New year, new page

I love New Year’s Day.

There’s something so hopeful about it, isn’t there?  It’s a clean slate.  A fresh start.  A new beginning.  Days and days stretch out ahead of us like the blank pages of a brand-new book, just waiting to be written on.

And what could make the prospect of all those blank pages even more delicious than having something fabulous to write with?   Which I do, thanks to my darling husband.  Take a look:

My Christmas pen

He had this pen MADE for me!  I didn’t even know that artisan penmakers existed, but they do, and my sweetie found one and commissioned this one-of-a-kind treasure for me.  It’s hand-crafted from maple, which means that as I write, the barrel warms to the touch.  The graceful whorls and lines of the wood grain are gorgeous, as is the sparkling crystal in the pocket clip.  I can’t keep my eyes — or hands — off of it.  Which is, of course, the whole idea…

Writers can be fanatics when it comes to the tools of our trade, particularly pens.  I have special ones just for book signings, and others for journaling and letter writing, and still others for humbler tasks like to-do lists and keeping the household accounts.  The very best ones are reserved for writing stories, though.

I can tell that my new pen is a winner already.  A thoroughbred, champing at the bit to be off and running across a blank page.  The two of us will launch our maiden voyage together come Monday, when we start my next book.

I can hardly wait.

Deadline fever

1940s-reporter-working-on-deadlineA friend sent me a link today to a hilarious article in the Toronto Globe and Mail on the writing process, specifically the perils of being on deadline. 

Heaven knows I desperately needed a laugh, as I’m a week and a half away from turning in my latest novel.  Anyone, anywhere, who’s ever been on deadline knows exactly what this means.  It means I’ve barely been out of my pajamas for days.  It means a steady diet of cereal and pizza and Junior Mints.  It means ignoring your spouse, your dog, your children, your friends.  It means leaping out of bed in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because you just got an idea for fixing that pesky plot hole at the end of chapter seven, an idea that might be brilliant or might be rubbish but either way you’d better write it down immediately or you’ll forget it.

Will Ferguson riffs brilliantly on deadline fever in “How’s the Book Going?”  I laughed out loud at what he had to say about procrastination, and loved his description of the annoying habit that books have of “stubbornly and — it must be said — ungratefully” refusing to write themselves.  And I also appreciated the timely reminder of Douglas Adams’ (of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame) immortal quote :  “I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

(Adams, it’s worth noting, was so notoriously bad at meeting deadlines that his editor used to have to literally move in with him for a couple of weeks to get him to finish a book.) 

Thank you, Will Ferguson.  You were just the boost I needed.  Back to work here…

Writers at work

Writing is solitary work, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.

Once in a while, I find it’s fun to shake things up a bit and get out of my rut.  So I like to hie me someplace other than my office and write, preferably with friends.  Writing “solo together” can be energizing, plus you have somebody right there to talk shop with when you’re ready to take a break.

Fellow children’s authors Jennifer Jacobson and Jane Kurtz are in town this week (Jane’s visiting her brother Chris Kurtz), so the four of us met up with our laptops yesterday morning at a local coffee shop.  The answer is yes, we worked — and I have the pictures to prove it.  We also had fun in the process.

Jane Kurtz and Jennifer Jacobson
Jane Kurtz and Jennifer Jacobson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Kurtz
Chris Kurtz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was behind the camera, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I was working, too.  Here I am showing off our city’s fabulous Rose Garden.

Heather and Jennifer and Jane
Heather and Jennifer and Jane

 

Where’s your favorite out-of-the-office place to write?

Desperately Seeking Austen


Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England
Earlier this year, I traveled to England for research.  Following in Jane Austen’s footsteps was pure delight — and fellow Austen fans can read more about my trip here, in a recent article from The Christian Science Monitor.

 

Jane Austen wrote many of her novels, including the final draft of Pride and Prejudice, at this modest little table —
no computer, no room of her own, just paper, a quill pen, and her lively imagination.  Amazing! 
(By the way, the visitor on the left is not Jane, but awestruck me.)

Art and love


Groundhog Day by Andrew Wyeth

 

One of my favorite artists passed away recently. I discovered Andrew Wyeth in high school, and was immediately drawn to his spare, evocative landscapes, particularly those set in my native New England.   His subject matter was not always particularly cheery – he painted his fair share of abandoned houses, empty rooms, and barren vistas – and yet I always perceived a quality of hope in his art. For me, this was most evident in his paintings of windows. Open or shut, there’s something inherently hopeful about Wyeth’s windows, whether it’s a certain quality of light that beckons from beyond, or the wind from the sea that blows in, carrying with it the enticing tang of a distant horizon. When I look at Wyeth’s windows I often feel I’m standing on tiptoe, holding my breath, caught in a fleeting moment in time that is ripe with possibility.

 


Wind from the Sea by Andrew Wyeth
 

 “Painting,” Wyeth once told an interviewer, “is about love.” I’ve been thinking about that statement a lot since I heard of his passing. I think, perhaps, that it just might be the single best description of art that I have ever heard. Wyeth made it clear in the interview that he wasn’t talking about the “in love” kind of love, but simply love itself. Doesn’t this word distill all that is beautiful and yes, sometimes painful, about the act of creation? Certainly Wyeth’s statement applies to all the arts, writing included. Love wells up from the heart of every artist, spilling onto canvas or page. 

