in the value of what I do.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I remind myself that writing makes me healthy. I put it on Post-Its in my office. I write little blurbs in my journal. I share how good I felt that day on Facebook. I do anything I can to just remember that I feel better when I write.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I examine my schedule. Where in my day can I find time to write? Can I skip out on an episode of Family Feud to get a few words down? Can the dishes wait until I write for the day? You might ask, will my children be alright with a movie for an hour while I write within earshot in the kitchen? Or might my partner understand if I tell her that I’m just slipping away to the coffee shop for a bit while she mows the lawn?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I give myself permission. After I evaluate my feelings, bolster myself with a reminder of why I write, and locate the time, I give myself permission to do it. I tell myself that the world will not all apart while I tuck away for a bit. I remind myself that the money I make in this half-hour would not do nearly the good that writing will do for my spirit. You might need to encourage yourself to remember that your children or partner really want you to be healthy and happy and would – if you gave them the chance – encourage you to do something for yourself. (In fact, ask them – let them tell you themselves that it’s okay.)

Most days, this is enough to get me to clear my desk and get to work. And when I pile up those days, the voices of “should” get quieter and slouch into the shadows. When I get momentum on a project, it’s much easier to keep going. That’s part of the benefit of writing as a regular practice – the desire to do it builds with the doing.

I’ll be honest though – this method doesn’t always work. Sometimes, real crises come up that demand my attention. And sometimes, I just let the guilt win and bury myself in client projects. Not every day am I the writer I want to be. I also don’t always choose the apple over the cookie either. That’s just life.

I have learned that the key to writing as a practice, as a way of being in the world, is to give myself grace.

 

Giving

In my faith tradition – Christianity – the concept I have always felt most aware of, even as I realize I don’t really know the full theological background for it, is grace – this practice where God gives me far less consequence than I deserve and far more gift than I could ever earn. There’s just something about living in a world where people don’t always get their due that gives me hope for the world.

I try to live out this gift of grace in my day-to-day life, too. I’m not that good at it with other people, but I’m particularly terrible at it with myself. When I fail to reach a goal for that day or leave a few things undone on my to do list. It is very easy for me to slip into guilt, and I hate guilt 98.3 percent of the time.

Guilt is only useful when we can make direct amends for something. If we say something cruel to someone, then guilt is the urge we have to apologize and try to make it right. Or if we walk out of Trader Joe’s and completely forget to pay for that bag of sweetened coconut because we were distracted by the need to beat the traffic, guilt is that push to go back in and pay when we lay the coconut on the passenger seat beside us.

But guilt is debilitating when there is no way to make something right. And when a day is passed, we cannot go back and get that day. So sitting in guilt at 10pm because we didn’t write that day isn’t useful. It shuts us down and makes it less likely that we will write again the next day.

It’s here that I’ve learned to give myself grace. This small gesture of kindness to myself keeps me from the ugly spiral of shame, to quote Brene Brown, and it makes it much more likely that tomorrow, with a full day ahead of me, I will write.

The fastest way to ensure that you don’t write is to feel guilty about not writing. You start by feeling kind of off because you didn’t get to the page; then, you’re berating yourself for not taking that 15 minutes when you stood and stared out your office window to get some words down; soon, you’re into full self-lecturing mode where you think about your terrible time management skills and how your family is suffering because you don’t get your work done well; and soon, the guilt of not doing enough becomes this heavy thing that you are going to have a really hard time shouldering off come tomorrow.

Or maybe that’s just me?

I do a few things when I come to the end of a day (or a week or a month) and realize I have not written as I hope.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I make a list of all the things I did do. I list everything from work projects, to blog posts, to haircuts, to garden produce. I list it all – every meal with a friend, every evening with my husband watching a good movie, every house-cleaning binge (I really only binge-clean. It’s a thing with me). Then, I look at the list and remind myself that I have not been sitting around eating donut holes and watching Bones reruns, at least not too much.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I look at the way I spent my day. I ask myself whether I gave my time to the things that matter most, and if I did not, I look at ways I can do better. Do I need to not login Facebook until later in the day? Do I need to think about running that errand in the late afternoon when my energy ebbs instead of mid-morning? Do I need to have more realistic expectations of how much I can get done in a day?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I plan for tomorrow. I look at what I have on my calendar. I look at the obligations I have for my clients. I consider what might unexpectedly come up that I need to leave time for. Then, I set my writing goal for the next day, and I make a plan for how I’ll get that goal completed by setting a time and establishing my place for writing.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I thank myself. This is a little hokey, I know, but I tell myself “Thank you.” Out loud. I thank myself for going through another day with purpose. I thank myself for caring for the people I love. I thank myself for eating that yogurt to balance out the bag of chips. I take a few seconds and give myself a tiny taste of appreciation.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I go to bed. I shut off the day. I settle in with a book. I sleep, because I know tomorrow is another chance to give it a go.

In all, this little process takes me less than 15 minutes, and it settles me. Sometimes, I write things out. Sometimes, I just think them through as I tidy my desk for the next day. (That’s a little tip I learned from author Tayari Jones – clean your desk each night so it’s ready for the next day.) Just a few minutes to consider my day and find a way to give myself grace even when it doesn’t go the way I wanted it to.

We live in a culture that teaches us that we never have enough and – more sinisterly – we will never BE enough. That’s an ugly teaching. We are always enough. We always will be enough. Even when we don’t write one day. Or one month. Or one year. We are still enough. And we need to give ourselves the grace to recognize our worth, every day.

 

Braving

One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Anne Lamott (who is, incidentally, one of my favorites writers). She says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I love the permission this gives us to tell our stories bravely, honestly, because they are – as Lamott says – ours.

Now, I’m not advocating some sort of “writing as revenge” scenario, and I’m definitely not suggesting that you NEED to write about everything that happened to you. But if you feel like you want to or need to write about something that happened to you, then you have permission to do so.

Of course, writing about our pain and even our joy takes bravery, a form of bravery that is not brazen or aggressive, a kind of bravery that is rare in our “tell all” and “buck up” culture. Our society says that if you want to share your personal journey then you can do so, but you will be judged for not only what you tell but the fact that you did. So we receive the message that we are supposed to “just deal with it.” And just dealing with it means staying quiet about our stories, no matter what.

Writing takes uncommon courage. It requires a form of vulnerability that we don’t see often. It takes the willingness to own our experiences, to sit with them, to understand them, and to share them. That’s no small feat.

I struggle with bravery every day when I write. Often, I’m writing about topics that many people would rather not engage – the history and legacy of slavery, in particular – and I have heard many times, “Why can’t you just let this go?” I’ve been criticized for what I’ve said, and I’ve cried from that critique more than a few times. Some days, it really feels like it would be easier to just quit and get more chickens.

But here is what I know – life comes with criticism. While our society is even more critical – social media makes it so easy to critique people – we will never escape criticism. I could go back to selling books (a job I loved), and I would still get comments from people who would rather me not recommend something “hard” like Toni Morrison.

So I choose to write because I love it and because if I’m going to get critiqued anyway, I’d rather it be for something I really care about than for some menial thing, like eating Peeps (It’s a long story).

Still, I have set some boundaries for myself to help me both be brave and realize when the more courageous thing would be not to write about that particular story, at least right now:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I weigh the consequences. Will writing this particular story hurt people in a way that cannot help them heal? Will it cause me to receive more critique or blowback than I am able and willing to handle? If so, I may still write that story, but I probably won’t share it for the time being.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I consider my motivations. Am I writing this story to get back at someone? Am I writing it from a place of bitterness or from a fresh wound? Am I writing this just to get attention? If so, I put the story aside. Revenge is not a good reason to write. Writing from a bleeding wound will only cause me pain. Spectacle will not gain me the kind of readers I really want to gain. But if I am writing from a place of wholeness, from my “scars instead of my wounds,” as Nadia Bolz-Weber says, from a place of helpfulness or a desire to understand and lay my voice under the voices of others who are speaking out, then I write – even if it’s terrifying, even if I know I’ll get backlash that will make life a bit harder.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. I ask myself if I’m ready. Am I able to bear the kind of intense scrutiny that this piece of writing will require? Am I strong enough to bear what I might find there? If I’m not, I wait. If I am, I dive in all the way. No holding back. No skirting around the heart. All in.

For me, these guidelines mean I don’t write about certain people because the pain that my perspective will cause can only wound, never heal. In time, when these people are no longer here with us, perhaps, I will write. I also don’t write about my divorce much because the pain of that time is still – years later – too raw. For now, I carry those stories within me.