I write because I love. I love my craft; I love practicing my craft, even when it means wrestling with frustrations and set-backs. I love what William Maxwell once called “the happiness of getting it down right.” Most of all, I love the thrill of connecting with readers through words, and the way words knit hearts together, for truly love is what connects artist and audience.  

If art is about love, then, does it follow that the more we love, the better our art will be? Something worth pondering, perhaps.

Tech-Free Zone

The beginning of the month is always a good time to turn over a new leaf, right? 

 

Having failed miserably at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which occurs every November), I am greatly in need of a new leaf. I suppose I didn’t actually fail miserably, but I’d definitely qualify it as semi-miserable finish. I ended up with half of the first draft of a new novel, but nowhere near the 50,000 words required to download an official “winner” certificate and pat myself on the back. Meanwhile, across town my industrious friend Sue is busy patting not only herself on the back but also her eight-year-old daughter. Yes, that’s right, she and her SECOND GRADER both managed to finish their novels! Talk about feeling outclassed.

 

I’m already plotting my comeback for next year.

 

But back to the new leaf. I am the Queen of Distractions, which is definitely not a good thing for a writer to be. If there is a load of laundry in the house to be washed, a pan of brownies to be baked, a dog to be walked, a letter to be written, an errand to be run, a bill to be paid, a dust bunny to be hunted down, wool to be gathered or absolutely anything under the sun to be googled, I will leap at the opportunity to put off the moment of truth. It’s not the fear of the blank page that’s the problem. Once I have actually achieved B-I-C (bottom-in-chair), I’m off and running. The problem is focusing.

 

This past week brought a particularly delightful distraction when our son came home from college for his winter break. It’s great having our eldest chick back in the nest, and getting to spend time with him and find out what’s going on his life. But I can’t blame tanking NaNoWriMo on my son. Nope. I have come to realize that the blame lies squarely with technology. 

 

I have seen the enemy, and it has a silicon chip. Of all the distractions I cannot resist, the most irresistible come with their own power cords. I’m a sucker for the siren song of email, text messages, blog posts, video conferencing, web surfing, and anything that requires a headset, including my iPod and those free phone calls to family and friends who share my cellular calling plan. And don’t even get me started on Facebook.

 

So today I’m turning over a new leaf. From now on, I am officially declaring mornings a technology-free zone. No email until noon. No music or text messaging or web surfing or social networking either. The ringers on all phones will be turned off. This holiday season will see an actual reign of peace on earth, or at least peace under my roof until lunchtime. I will gallop into the new year with plenty of B-I-C time under my belt and something to show for all this self-discipline — the second half of that novel I didn’t quite finish, I hope. 
 

Anyone want to join me in staking out their own tech-free zone? 

Molting season

Earlier this fall, our chickens started molting. For weeks the three of them drooped around the yard, trailing feathers and a tangible air of discontent. Standoffish and sullen, they shied away from our attempts to pick them up and pet them — a routine they normally delight in — with indignant squawks of protest. Egg production screeched to a halt.

The first time this happened a couple of years ago, I panicked, convinced that the distressing loss of feathers and eggs was somehow my fault, a testament to my glaring lack of skills as an urban farmer. But now, as a seasoned chicken mama, I’ve learned that molting season is part of the natural cycle. Hens just need time and space to let nature take its course. Soon enough, new feathers will appear, along with eggs.

I got to thinking about this last weekend as I was driving out to the coast with my husband. West of our city, the highway to the sea winds through miles of rolling farmland, and in late autumn the fields are blanketed with a quilt of muted browns and rusts and hazy golds. The remains of fall’s harvest have been plowed under, and the earth will lie still until spring, gathering energy for a new season of growth. The trees skirting the distant hills appeared equally lifeless, their branches shorn of leaves and stark against the sky, but this was also an illusion, for in a few months they’ll be cloaking themselves once again in green.

Writers have fallow seasons as well. There are times when the outlook is bleak, and we mope around the house as peevish as molting chickens, convinced that we’ll never write anything worthwhile again. I had a stretch of writer’s molt earlier this fall, and it wasn’t pretty. But last weekend, as I watched the seemingly barren landscape slip past the window of my car, it occurred to me that we are a part of the natural cycle as well. Trees drop their leaves; chickens drop their feathers; fields and writers need time to lie fallow. 

Late last week our chickens started laying eggs again. Production was sporadic at first, one here, one there, until this morning, when I went out early to feed them and found three eggs waiting in the nest. “Our girls are back on the job,” I reported to my husband when I returned to the kitchen, pulling the smooth ovals from my bathrobe pocket as evidence. 

I’m back on the job, too, after a fallow fall, full of renewed energy as I plunge once more into the fray, back onto the battlefield that is the empty page, where I work to wrest meaning from words and shape them into stories. I hope you’re writing, too, or productive in other fields of life, but if not, be patient with yourself.  You might just be molting!