The truth is, though, that I put very few topics out of bounds for me. But I have chosen that for myself. You will have to choose your own boundaries, and you will have to be strong in holding those boundaries steady, not letting them creep around more topics simply because you are afraid and not letting other people tell you not to hold them. You will need to set your own safety zone and write there.

Here are a few things you will want to consider what you will and will not write about:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Relationships. Will you write about break-ups and abuse? Will you write about the icy connection you have to your mother? Will you write about the distance you feel from your brother?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Your children. Will you write about their foibles? Their successes? Their trauma? Your struggles as a parent?

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Politics. Will you engage with the most pressing questions of the day? Will you take on controversial topics? Will you take positions on hard issues?

 

No one but you can decide where you draw your lines. But here’s one piece of advice – don’t draw the lines out of fear. Be brave. Let compassion – for yourself and the people you love – set your boundaries, not anxiety or fear.

Writing takes uncommon courage, but when you start to feel afraid or question what you’re doing, remember the books that have changed you. Remember that those authors had to choose courage to get their words down, and then follow their lead. Someone needs your words, too. I know they do.

 

Balancing

Here’s what my schedule looks like today:

5am – Wake – Feed Animals – Pack Lunch – Make Coffee – Weed Garden

6am – Harvest from Garden – Read – Shower

7am – Breakfast – Open Farm Stand

8am – Blog

9am – Client Call – Talk with Dad about Barn Plans

10am – Edit Client Text – Work on This Book

11am – Call about Food for Writer’s Retreat

12pm – Revise Chapter for Book I’m Co-Writing

1pm – Travel to Doctor’s Appointment

2pm – Doctor’s Appointment

3pm – Return from Doctor’s Appointment

4pm – Feed Animals – Gather Eggs – Refill Farm Stand

5pm – Dinner

6pm – Clean Kitchen – Tidy House

7pm – Relax and Sew

8pm – Relax and Sew

9pm – Go To Bed and Read – Asleep by 9:15

Your day may include fewer animal feedings and more children feedings. You may have more or fewer meetings. You may not have to drive as far as I do for appointments. But I bet your day is just as full – if not fuller – than mine.

Plus, like me, you probably also squeeze in things like eating (which I did today while I talked with my dad about the barn), paying bills, and using the bathroom. We are all busy people – too busy, I think.

So we must find a way to balance all that we need to do with the things we want to do. In my world, writing is both a need and a want, but for you, writing may be strictly a want. And if that’s so, it’s even trickier to balance all your obligations AND make time for writing.

There’s no magic answer to finding balance. In my experience, balance is achieved only in moments, and no one process lets me reach it every time. I need an arsenal of tools to keep the sew-saw level.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Goals. I believe pretty mightily in goals as a way to keep writing as part of my day. Using the wisdom of Shawn Smucker, I try to write 1,000 words a day. If I can follow that goal 5 days a week, I can draft a 70,000 word book in three and a half months. That kind of pace keeps me motivated, but the daily goal is also reasonable and achievable. Then, I use that goal to set longer-term goals for when I’ll finish a draft, complete edits, etc.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. To Do Lists. A lot of us use these for keeping track of the things we NEED to get done, but I also list the things I WANT to get done on mine. If I want to write 1,000 words a day, then I write that on there. If I want to blog that day or reach out to a particular writer to establish a connection, I write that on there, too. I also list all my calls or appointments. That way, everything is on the list, and while I may keep adding things that NEED to be done, my WANTS stay front and center, too.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Visual Calendar. I use Google Calendar to keep a track of my schedule because it is visual. I can see all my appointments for the day as red blocks of color, and I can see the white spaces that mean I can do other things in those times. While I prefer to have 4- or 5-hour blocks of time in which to focus, my schedule doesn’t always work that way, and a visual calendar helps me see where I might have 45 minutes to get something written.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. No. I’m a people pleaser through and through, so saying NO does not come easily to me. But I have learned that sometimes I really just have to decline an invitation, pass on a project, or pass on another opportunity to give some advice. I cannot do everything that people ask of me and do the things I want and need to do – or at least I can’t do them well.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Prep for tomorrow. At the end of the day, I clean up my desk. I file the things that need to be filed and put the books back on the shelves. I carry the wide assortment of dishes and glasses I’ve accumulated to the kitchen. I make up my to do list –“1,000 words” right at the top. I tidy things all around, and then, I shut the door. Then, tomorrow, when I come in, I know everything will be ready to go, and I won’t have the distraction of clutter to slow me down.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Down time. Most evenings, after I’ve been working at writing or farming for 14 hours, I stop. I take out my cross-stitch needle or my crochet hook, or I set myself with an audio book by the jigsaw puzzle. Then, for two hours, I wind down. For me, this evening break is necessary. It helps slow my mind; it feeds my soul.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Coloring Books. Whenever the world feels too frenzied, or I feel myself sliding over the edge into that place where my shoulders live by my ears, I take out my colored pencils (with very sharp points), and I color. In these pages, I don’t have to create anything – all the lines are drawn. Instead, I can just choose the color that feels right and fill in a space. I color for 10 minutes, and I can go back to work refreshed and wiser.

Your systems for keeping balance might be quite different. Maybe you need to write more words on fewer days. Or perhaps you need downtime in the morning because that’s when you can get it. Or maybe you find a paper planner to be the most effective tool. The specifics don’t matter. What matters is that you find a way to keep balance in your life from day to day so that you can write and still stay sane.

Resting

In our garden, we have a large bed of strawberries. It’s new this year – our first year here on this farm – and when the blossoms came out this spring, I plucked most of them off. (Though, I couldn’t resist letting a few come to fruit.) My aim was to push the energy that’s required to make those red berries back into the plant itself so it would put out runners and get more vigorous. Next year, we hope to have a bumper crop of strawberries.

Sometimes, goodness requires a long wait and care for the long-term.

Writing is the same way. Not everything is ready to fruit right away. Some stories require us to sit with them a while before we let them shine in the world. They need to be fed with meditation and journaling, sequestered away with just us so that they can not only blossom but also feed us and the people who read them when they are ready.

I really struggle with the desire to share everything right away. At the risk of sounding like I’m 800 years old, I’m going to say that it didn’t use to be this way. When I was in my 20s, I could write things and just let them sit, come back to them, revise, edit, rework entirely. I didn’t feel any urgency about getting feedback because the process of getting a response to something I wrote wasn’t instant.

Now, in our hyper-connected, super-fast world, I crave a response as soon as I write something. In fact, over the time I’ve been writing this book, I keep wondering what people think about the things I have written. I totally forget that no one but me has seen this work. It’s a strange sensation, but it probably shouldn’t be.

At the very least, our most important words need to sit a while. We need to let them rest, let them gather energy, and give ourselves space to consider carefully and deeply what we have said before we share it. Not to mention, giving our workspace means we can fill in gaps and correct errors that we can’t see when we’re in the throes of writing.

But it’s not just our words that need rest. We need it, too. The constant cycle of production and response is wearying, particularly in a world where it feels like people are very quick to express their opinions, and not always in a kind way. We have to step back from the fray; we have to disengage. We have to take silence and space to fill up again.

I don’t know how you feel after a day of intense social media conversations, but I can tell you how I feel – sucked dry, like the vampires have gotten hold of me. This feeling comes not only because sometimes people are cruel or because real engagement requires vulnerability and honesty but also because the sheer act of conversation and connection is tiring to me. I’m a quintessential introvert.

So I have learned to take rest.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Walk Away. When my writing is feeling like a million flies buzzing inside my head, I walk away. I head to the garden or stroll through the hayfield. If I lived in the city, I’d take a brisk walk around the block. I step away. I breathe. I let my mind settle.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Shut Down. Most days, I don’t have the will power to do this on my own, so I use a tool called Freedom, which lets me proscribe a time when I won’t be able to access anything online. Even an hour when I’m not flipping back to Facebook or Twitter can be powerful.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Color. I know I mentioned this before, but really, this practice is huge for me. I know it’s kind of trendy right now for folks to color, but maybe we have a good reason for wanting to sink into something simple and direct. If you haven’t tried coloring, give it a go. I prefer to color abstract shapes, like those in mandalas, because I don’t get pulled into too much concrete thought about the “right” color to shade that rooster.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Puzzle. I use puzzles the same way I use coloring. They give me a place to focus my mind while my subconscious – and even my conscious mind – sort through all the inputs I’ve received in a day. I can just sit and focus on getting the next piece in this one section. 30 minutes at a puzzle, and I’m ready to go back to the words.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Reading. A lot of writers read a lot. We read for information and to study how other writers do it. Those are good reasons to read, and in some ways, it’s not possible for writers to read without analyzing. It’s our work after all.

But I’m also a big fan of reading to just disconnect from the real world. I tend toward YA novels about vampires (a theme has suddenly appeared in this chapter) because they feel distinct from my every day existence. Plus, I’m not inclined to write a book of that nature, so I don’t get pulled out of the story to consider how the book is constructed as easily.

I’m not sure what relaxes you – yoga, long walks, chopping wood, sewing, putting your head under a car hood – but whatever it is, be sure to build some of that active rest into your day. Trust that your words can wait, that nothing is so urgent that you need to share it before you’ve sat with it for at least a while. Know that writing is a lifelong practice, and we can only continue to excel at, not to mention enjoy, something that we come to be at with rest in our bones.

And definitely, definitely, let your words rest before you share them. Give them an hour if it’s pressing that it go out. But if you are writing a book or even a long essay, write and let set it aside for a while. Do a puzzle. Knit a sock monkey. Whittle a dwarf. Then, come back and visit it again. The rest will do you both good.

 

Feeding

It’s 8:38 am on Monday morning, and I’ve been awake for 3 hours. I’m starving, and yet, I haven’t eaten. I do this a lot in the morning. . . forget to feed myself in the frenzy to get things done. I know it’s not healthy, that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” I know my blood sugar plummets and my thinking gets fuzzy. I know I get super-grumpy, so grumpy I deserve a cape for it. (Captain Grumpy would be my super hero name. . . well that or SUN GIRL, the name I was assigned at the Superhero Name Generator and that is, frighteningly, accurate.) Still, over and over again, I don’t make time to eat.

Then, at the end of the day, when I’m already tired and weary, I eat too much. I grab the bag of chips (always a mistake, right?) and sit down on the couch for “just a half-hour.” Soon, it’s two hours later, and I’ve eaten 723 potato chips and watched 4 episodes of Barefoot Contessa.

Famine or feast . . . it takes on a whole new meaning when I’m not intentional about my food intake.

The same is true for the feeding of my writer’s soul. If I’m not conscientious about making time to read, gather with other writers, and daydream, I plow through days of words without ever “replenishing my well.” I pour out all I’ve got on the fields of paper before me, and soon, I’m parched and dry and feel like I’m never going to be able to write again.

In my writing life, it’s in these parched places where the great “writer’s block” appears. Now, let me be clear about one thing – I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I believe we have trouble finding words; I believe that we run up against psychological challenges; I believe that we are sometimes too drained to write. But I don’t give much credence to the idea that some THING outside of ourselves stops us from writing. I think we’re pretty great at stopping ourselves though.

I have learned that one of the ways I sabotage my own writing practice is by not “filling up” enough. I try to go “head down” and onward, and when I do, I usually charge right into a cinderblock wall. So, I lift my chin, look around, and find some sustenance.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Read. I read as much as I can all the time. I read articles. I read devotionals. I read serious literature. I read fun literature. I read anything and everything I can. And I set aside time to do it. For me, that time usually comes in the early morning and then at night before I sleep. But I make time to read at least a few chapters of something every day.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Walk. I take a stroll, not a power walk, not a walk to get my 30 minutes of aerobic exercise in. A meander. A mosey. I name my dogs for words that mean to “walk slowly” for just this reason. I need to wander and just see what comes up. To let the pace of my steps smooth out the frenzy of my mind. So I walk through the yard. Across the field. Around the block. Just a few minutes. As fast or as slow as feels good.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Commune. I talk with other writers as much as I can. Much of that conversation happens online since I live on a farm at least 30 miles from any city, but that conversation counts. It keeps me humble and sets me upright after a hard blow. Those folks remind me of why I write, and they remind me that my struggles mirror their own. I try to get together with other writers face to face as much as I can, too, usually with a beverage nearby. We laugh, we commiserate, we look one another in the eye and say, “Yep, you get it. I’m not crazy.” That affirmation is invaluable.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Unwind. I am a morning person, so by evening, I am wiped out. Still, it’s not wise for me to go right to sleep. I have to let loose of the threads I’ve been holding together and trying to weave all day. So I watch TV for a while. I cross-stitch or crochet. And I let my mind loosen its grip on the day. Without that time, I don’t feel rested, even when I sleep, but I also don’t sleep well.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sleep. I am a person who needs 8-9 hours of sleep most nights. If I get less sleep than that, everything is harder. I’ve tested my life on less sleep, and it just is weepier and rougher than I like. So I work hard to get enough rest.

You may not be at a place in your life where 8-9 hours of sleep is possible, or you may not need that much shut eye. You may not own a television or want to unwind in that way. Maybe you find that running is the most soothing way to settle yourself. Whatever you need to do to feed your soul, your mind, and your words, do those things. Every day.

I will say, however, that I think one thing all writers need to do every day is read. To paraphrase Stephen King, if you don’t read, you can’t write. I believe that with every letter of my word-filled life. Reading teaches us how to write; it gives us examples of structure and sentence variety. It shows us how that writer reveals backstory and how this one builds suspense. It reminds of what we don’t like in a text and what we adore. In short, reading is our training ground. We must enter it and study to improve in what we do.

Plus, as writers, we hope people will read what we have to say; it’s really the least we can do to return the favor to other writers in the world.

So read. Take succor in pages. Feed on them. Wander or do aikido or swim laps. Talk with other folks who find joy in words. Then, take rest. Bake cookies. Sip wine on the porch. Sew. As you go to sleep at night, you will be filled and know you have done the good work of that day. There is great gift in that knowing.

 

Producing

Every morning, I take a walk around the tomato plants, their cages holding them upright, their green arms spindled out like pre-teen girls’ arms. I peer. I pull back. I sigh.

No red tomatoes yet. I’m so ready for those red orbs. So ready.

But just now, I’m reminded that tomato plants do more than just produce fruit. They contribute to soil health. They release oxygen into the air. They give me joy when I see something I planted as a seed in our closet in March towering as high as my head.

Very little in the world is valuable only because of what it can produce.

Writing is the same. Writing – the practice of writing – is so much more than just a product. It’s a way of being in the world.

Sure, to actually be writers, we do have to put some words down on the page. And if we want to publish in any form, we have to share our work somewhere. To be public writers, we have to produce things for people to read.

But I think we cause ourselves unnecessary and unhelpful angst when we worry too much about our writing as product. When we are always thinking about what the blog post will look like or how many pages the book will be, when we focus too much on how many people will read our words and how many copies we will sell, we lose sight of something crucial – writing is not about numbers. It’s about hearts.

Before you roll your eyes over the hokiness, just hear me out. When we act as if our writing only matters if a certain number of people read it, if we make a certain amount of money, if the “product” of our work is “successful” in some quantifiable way, we disregard the most important way that writing matters – as a work of art. Art does not cater to dollars or figures; it leaps toward dreams.

I have been learning – and relearning – and relearning again that my work as a writer is to answer the calling of words on my heart and to do my best to write those words honestly, powerfully, and lovingly on the page. If I do those things, then I have done the work of “production.” Anything beyond that – word counts, sales, kind reviews on website – is gravy (or rancid milk in the case of those inevitable bad reviews).

Anything beyond just writing the very best work I am capable of creating cannot be my ultimate concern. If it is, I will lose the integrity of what I am writing in an effort to please a market or meet a trend.

To keep myself focus on creating the best art I can and steer myself away from thinking of my writing as a product, I do a few things:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Write before I read. In the morning, before I read the latest advice about writing, before I tune into the news, before I let myself get input, I write. This way, I am taking the most pure form of what I have to say and getting it down before I’m tainted by my bank account totals or the number of repins I’ve gotten.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Ask. Before I write, I ask what I need to write. Sometimes I pray, asking God to give me loving words. Sometimes, I ask myself what I most need to say. Sometimes, I ask other people what would be most helpful to them. I ask, and then I listen and choose to write about those responses that tingle when I hear them.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Breathe. I sit, pen at hand or laptop open, and I take a deep breath. I exhale fiercely. I take air deep into the lower part of my lungs. I let myself relax, to move past the frenzy of my mind, before I ever put down a word.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Let it go. I try to let the response to my work go, at least in terms of my ego. I do answer questions, and I do have great conversations with people about things I’ve written. I think that’s part of “being a writer.” But the sales numbers and the analytics graphs, I try very hard to hold these measures at a distance because if I have written what I needed to write – with honesty and love as my intent – then none of those stats or bad reviews matter. I have to trust that the words will do the work they need to do and then let the rest go.

I’m really not great at that last one, not great at all. But I try, and I know it’s healthier for me when I let the numbers and the figures, all the things that focus on my work as only a product, slip through my fingers. When I can do that, when I can value the process of writing for the health it gives me and when I can trust that the people who need what I have to say will find it, I free myself to write the next thing that calls to me from my spirit.

I expect – if you’re like every writer I know, myself included – that you struggle with the idea that your writing has to produce some results – money or readers or good reviews or impressive bylines in publications that you admire. You’re not alone there.

But all those things, those things are beyond your control in every way. We cannot make people buy our books or read our blogs. We cannot convince editors to hire us for columns or woo judges into picking our stories as content winners. Not really.

All we can really do is write with integrity and open hearts. We can make our work as good as we can, and we can put it out in the world to do the work it will do. Then, we can write the next thing. That’s all we have in our power, but it’s mighty enough power for one person.

Practicing

My mom was a piano teacher. A good one, I think, although not for me. (It’s probably wise for teachers not to teach their children; at least, that was wisest for us.) She was patient and diligent, and she truly loved the children she taught. But she had another great quality about her – honesty. If a child was not practicing enough, she told them that they needed to practice to make the lessons worthwhile.

But then, she went deeper and asked the child why they weren’t practicing. Some of the answers she got were about how it was hard or boring, the typical thing most of us say when we’re trying something new. Sometimes, though, she heard that the kids were too busy, too overscheduled and over-stimulated to have time to really sit and practice. Her responses of encouragement took two forms, each based on the children’s responses: keep going or walk away.

If the child was struggling because the work was hard or because sometimes it felt tedious or because the muscles in her small fingers were not yet strong enough to make playing for 30 minutes an easy thing, Mom said, “Just keep going. You can do it, but it takes practice. It will get easier, and it will get more interesting. Your fingers will get stronger. But only if you keep going, so this week, try to practice every day.”

But if the child spent most of the lesson telling her about how he had soccer and then swimming and then Boy Scouts and then two hours of homework each night, Mom said, “Do you want to play piano? “ Then, she sat quietly and let the child decide. I imagine it took a few minutes sometimes since this might have been the first time anyone asked him his own opinion on the schedule.

If he said yes, then Mom said, “Okay, then we need to figure out if you want to play piano more than you want to do some of these other things. Do you want to play piano more than you want to be on the swim team?” The questions continued until they had a clear sense of the child’s priorities. If piano came in near the top of his list, then Mom suggested that they talk to his parents when they came to pick him up, and they did. Mom helped the child explain why he wanted to give more time to piano and why that might mean he needed to drop swimming.

If the child said no, piano was not more important, then Mom asked why he was taking lessons and listened to those answers. Then, they talked more about the benefits of playing, about why his parents might want him there, about whether or not he wanted to share his feelings with them, Mom at his side. If he did, then when a dad or mom came to get him, they sat and chatted about the child’s interests, about priorities, about commitment. Then, Mom suggested that they walk away from lessons for a while and see if it might be better to take them another time.

I don’t know what the outcomes of those conversations were, whether students left her, whether parents listened, whether they made changes if they could. But I know that those children who had the blessing of working with my mom knew three things

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Their desires mattered.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Sometimes we have to make choices about where we give our time.

*
p<>{color:#000;}. It’s okay to walk away from something we don’t love or don’t love as much.

Those kids also knew my mom cared about them.

And I care about you, the woman who feels overwhelmed, the man who feels he must provide, the teenager who doesn’t quite know what you want to be. I care. So I hope you’ll hear me when I say this:

Only you can make a commitment to the practice of writing. Only you can decide if you care enough to write. Only you can make the time to let it happen.

You have to decide if the hard work, the regular days at the page, the sacrifice of time and energy toward other things are worth it. If they are, then I’ll channel my mother here and say, “Keep going. You can do it, but it takes practice. It’ll get easier. But you have to commit.” I hope the stories and ideas in this book help you do that. I hope they help you walk further into a life where words are the lens through which you experience your days. I hope they give you some practical suggestions for making the time to commit to your work. I hope they remind you, most of all, that your words matter.

But if you are one of those people who decides that you don’t really want to write, that you’re doing it for some reason other than your own edification or because you really want to share a story or insight, that you just – at this point in your life – don’t have time to give to weighing out words on paper – then walk away. It’s okay. Writing will always be here when you’re ready, and it’s okay if now is not the time. You don’t have to fulfill anyone else’s expectations. You are already more than good enough.

And no matter what you decide, you matter. Always. In every way.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read these words. Thank you for taking the time to think about your own. Thank you for choosing to live the life you most desire. We need your life, just as you live it.

 

Much love,

Andi

 

 

*****

Thank you so much for reading. I welcome you to join the writing community over at my website, andilit.com. I blog weekly and send out two newsletters per month, all about writing and farming and the deliberate choice to live a life that’s a bit more slow, like my dogs Meander and Mosey.

 

 

 

About the Author

Andi Cumbo-Floyd writes regularly about andilit.com, where she discusses writing, the history and legacy of slavery, and the farm that she and her husband run at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her previous books are The Slaves Have Names and God’s Whisper Manifesto. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. At present, she spends part of each day feeding 4 dogs, 4 cats, 6 goats, 26 chickens, and 2 people. You can find her also on Facebook and Twitter and subscribe to her e-newsletter to get a free book of writing tips from several amazing writers and get bi-weekly emails about writing and books.

 

Writing Books I Love

Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice by Laraine Herring

Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write by Gayle Brandeis

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Living by the Word by Alice Walker

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick

 

Do you have other titles you’d add to a list such as this? I’d love to hear your reading suggestions. Feel free to email me at [email protected]. I answer every note.

 

 

Other Books by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

The Slaves Have Names: Ancestors of My Home

They lived with professors and waited on former presidents. They were masons and nurses, schoolteachers and field hands, 246 people owned by a man who struggled with the institution of slavery. Yet, almost no one knows their names. When a white woman begins to study the history of the plantations these people built, the plantations where she was raised, she discovers that the silence around these people’s lives speaks of a silence in her country’s history . . . and in her own life. A creative nonfiction, history book about American slavery and its legacy in the United States.

 

God’s Whisper Manifesto: The Makings of a Dream

God’s Whisper Manifesto describes the 10 principles that make up the ideal community that I’d like to form here on this small farm in the mountains of central Virginia. Here, we will love people first, honor the natural world and our place in it, seek to help those in need, and treasure art.

So often we simply succumb to what society says is valuable – efficiency, money, activity, busyness – but in this book, I posit a different ideal – one where we savor moments and dreams, one where we put aside the dream of financial wealth to live into the dream of our inmost selves.

F[]REE Writing Wisdom

We all love free writing advice, right? Those lists of tips makes us smile and give us new things to try in our writing practice. That’s the reason I invited seven of my good friends who are writers to join me in giving their 10 best writing tips in this free book, Our Best 10: Tips For Writers.

To get your FREE copy, visit this link:

http://andilit.com/downloadourbest10/

1 You can find a list of books I love about writing at the end of this book.

 


Writing Day In and Day Out: Living a Practice of Words

It's not an easy thing to take time to write. The world says that writing doesn't matter much. Our families and jobs need us. We have to make money. The ugly voices in our head tell us we're not good enough. There are a ton of reasons why we choose to not write. . . and yet, if we are writers, we must find a way to the page. Over and over again. Often one of the hardest things for writers is allowing ourselves the time and space to write when so many other obligations fill our time. Writing Day in and Day Out is a book for writers who would like to find that time and space and build a practice of writing in their daily lives. In this intimate volume, Cumbo-Floyd tells about her own writing practice, shares suggestions - but never rules - for how you might find a way to more words in your daily life, and offers encouragement for the days when writing seems to be too far away or too painful.

  • ISBN: 2940151150026
  • Author: Andi Cumbo-Floyd
  • Published: 2016-02-02 01:05:09
  • Words: 10009
Writing Day In and Day Out: Living a Practice of Words Writing Day In and Day Out: Living a Practice of Words